What we get wrong about time | Nerd Fitness

Today Iโ€™m going to teach you a valuable lesson about time from a giant tree.

No, not Groot.


If you drive down the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California, youโ€™ll find yourself weaving in and out of some of the most majestic, gigantic redwood trees youโ€™ll ever see.

If youโ€™re having trouble picturing this in your mind, think back to the Endor speeder chase scene in The Return of the Jedi. This scene was filmed near the Avenue of the Giants in Humboldt Redwoods State Park.

And as youโ€™re driving down the Avenue of the Giants, youโ€™ll eventually stop at a nondescript gift shop along the side of the road, and this is where things get even crazier.

Youโ€™ll encounter a slice of a redwood tree standing on its side. This tree has a diameter of nine feet and was over 300 feet tall at the time of its felling, the length of a football field.

The first observation youโ€™d make: โ€œSweet sassy molassy, this tree is gigantic.โ€

The next jaw dropping moment happens when you get closer and notice its concentric rings. As we all learned in grade school biology class, the rings of a tree can tell us the treeโ€™s age: each ring represents a year and tells a story.

This is where the fun happens.

Scattered across this dissection of the tree are little name tags, identifying key moments in history, starting in the center and working its way outward. Photo here from โ€‹Barry Swackhamerโ€‹:

1000AD: โ€œVikings Discover America.โ€

1096AD: โ€œOxford University Founded.โ€

1218AD: โ€œGenghis Khan conquers Persia.โ€

This head-exploding trip through history continues, from the Ming Dynasty to the Renaissance to the Printing Press, Cortez conquering the Aztecs, Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock, Boston Tea Party, and so on, to the founding of the California National Parks System in 1927, and beyond.

Here you can see the entirety of modern history, separated by a few feet within tiny concentric rings inside a 1000+ year old tree.

Itโ€™s wild that from the perspective of a tree, just a few feet (1 meter) separate โ€œVikings reaching America,โ€ and modern life 1000+ years later. Zoomed out, itโ€™s wild to see how insignificant this time gap is:

Which brings me to todayโ€™s point.

Weโ€™ve got time wrong.

We humans are really good at worrying about what we can get accomplished today, what we ate for ONE meal, whatโ€™s important this week, or how much we can change in a month.

From the perspective of a 1000 year old tree, these time frames are comically short and insignificant.

If trees could laugh (like the Ents of Fangorn Forest), they would laugh at us.

This realization had me thinking about time and how to reframe the timeline on which I think about stuff.

As I talked about in a recent newsletter about the โ€‹additive method for habit buildingโ€‹, Iโ€™m in the process of building a meditation habit.

And as I was reading Jon Kabat-Zinnโ€™s book โ€‹Wherever you Go, There You Areโ€‹, and this quote rattled my brain:

โ€œIt may take some time for concentration and mindfulness to become strong enough to hold such a wide range of objects in awareness without getting lost in them or attached to particular ones, or simply overwhelmed.

For most of us, it takes years and depends a good deal on your motivation and the intensity of your practice. So, at the beginning, you might want to stay with the breath, or use it as an anchor to bring you back when you are carried away.

Try it for a few years and see what happens.โ€œ

That final sentence completely shifted my expectations.

In the past, I would think โ€œif I could just meditate for 30 days straight, THEN Iโ€™ll be really good at mindfulnessโ€

This quote helped me realize I was thinking about this all wrong. I wasnโ€™t going to have some magical epiphany when I reached enlightenment. I wasnโ€™t going to โ€œget thereโ€ in weeks or months. Instead, the only goal was to set aside time to sit with my awkward brain and focus on my breath. Thatโ€™s it.

Suddenly, โ€œtrying it for a few yearsโ€ had me thinking about this completely differently.

Hereโ€™s why this is important.

Extend your time horizon

Here are two of my favorite quotes about time:

Bill Gates: โ€œMost people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.โ€

Daniel Hofstadter: โ€œHofstadterโ€™s Law dictates it will always take longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadterโ€™s Law.โ€

Everybody is in such a rush to see how many weeks or months it will take to get in shape. Or how long they need to go on a diet to lose the weight, and then they can go back to โ€œnormal eating.โ€

Reality plays out differently: things will always take longer than we want, so we should change how we think about it.

Instead of โ€œhow fast can I get there,โ€ we should be thinking โ€œwhatโ€™s the least amount of work I can do today, to help me be in better shape a year from now?โ€

If we change our time horizon, paradoxically we often end up making more progress, more permanently.

If everything takes longer than expected, then we should probably pick reasonable goals, sustainable routines, and enjoyable activities that we wonโ€™t mind doing for a much longer period of time.

We talk about this a lot with our โ€‹coaching clientsโ€‹.

I even made this video a number of years ago: โ€œโ€‹Think in terms of days and years, not weeks and months.โ€‹โ€

Hereโ€™s one final helpful reframing of time horizons:

Whenever Iโ€™m finding myself overwhelmed with making a certain decisionโ€ฆI ask myself โ€œWill this matter 6 months from now? A year from now? A decade from now?โ€ By extending my time horizon, it often helps me realize that the thing Iโ€™m agonizing over doesnโ€™t matter nearly as much.

Whatโ€™s one area of your life that youโ€™re thinking about on a short term time scale, that would benefit from thinking on a far longer horizon?

  • A short term crash diet, vs. long term reevaluation of your relationship with food
  • An unsustainable workout program vs building a daily habit of movement.
  • Agonizing over small decisions that wonโ€™t matter a month from now, let alone a year from now.

Extend your timeframe, and see if that changes how you think about things.


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