How time distortions keep you from getting things done

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

I love how this clock looks like it has cat ears.

Here at the beginning of a new year, a curious phenomenon has arisen in the work I’ve been doing with my coaching clients. It comes down to this: what we believe about how long something will take is directly related to whether or not we actually do it.

These types of beliefs are time distortions, and a good example of this phenomenon comes from Seinfeld. There’s an episode where Jerry is trying to convince himself that it won’t be that bad staying for a few days with his parents in their Florida condo. To make the impending visit feel shorter, he tells himself that he can’t really count lunches and dinners and taking showers as part of the visit — so, actually, the whole visit will be “like fifteen minutes!”

Have you done this? I know I have. When we’re dreading something, our minds will go to all sorts of lengths to help us cope.

This is in some ways helpful and productive — I know there are experiences I would probably have never exposed myself to if I’d known in advance how hard and stressful they were going to be.

But my mind convinced me that “it wouldn’t be that scary.” In some cases, it was far scarier than I’d imagined, but in the end I was thrilled that I had the experience (so, thank you, dear mind!).

More commonly, though, our minds can protect us into not doing something at all (that we either want or need to do) with these types of distortions.

A client I worked with recently had not completed the “homework experiment” we’d set up for her. (I refer to any homework I give clients as an “experiment” rather than an “assignment” because approaching something as an experiment tends to engage more curiosity and less resistance. But not in this case!)

When we dug into why, it turned out that she’d been thinking the homework “would only take thirty minutes or so” and she could knock it out the night before our session. When we looked honestly at the homework, though, it was clear that she would need a minimum of three hours to do it.

So why had she decided it would only take about half an hour? Because she had a lot of resistance built up around doing it, and the only way she could bear to face it was to think that it would be over in a very short amount of time.

In this case, that meant she put it off until it simply didn’t get done. And I have a lot of compassion here, because I have SO done this.

Here’s another example, from a different client. She’d told a close friend she would run an errand for her, but hadn’t done it. For a month she’d been waking up thinking “I really need to do that today. I should do it.” Then she wouldn’t do it and the next day the whole cycle would repeat.

When we took a look at why she wasn’t doing the errand, another sort of time distortion revealed itself. She was certain the task was going to take hours and that it could become very complicated, and that she might have to get help to complete it that she wasn’t sure she could get.

I told my client that, while I could be wrong, to me it sounded like the task shouldn’t take more than about an hour to complete (and this included driving time). We looked at what would be the worst that could happen if, in fact, it did take her as long as she feared. “It would be really stressful and annoying,” she laughed.

But she agreed to go ahead and do it the next day. I told her to email me as soon as it was done and tell me how it had gone (this kind of check-in with someone who cares about you can be SO supportive!).

She emailed me way sooner than I’d expected to hear from her. Why? Because the task, including driving time, had taken her exactly 18 minutes — no complications, no extra help needed. Just straightforward driving to an office to pick up a folder and dropping it off at her friend’s house.

How do we keep ourselves from getting sucked into time distortions? Well, first we need to get our thinking about the task we’re avoiding out of our heads, where we can see it more clearly. It helps to write it down, or speak it aloud to yourself or someone else. (So often our thinking is automatic, bypassing our consciousness. We need to see it “out there” in order to be aware of it.)

If you notice there are time issues in your thinking (“I can write a draft of my chapter on the twenty-minute train ride”) and that you feel a considerable amount of anxiety with that thought, you can be pretty sure that what you’re telling yourself is deeply unhelpful. (We almost always avoid things because of the anxiety they bring up in us. If we can lessen the anxiety, we’re going to be far less likely to avoid them.)

So experiment with some mantras that will help you do a reality check when it comes to how long something will take. (Often, we just don’t know, and that needs to be factored in.)

Here are some of mine:

I won’t know how long it will truly take until I start doing it.

If it’s going to take a long time, I’d rather get started sooner than later. 

I want to feel as calm and grounded as possible around this action. What will help me feel that way?

All of these sentences give me a reality check. And for those of us with, shall we say, vibrant imaginations, reality checks can be a valuable part of our artist’s toolbox (as much as we might cringe at the idea of “mundane reality”!). As long as the reality check is supporting our bigger vision, it’s all to the good. 

What do you notice about how distortions of time play into your fears around getting things done? I’d love to hear from you.

And: Need some help moving your creative work forward in the new year? For a limited time, I’m offering three-packs of 30-minute coaching sessions. You can find out more, here.

Above image is “Old Distorted Clock,” © Jolin | Dreamstime Stock Photos

11 thoughts on “How time distortions keep you from getting things done

  1. “It’s just a jump, to the left…”
    Wait, that’s for “warp.” 🙂
    (I’ve typed this comment with a certain fan–of musical, comedy, horror–in mind.)

    Seriously, though, I spent 8 years as a technology project manager (PM). Part of that job is to get each project team member to estimate the time it will take to complete their tasks. Another part of the PM’s job is to watch over the team members to make sure they are completing their tasks on time. The time distortion dynamics you write about happen so often during the planning and execution of technology projects, that the PM role is very challenging. It’s one reason why technology project managers are needed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jim! I think I know that certain fan of musical-comedy-horror, ha ha. 🙂

      That’s fascinating about the project manager job. Yes, I imagine that position would give you plenty of examples of time distortions in action (or non-action!). It’s also one of the tricky things about self-employment — you have to be your own project manager! Was there anything in particular you learned on that job that helped team members follow through on tasks better? I’m curious.


