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3 Things Time Travel Can Teach You About Productivity

It’s bigger than groundhog’s day.

Your mom is sick. She’s losing her memories. You want to help. So you create a device you hope will allow her to hold onto what she has left. Little do you know that you’re actually creating something drastically more important. Something life-changing. But also, something life-ending. In Recursion, author Blake Crouch tells this very tale.

Ultimately, stories like this and others (like the movie Tenet), show us a world where we could go back. Where we could take a do-over. To rewrite the wrongs of our past. While the main narrative of these stories plays out, somewhere in the background are real lessons to be learned. Lessons in productivity and in being more intentional with your time. Here are three of those lessons.


Be there in 30

What if you had 30 years? 30 years to solve a problem. If you failed, you’d have to go back and do it all again. If you succeeded, you could finally end the nightmare that has been your life for decades. What would you do? First, you’d become insanely wealthy. After all, you know what will happen before everyone else does. The second go-around, the shine begins to wear. You just want to solve the problem and be done with it. The third, fourth, and fifth time, your days grow dark. You are living for the end. To simply escape from the loop that has become your reality.

Is there no better way?

In a much-less melodramatic scenario, life follows a similar pattern. You wake up, go to work, go home, eat food, go to bed. Repeat. The only difference is, there is no do-over. There is no loop that sends you back to start. The closest thing you have is the sunrise each day. That itself is your beginning. And unlike being stuck with a 30-year problem to solve, you aren’t carrying that burden. You can go in any direction you want.

Instead of letting the daily minutia get to you then, consider what a fulfilling life for you looks like. Does a meaningful career look like what you do today? What about a purpose-filled relationship with your siblings? Or having a home you love? You can end the cycle of repetition. Consider what adds fulfillment to your life and move in that direction.


You are the problem

You wake up in a younger version of yourself. Stocked with the knowledge of the future, you actively take steps to save your marriage from its inevitable demise. You always blamed your divorce on losing your job. On letting your finances slip. And on eventually letting your marriage slip as well. So this time around, you work to prevent that from happening. You entrench yourself in your work. You become indispensable. And instead of getting fired, you get promoted. They move you to the corner office and pile on the responsibilities.

Scared to lose your job for fear of losing your marriage, you dedicate more and more hours to your work. Yet years of this eventually take their toll. The relationship with your spouse unravels. One day you come home to divorce papers. You can’t believe it. You played things so differently. How could this happen?

There is a line from Atlas Shrugged* by Ayn Rand that goes roughly: If someone punches me in the face, I don’t blame the person who punched me. I blame myself for not getting out of the way. Things may be out of your control, but ultimately, you need to take responsibility for the majority of your day-to-day. You can blame your poor time management on unpredictability, last-minute meetings, and late-night work calls. Or you can own your share of the responsibility and strive to do things differently moving forward.

*This book is 100% not about time travel. The paraphrasing is relevant though.


The world doesn’t depend on it

Put yourself back in the position of the 30-year loop. You have 30 years to solve a problem. If you don’t solve it, you get sent back to the beginning. There’s no getting out of it. It’s just you and your work. Day in, day out. For 30 years. Actually, probably longer if you don’t solve it the first time. And to make matters worse, the world is at risk of annihilation. So there’s more at stake than your sanity. Millions of lives hang in the balance.

Yet, even knowing that, how would you keep yourself going? The first 30 years might be fine, but what happens on round two or round three? How do you continue to work on a problem for a full century?

The good news is that you don’t need to find out. It’s not your concern. Your concern isn’t on the grand scale but is instead on the small. How do you show up for yourself each day – especially when life doesn’t hang in the balance? How do you publish that article, go for that run, build that relationship, when the risk is so minor? That is where consistency comes into play. Your ability to show up knowing that the world doesn’t depend on you will determine what you get done in life.

To be consistent is a matter of trial and error. The end goal is to create a system that allows you to put in work each day. The experiment is how to make that happen on a regular basis. The variables are the when, what, how, who, where, and why. When you find the right combination, progress is essentially guaranteed. Do it for long enough and results are inevitable.


Moving forward through time

You don’t have the option to go back. There are no do-overs. And, frankly, even if you had the choice, the stories about time travel seem at best brutal and at worst hellish. Not ideal. So instead of looking for a reset button, let the present moment motivate you. You have this one shot. Don’t waste it on mediocre activities. Be intentional with your time and reap the rewards of your effort. Again, here are three lessons in productivity that you can learn from time travel:

  1. Work towards a fulfilling life.
  2. Take responsibility for your actions.
  3. Be consistent in your efforts.

And if you’re in the mood for some mind-bending time-travel story-telling, I recommend Tenet (movie) and Recursion (book).

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