Have you ever delayed doing something to wait for the right time? The story of how this article was not written for a long time, before being written, is a fine example of it.
By the end of last year, my blog was showing me a post count in the 240s. A few more posts and I’d hit 250. Somehow that was a big deal, two and a half centuries, a quarter of the way to a thousand posts. Clearly my 250th post had to be something epic!
In a rush to reach the fated figure, I wrote four posts in February, two (my 247th and 248th) in March. And then in April, May and June, nothing; I had no idea what to write for my 250th post. In July I wrote a perfunctory post to push me to the brink and then blankness. Here I was at the end of September and I had no grand ideas, waiting for a number which no one reading this could even see.
Have you noticed that very young children have no sense of the future? They’re very much about the now. Little kids do not get the concept of getting a piece of chocolate later, or in the afternoon, or in 2 days. Now is all they consider and everything else doesn’t exist. As grown-ups, though, we divide our futures into carefully curated boxes of time, neatly numbered and labelled, and soon we live and breathe in those boxes. The labels and numbers become more important to us than the rest. We become all about the future, ever living in it, thriving in it and being fruitful in it, but rarely now.
The challenge of planning your time is that the boxes and traditional time-management wisdoms do help in routine work and repetitive tasks. However, time-lines, deadlines and target dates can sometimes muddle the open-ended exploratory work you do, including most creative and long-term projects. When you are creating things, milestones and significant numbers can be our best form of self-sabotage.
The tyranny of measures
We invented calendars to make sense of the unending flow of time, and in time the structure became a crutch. This site was launched on my Mother’s birthday in May, many years ago. It was not planned, it was just ready around the same time and hence a memorable day to start. Ever since then, I slack off on working on the site through most of the year and have a fruitless sense of urgency just before May.
Auspicious dates are everywhere and we let them rule our lives. Birthdays, anniversaries, Valentines Day, Mother’s Day, our very emotional expression is shackled in them. A mass hysteria of things to achieve, and by implication fail at achieving, takes over most of the population around New Year’s day, a random day decided by trial, error and politics over the millennia. We hold back on so much we could do, say, feel or experience now, while we wait for the right page on a calendar.
We also take too seriously our sense of the passage of time, and what it means. We make new decisions based on if the old ones have been in force for long enough. How many hours, days, months or years must pass for it to be ok to do something, or not doing something? How many decades must pass for our lives to be significant? How old must our associations be for them to be memorable?
This site was about 6 months old when I started to realise the major flaws in structure and technology I’d built into it, out of ignorance at the time, but I didn’t make the changes. I merely took notes, because it was too early to re-think it completely. How long is long enough before you decide to act?
We count the seconds, the hours, and years. In this stream of numbers, we decide some numbers are better than others. Your second wedding anniversary is not overly special, but your 5th is, as is your 10th, an additional layer of manufactured significance added to already manufactured dates. So you wait, for the special numbers, or the round numbers, to have fun, to make changes, to do something new, to do what you really want, to be happy.
Your 19th birthday is routine, but your 25th is significant because of your quarter-life crisis; Your 39th is happy but your 40th is the beginning of the end. Surely you should be in your 30s before you consider doing this, or be in your 50s before you do that. Surely you should write something extraordinarily breathtaking for your 250th blog post; Anything else would be a tragedy, and so you wait, and wait, and do nothing.
Ultimately, the significant moment is always now, and its only lesson seems to be to ignore the significance of moments, rather than empower them beyond reason. To make any significant contribution to the world, the stranglehold of numbers must be broken.
5 Steps to breaking the numbers stalemate
Do it now
If you’re not going to do it now and immediately, don’t talk, plan or consider it beyond basic note-taking. Do it now or file it away.
Ignore the numbers
Consciously ignore dates and numerical significances. Do things when you have to. Not when you think you should, or when it might be best, but when you simply must.
Target work, not time
Set work targets and not time targets when possible. Time is always underestimated. When you achieve certain stages or features in your work, that’s when a task is done. Work till it’s done. Then stop.
For long term projects and especially personal projects, do not have time tables of sequential things. What you’re supposed to be doing now will inevitable over-run the allotted time, or tasks will rearrange themselves, bringing your perfect train of tasks crashing. Instead, do, finish, and then have a list of things you can choose to tackle next.
Calendar your down time
Set a time limit to your down-time, your time for day-dreaming and relaxing and recharging your batteries after a task. Relax completely and be completely unfocussed in that time. Your insights from that time will clarify your future projects and actions.
We trap ourselves in boxes of our own manufactured significance. What escapes us is that moments don’t add significance to the work we do, or the actions we take. Our actions might add significance to the moments in retrospect, but for that we must first act.
Don’t let manufactured significance destroy your very ability to manufacture and create. The measures are never more significant than the work. Things are finished when they are done, not when the numbers are right, because all the impressive milestones in the world are useless if the end isn’t reached.
Say what needs to be said. Be silent. Then say the next thing. Don’t count your words, just mean them.
P.S. What have you been holding back on for some significant moment? Do share. I assure you, now is the best time.