Spontaneous Time-Compression

In The 39 Steps, an early spy novel from 1915, protagonist Richard Hannay is on the run for three weeks. Blamed for a murder he didn’t commit, he must stay in hiding until a certain event will give him a chance to redeem himself.

The first seven of ten chapters barely cover the first few days and nights of the story. It is only on page 70 of 100 that the magic sentence appears: “For the better part of ten days, he did all the rough nursing I needed.” Banged up and beaten, Hannay finds shelter and care with an unlikely ally – and just like that, the story moves along.

While it’s a nice trick for writers, this one-line, spontaneous time-compression, it’s also a reality of life. Sometimes we feel like the days won’t end, slowly morphing from one into another. At other times, two weeks feel like they passed with a snap of our fingers.

We may be the ones writing our own story, but we are still its hero, not its narrator. We don’t get to choose when time suddenly contracts or expands. A fun period might feel surprisingly long. A nerve-racking one might pass faster than we’d imagined. Or vice versa.

The only protection? To enjoy every moment as it is. You’ll never know whether your inspiration will fade in a flash, so it’s best to savor it while you have it. Similarly, you’ll want to extract lessons from pain while you can still feel it. Once it subsides, the learning will no longer seem necessary – but you might still need it later.

To “enjoy” a moment does not always mean to feel blissful. It simply means you accept its purpose, regardless of whether you can see it. You won’t find it every time, but it is almost always a good idea to slow down and look for it – even when you’re on the run, waiting for time to compress so you may finally get your turn.