Filling Time

One of the conversations I love having with people is around how much or how little time we have do do the things we care about.

I have two stories that come to mind around the relativity of time as we perceive it – one from Catch 22 and one from… I’m not sure where. Here’s what they boil down to: We choose how to fill the time we have.

The Catch 22 story is about a soldier in the military with the main character, Yossarian. This soldier has a singular belief that informs his existence – time moves more slowly when you’re bored.

And so he believes he’s stumbled on the key to nearly everlasting life: staying bored. He reasons that if time passes slowly when you’re bored and quickly when you’re excited, the best way to live as long a life as possible is to stay as bored as possible.

He’s not arguing that he will have MORE time if he stays bored. He’s simply recognizing that we control our perception of time and how we fill it – stay bored forever and it will feel like you live forever; stay excited and your life will pass by in a flash.

The second story is one that probably needs a background check but I believe in the premise. Just remember that at this point it’s only a story with a good lesson, not a factual account with statistically relevant data.

Sometime in the nineties, back when people still knew what cameras with film were, a group of participants were selected for a study being conducted in New York City.

On the first day of the study they were all given a camera with 21 exposures, given a stipend for a day of expenses, and told to go out and take all 21 pictures during that day.

They were further advised that they would be looking at and discussing each others pictures the next day, so they should try to have at least one picture they were really proud of.

The participants went throughout the city for the whole day taking pictures and having a pretty good time of it. They all took 21 pictures and turned in their cameras.

The next day they all sat together in a screening room and watched a slide show of their photos. Every participant had one photo out of their 21 that was excellent – we’re talking National Geographic quality.

The next day they were reconvened and each given another camera. But this time there was only 1 exposure. They were given another stipend and the same directions: take one picture you’re really proud of.

After another day of sightseeing and pictures they turned in their cameras and again gathered in the screening room to view all the pictures that had been taken. Here’s the kicker: every single one was excellent – at least as good if not better than the best of the day before.

If you think of those exposures as moments in time, then just like the soldier in Catch 22 the participants in that study chose how to use the time they had.

The easiest example for me is looking back at my high school days. If I had a week to write a paper I would write the paper within a week. If I had one day to write that paper I would write it in one day. I would fill the time I had.

There are examples all around us of people accomplishing incredible things within a short period of time and people accomplishing practically nothing in vast periods of time. We fill the time we have.

What this has helped me truly understand (though of course I could stand to remember it more often) is that we are never constrained by time. In fact I might even say we’re never constrained by any external forces. We aren’t limited by time or anything else because we are infinitely capable of finding a way to accomplish the things we care about within whatever constraints that exist.

The only constraints that ever stop us from accomplishing things we truly care about are the constraints that we’ve put on ourselves, and we’re the only ones who can change, remove, or ignore them.

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