Recently, I went through something personally that prompted introspection on the concept of time. Time is both short and quick as well as lengthy and slow. We have perceptions of time that may often seem contradictory and yet they are all valid.
This reminded me of a thought-provoking conversation I had with associate management professor Drew Carton in February 2021. Our one-on-one Zoom catch-up occurred on a snowy day and we talked about the need to shovel. Drew shared that as an academic, he spends his life working on projects that have a very long trajectory to finish. Earning his PhD, conducting and analyzing research, working for tenure, teaching young people — it all requires years of dedicated work to see results. So Drew looked forward to shoveling his driveway because it wouldn’t take very long and he would see very tangible results from his effort.
Our lives can often be like Drew’s even if we aren’t academics. We set our sights on milestones that may be years in the making, often without knowing when those milestones will be achieved. Consider, as one example, the stages in your career: You may be looking for a new role, doing all that you can think of to find one, but you don’t know when it will come. The strain of getting up every day and moving forward can be hard to take when accomplishments are so far out on the horizon.
Prompted by Drew’s comment, I’ve thought about what “shoveling snow” could mean in those other contexts. That is, what is something I can do that is finite, with a short timeline to complete, that will reinvigorate me once it’s done? As I identify those things, and then finish them, I feel restored in ways that help me see real progress being made.
For example, I’ve always enjoyed coloring geometric patterns, which take on average about an hour. When I look at what I’ve just created, I feel that sense of accomplishment Drew talked about. It inspires me to revisit my home to-do list that seems to multiply on its own. On the work front, I am old enough to remember the days before email. Once it became a mainstay, I disciplined myself to keep my inbox nearly empty by “only touching an email once.” I always try to end my day by clearing out my inbox. There’s great satisfaction in seeing nothing that requires my attention.
This idea has also helped me in the continuing uncertainty of the pandemic. We don’t know the answers to when it will end and what the future will look like when the end arrives. For many of us, time has become an even more inchoate concept as the days blur into weeks. I encourage you to find some snowy driveways, grab your shovel, and get to it.
Katherine Primus is executive director of communications and stewardship for Wharton External Affairs.