When is a Year not a Year?

Why do some people seem to achieve so much more than others in the same amount of time? I think it has to do with continuously developing a capacity for operating in narrative time. An easy way to understand this is to translate the effects into clock-time units. Since narratives evolve on multiple time scales at once, you can do the translation by using time scales. I made up this handy guide to thinking on single time scales versus multiple time-scales:

First, clock time is lost when you get more abstract in time, so you get this kind of outcome for clock-time thinking.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare for a week at a time, you get 182 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a month at a time, you get 91 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a year at a time, you get 45 days in a year

On the other hand, narrative time gains with such temporal abstraction, so long as you layer on the time scales bottom up instead of switching.

  1. If you prepare for a day at a time, you get 365 days in a year
  2. If you prepare fora day and a week at a time, you get 730 days in a year
  3. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month at a time, you get 1460 days in a year
  4. If you prepare for a day and a week and a month and a year at a time, you get 2920 days in a year

This is just an approximation of course, and you can abstract much more smoothly, without arbitrary calendar boundaries. You can add in intermediate layers and get similar doubling effects.

I am not kidding or exaggerating. I really do think there’s almost a Moore’s Law like exponential potential in how much narrative time you can unpack out of a given unit of clock-time. It’s like the fractal length of Norway’s boundary gets bigger and bigger as your ruler gets smaller and smaller.

Notice, I said prepare not plan. Planning at any time scale is more often harmful than helpful: planning activity subtracts in a zero-sum way from clock-time. Preparation adds in a non-zero-sum way to narrative time. The specifics of what preparation entails differ from person to person and context to context, but they all involve being more mindful of multiple time-scales at once.

What I called narrative time in Tempo is really what one might call mindfulness time. While clock time is something you look up on a clock, mindfulness time is something you develop like a muscle. For most people, the dynamic range of the muscle goes from a day to a year in clock time. Attempts to expand the range beyond a year tend to fail. Attempts to expand the range downwards into hours and minutes tends to work better, down to perhaps 25 minutes (the Pomodoro technique), but below that, it takes serious effort.

So if you find yourself running out of clock-time, don’t add more clock-time. Deepen the narrative time somehow.


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  1. Harris Leojack says

    Any concrete examples?

    Like… make meals for next week, but make them out of a spanish recipe book?

  2. Scott Werner says

    I’m kind of reminded of Josh Waitzkin’s idea of Numbers to Leave Numbers: http://theartoflearningproject.org/educate/resources/numbers-to-leave-numbers/ and Making Smaller Circles: http://theartoflearningproject.org/educate/resources/make-smaller-circles/ in the Art of Learning.

    One example in the book is about learning the numerical values of pieces on a chess board so well that you eventually have an intuitive understanding, freeing your mind up to see the game at another higher level. So the idea here is to get to a point where preparing on smaller timescales is automatic and requires very little if any effort and then move into larger timescales.

    Am I thinking about this right?

  3. This seems like the kind of thing that shouldn’t be spelled out, but I feel compelled to attempt to unpack how it works:

    If one prepares for a year but no timescales that are smaller, then in that span of a year, the person will be ill-prepared to seize opportunities or swerve out of the way of extenuating circumstances. that exist on smaller scales

    If one prepares day by day but not for larger timescales, then we essentially have a greedy algorithm: since larger time scales have not received adequate preparation, these actions may accumulate, but they won’t necessarily “synchronize” in a way that optimizes their contributions to the larger picture. They also lead the person into local maxima, due to the fact that the person does not have the means to take actions that are simply not manageable on the scale of a day.

    Putting the two together, by contrast, allows one to be simultaneously prepared for changing circumstances and opportunities while retaining the means to channel their actions into larger actions that simply do not exist on the level of “daily” work.

    But the multiplicative effect of this comes specifically from the fact that when both are put together, the person’s day-to-day agility can be leveraged towards accomplishing things that belong to a larger timescale.

    So in short, as you supplement larger timescales with smaller ones, you eliminate fragility and gain many more resources by fully utilizing the situation on the ground. As you supplement smaller timescales with larger ones, you become more able to leverage your short-term actions into larger scale benefits.

    But one should not simply think of these things as “agility” (for short timescales) and “power” (for larger timescales)–that suggests a linear combination of “be very quick on your feet and have the capacity for a hard punch.” A much more accurate fighting analogy would be Bruce Lee’s famous one inch punch: with just a tiny amount of space to accelerate, he could knock someone backwards by coordinating his entire body to augment the strength of his punch. His ability to act “globally” maximized his ability to fully exploit opportunities even at unconscionably small scales, and his ability to work at such small scales greatly amplified what he could do.

  4. I would love to hear more about the preparation/planning distinction.

  5. After re-reading this, I have a new view informed by a book on complexity theory I was reading:

    The fundamental concept in determining a system’s efficacy is its ability to properly allocate complexity and scale; it must be complex enough on the right scales, which in turn means it must be simple enough on other scales.

    As you get into greater units of abstraction, you are inevitably putting a greater emphasis on scale: preparing for a year is similar to a general giving orders that apply to all of his troops. As you get into smaller units of abstraction, you are creating directives that are fine-tuned to the specific properties of the situation.

    But simply going for complexity on the smallest scale is usually not the best way to go: if there is no scaled behavior at any level, you are left with some kind of brownian motion, which has virtually no complexity on any other scale. By contrast, if you manage to create the right amount of scaled behavior on each scale, you will get a system that is much more complex overall.

    In this case, preparation for a given period of time *is* scaled behavior. Scaled behavior applied to a year is severely limited due to contingencies, whereas scaled behavior applied to a day can get quite a bit done but has limits in how much meaningful action it can generate in the bigger picture. Creating scaled behavior on multiple intervals, by contrast, allows us to both handle more nuance *and* apply more decisive amounts of force.

    Mismatching scale and complexity, OTOH, will cause turbulence, which I think would be equivalent to what happens when we plan: we unnaturally try to scale behavior in spite of the complexity of our day to day lives, we risk ending up in a state of mental paralysis.

    By contrast, preparing seems to be about creating the right conditions for scaled behavior; preparing for a year does not inhibit more fine-scaled behaviors; instead it allows us to scale up behavior when the situation is simple enough for scaled behaviors to work.