How to conjure time out of mid-air

Jim Henson, the iconic creator of The Muppets, was known for three big personal traits:

  1. A zany, seriously offbeat sense of humor
  2. A gentle and generous manner
  3. A drive to beat the hands of time.

Jim Henson learned at an early age that time is fleeting.   When Jim was only 20 years old his brother and good friend, Paul, was killed in an automobile accident at the age of 23. According to his family and friends, this fundamentally changed Jim’s time frame.

Suddenly he understood: there would never be enough time.  And he was right– Jim Henson spent his life pushing boundaries and creating frontiers in puppetry, animatronics, special effects, and humor, all at a breakneck speed.   Jim’s concern with the limits of time drove him to work feverishly- by all accounts, he was constantly on the road performing and pitching, incubating new projects (most of which were never made) and innovating on the architecture and engineering of puppetry.

He seemed to understand that the only time we have is now– that there is no guarantee for even one more day–  and this motivated him to go hard and fast in the direction of his dreams.

Jim’s incredible trajectory culminated in the truly tragic death of one of the world’s great creative geniuses on May 16, 1990, at the age of 53.

One possible answer to the common question: 

“What makes someone as wildly prolific as Jim Henson?”

might be

He had a different sense of time.

What does that mean? Isn’t time one of the few truly standardized things in our lives?  There’s Greenwich Mean Time and time zones and satellite synchronized cell phones. 60 seconds, 60 minutes, 24 hours, 365 days.

And for the purposes of (non-astrophysics) science, research and military operations, then sure– time is standardized and predictable. But the psychology of time, how we perceive time is not.  

But you knew that already, right?

Haven’t you bee in a car and realized that the 45 minutes of your commute are over and you didn’t really notice them?

Or have you been waiting for the call from the doctor and you check your clock after “ten minutes” and realize it’s only been 2?

In short, our perception of time expands and contracts circumstantially.

Making time work for you


Inevitably, whenever I tell people that I’m training to run a half marathon or trying to start a business while being a full-time educator they ask me “HOW do you have time for that?”

Which is a fair question because I (like you) have a job and kids and laundry and budgets and a deep seeded commitment to sleep.

What they are really asking is “Why do you have time for that when I decidedly do NOT have time for that?”

And they are right- they DON’T have time for all that…. YET.  You have to work your way into “time for that.”

Even trying to fit in a Couch to 5k kind of thing where you do 30 minutes three times a week feels like way too much in the beginning.  At first you think:

“NOPE.  I do NOT have that time. An hour and a half every week!?! NO.”

But, you can certainly make a teeny-tiny bit of time and get started.  Suddenly you feel like you are doing something good and accomplishing things, which will be energizing and more time will open up to you. Hooray!

That process can get you through the first two weeks when the change is the freshest.  Then those mornings take on a shape of their own.  “Isn’t it nice,” you say to yourself, “that I have this 30 minutes to myself?” and before long it’s a habit.

Time perception is very, very contingent on habits (and habits depend deeply on time consistency!). When you start out to establish a new habit you are, in part, breaking your prior time habit.

Part of quitting smoking, for example, is getting used to spending your time differently. The same is true of adding the exercise habit or a writing practice to your life– you get used to spending your time a certain way (running, writing, whatever) and then that time is MADE.  

Made time is not “time you make” it’s time you do, time you rely on, time you roll into and out of without a second thought.  With a little effort you CAN create the time you need to meet your starting goal.

But where’s that conjured time you were talking about?

Well, the truth is we don’t fully recognize our available/objective time.  If you are a parent you know what I mean:  Remember before you had kids and had “no time” … and then you had a kid and realized how much time you used to have?

And then you had a second kid and realized how much time you had with just one?

When we must we can conjure time almost out of thin air.  Like magic!  There’s hidden time that you haven’t yet perceived.  But you can’t uncover it all at once (at least I haven’t been able to, damn it)… you have to work your way into it, bit by bit.

Getting that 3x a week exercise habit in place was a really big shift for me—it was the biggest batch of habit breaking (but I NEED to sleep as late as possible!) and habit forming (how am I going to get to a 5am workout class?) that I’ve ever personally done.

But I did it (and you can, too, obviously) and I could have stopped there– I had met the recommendation for physical exercise by the surgeon general (or Michelle Obama, or whoever is setting those rules these days)…. but I didn’t stop because I liked it.

Suddenly I switched from making time to FINDING time. Which is about giving yourself a treat.I wanted to see what else I could do and so I carved out extra teeny-tiny bits of time…

  • A Saturday morning bike ride (I was very nervous at first, and then loved the people so much that I miss it when I’m not there).
  • The discovery of the Sunday at 4pm quiet time at the pool (I HATE crowded pools)… now if I don’t go I feel like I missed out on something… much the way people feel about missing the bachelor finale.

Before I knew it, I had found time for all kinds of things, all of which fell under the umbrella of “exercise” and looked daunting to others. For me, though, they represent a landscape of fun things that found time to do because they makes me happy.  When you really want to find time or when you NEED to find time, you WILL find the time.  Bit by bit.

How to conjure time out of mid-air:

Step One:  Brute force a small amount of time and get started.  Over-plan for the first week or so to get the ball rolling.  Remember: expect to make a ton of rookie mistakes and feel confused.  That’s part of learning your way into something new.  It’s normal, don’t give up.

Step Two: Work for 2-3 weeks to push through the habit formation phase.  Optimize your process by trying new configurations of time/days/activities/processes.  This is when you are finding out what you like and what you don’t like and working to get as much of what works for you (and as little of what does not!) into your habit.  Don’t be afraid to mix it up!

Step Three: Rest on that made time and figure out what you are getting from this new habit.  Be alert for the desire to grow and expand.  Don’t push too hard to do more, more, more… the next part will  happen organically when you are ready.  It’s OK to stay exactly where you are.. but if you want to expand, the time will appear for you… like magic.  Trust me.

Step Four: Step back and watch your enjoyment create more and more time.

Step Five: Answer the question “How do you have time to do all of that?!!?”

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3 thoughts on “How to conjure time out of mid-air

  1. When I saw your Tweet, I thought of something else Amanda – how much time we waste by NOT doing something, by procrastinating. I like your approach in your blog too. I like James Clear who writes a lot about habits and how one god habit forms another.

    1. Yes! I agree… I think procrastination, at its heart, is either about not being clear about what you are trying to accomplish (and so not really knowing where to start or how to prioritize) or the result of a mindset-related block like you either worry you can’t actually accomplish it, or you don’t actually want to. And a LOT of time gets sunk there.

  2. I get asked that question all the time too, Amanda. I love your reframing of, “Why do you have time for that when I decidedly do NOT have time for that?” I always try to use it as an opportunity to give a tip or help encourage them to take a tiny step, like you say!

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