Once again, I have learned a life lesson through running. This time it’s about my ‘problem’ with time.

Time is always there in my mind, whether back, central or forefront, and has been for as long as I can remember: “Time is escaping me”. I literally and figuratively want to run faster: cover more distance in a shorter time. And when I can’t, it makes me want to run even faster, to make up for that lost time. I spend a lot of energy making goals and calculating how to get there, with unrealistic timelines which are often blown apart by factors outside of my control. Cue huge disappointment, mostly centred around the knowledge that now I have even LESS time and now my next attempt is under even more pressure. This attitude is no fun and I don’t think it actually helps me get anywhere quicker anyway.

In December I was working on a running project, aiming to reach a half marathon distance for the first time. There are certain songs on my running playlist that I usually skip because they’re too slow; I prefer songs that propel me forwards. One morning those songs came on around 12-14k in to my first attempt at 20k. I had decided not to even think about speed that day, and just run in a relaxed way. I didn’t even know if I could run 20k. So I let the slower songs play. I felt great. I enjoyed the music, rolled along with the beat, bouncing along cheerfully and enjoying the running too. It didn’t feel fast, but that was ok, that was the plan. But for that 3k of running, every time I looked at my watch I saw that I was running surprisingly fast. Pretty fast for any run of mine, but especially fast for 13k into 20k, when I was not even trying.

Happy sweaty running selfie

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of something I had read in Robert Green’s ‘Mastery’. In order to master anything time MUST pass. Time is an essential ingredient in mastery. In evolutionary terms, Green sees our changing relationship with time as being key in our transition from ape to human and our ability to gain mastery. For animals, time is an enemy. If a predator waits too long, the prey escapes. If prey spend too long out in the open they are vulnerable. Time represents physical decay. But for our human ancestors, the longer they spent observing something the deeper their understanding. Time was essential to build experience and practice, improving skills in hunting or tool-making. If we think we can skip steps or avoid the process, we become ‘slaves to time’. This is exactly how I feel sometimes: a slave to time. This makes us more like ‘the distracted scanning animal, unable to think in depth yet unable to depend on instincts.’ So the time still passes, but we are not gaining mastery, we are just decaying, vulnerable, missing out. Sometimes my fixation on time feel almost like a sense of panic. I try so hard to grasp a hold of time, as if my desperation can slow it down, but with one hand on time I have only one spare hand to work on whatever I am trying to do. It would be better to focus on my goals more than the passing time.

Trying to skip steps we become a slave to time; but climbing one step at a time we will get there

Letting go of speed and time in this particular run, I actually ran faster. It’s like I loosened my grip and everything could move more freely and work the way it’s supposed to. But really my speed that day was a bonus, it was nothing to do with my goal, which was distance, and could have been a fluke. So let’s imagine that letting go of speed meant I ran slower on that day in December. With any running goal, it takes training to develop skill, muscle, technique, lung capacity, mindset etc. It takes time. Showing up, doing the training, doing the time. It can’t be rushed. Trying to skip steps could lead to injury which would reduce the chances of achieving the goal. If I had pushed myself too hard on that day, I might not have been able to go the distance. I may have run out of energy and had to walk, which could have been demoralizing, making it harder to get out and run the next time. I might not have enjoyed myself as much. Remembering how much I enjoyed the run definitely made me more enthusiastic about ‘showing up’ next time, and the more I show up, the better my chances of achieving my goal. So in this case I think focusing on going fast could have actually resulted in both slower running on that day, AND could have slowed down achieving the project overall.

“Time is an essential ingredient in mastery”

Robert Green

Could that be the case in non-running too? Could it be that by not worrying about getting somewhere quickly, and instead taking it one step at a time, I am more likely to get where I want to go, maybe even faster? I think it is possible. Rushing things means you are not giving the time to develop the skill, the expertise, the contacts, whatever it is that you need. This could result in things actually not progressing as well or making mistakes. This in turn could affect motivation and slow things down further.

“There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.”

Beverly Sills

Robert Green points out that once we have this understanding about time, ‘at any moment we can choose to shift our relationship to time and work with the grain’ because of brain plasticity (the ability of connections between brain cells to adapt and change). We are not stuck with our perceptions, beliefs, habits and patterns.

So I have some understanding now, which is the first step towards making this change. I have brain plasticity so I can make the shift. I can get further, faster, and I can enjoy the journey more. What next? Well honestly I feel that this process is not complete for me. I have had some insights here, but I can’t help but sense that I am not yet ready to change that relationship with time, and to unlearn and relearn after decades of doing things a certain way. It might take time.

-My next post will be the update to this post from December-