      • Hi Jill.

        What made me successful as a project manager is that I learned to listen to the individual team members who would be doing the actual work. Some gave optimistic estimates of duration, some gave pessimistic estimates of duration, and some did not like giving estimates at all (this is where the “time distortion” mostly comes into play).

        I learned that the first step in planning a project is to listen to each team member’s explanation for their estimated duration of their particular task(s), and to their explanations regarding dependencies between their tasks and the tasks of their teammates.

        Then, I would get the team together in a room to build the project schedule. I’d draw a 12-month calendar on the white board, and start by circling the date by which the customer required delivery of the finished product. Then I would work backwards. I’d ask the team for their input: How many weeks would we need to test the product before delivering it to the customer? How many weeks would we need to build the product? How many weeks to design? How many weeks to gather the requirements from the customer? How many weeks should we build in as contingency? I’d mark all this on the white-board calendar and first see whether we were starting on time, or starting too late. If we were already behind schedule before even kicking the project off, then I had to negotiate with the customer a change in their expectations.

        One thing project managers are taught it this: All projects involve 1. Requirements (what the final product is to look like); 2. Resources to get it done (people); 3. Time.

        For a project manager to be successful, they need to have control over at least one of the three. If someone tells a PM “I need you to do all of this, with just these team members, and I absolutely need to have it by this specific date,” then the PM is at high risk of not delivering according to all three. The PM needs to be able, if necessary, to ask for either reduced requirements, more people, or more time.

        One more thing, as a project progressed, I continued to check in with each of the team members, as a peer (not as a boss) to make sure they were on schedule with their tasks. If anyone was not, I would work with that team member, and others if necessary, to figure out how to get things back on schedule.

        I’ve gone on kinda long here. If you have more questions, go ahead and ask. – Jim

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jim, thanks so much for your comment above (I can’t seem to reply right beneath it). That is so helpful, and I hope others will read it because it gives a great overview of long-term planning and completing (and what can potentially get in the way!). See, I probably would have been one of the team members who wouldn’t want to estimate how long a project would take at all (I often want to keep things open-ended, which can be one of my pitfalls!).

      This is particularly interesting to me: “If someone tells a PM “I need you to do all of this, with just these team members, and I absolutely need to have it by this specific date,” then the PM is at high risk of not delivering according to all three. The PM needs to be able, if necessary, to ask for either reduced requirements, more people, or more time.” This speaks to a project I’m working on at the moment.

      Thank you for sharing your experience! 🙂


  2. Jill, I appreciate this article. It’s so true, the ways we feel burdens when something is realtively quick to do — or fun. I’ve been dreading writing out instructions for new students moving into our apartment, part of our house, who work for us in exchange for rent. It hasn’t taken long and I enjoyed it, but I’ve been complaining for days about having to do it. I wish writing a novel were as simple!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fredrica, so good to hear from you. 🙂 Yes, it’s interesting how we can put off something that is fairly simple for so long sometimes! I catch myself in this often. Thank you for reading, and I hope you’re doing well — I was just thinking of you and your writing the other day!


  3. I had this just yesterday. I’d been putting off a task, because I knew it would involve queueing, which meant being ‘trapped’ in a room with bunch of people, and in the past that kind of situation has made me feel stressed and sometimes even panicky. I had incentive to do it sooner rather than later because it involved a partial refund on a parking permit that would reduce each month. Yesterday I decided was the day to go – I didn’t want to but I realised I was never going to want to {!} so I put that to one side, checked in with myself that ‘now’ was a good time to go, and went, telling myself if the queue was huge or I changed my mind I could just leave and come back another time. In the end, the queue, estimated by the guy behind the desk at 40-45 minutes, was less than 30, I got a seat, had my headphones so I didn’t have to listen to all the people, and somehow none of it bothered me. Got my refund and left feeling fine! Clearly I’ve changed in how I respond to groups of people and ‘being trapped’, but also telling myself I could leave at any time, and while waiting talking to myself about what I could notice that was interesting, or thinking about a current project, made it all so much easier. So I’d say incentive, staying present and/or small distractions, and a get out clause, all help. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love this, Tara! Thank you for sharing that experience! It’s great how you prepared yourself to make the task as pain-free as possible. And I am a huge fan of the “get-out clause”, as you put it. Many times that has helped me show up for a situation I really didn’t want to, and almost always the “permission to leave” helps me stay and get it done. 🙂 So good to hear from you, as always!

      P.S. I have the same issue with getting stressed out by crowds/lines. Glad it turned out to be less painful than you’d imagined!


  4. Really appreciate your guidance around getting the dreaded task out in the open, Jill. I find that being really clear and really honest about whatever it is lightens the weight of the thing.

    I also find that whether for myself or with my clients, if I/they can commit to doing just ONE piece (or “doable action”), it usually sets a wonderful momentum in motion…and the task, once started, is way less stressful than shoving it aside and worrying about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I definitely agree with you about being clear and honest with ourselves, and also the doable actions, Dana! Really good points. Committing to just one piece of it that’s “ridiculously easy” can help so much to lessen the resistance to whatever it is. Thanks so much for reading. 🙂


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