How Long is a Piece of String?

How Long is a Piece of String? 150 150 Ben Coker

How Long is a Piece of String?

I once spent a week in San Francisco advising a software company as to how to answer that question in terms of an asset management system they were developing for the rail industry.

The question was around if you have a piece of railway track, between say London Euston and Glasgow Central – ‘where’ exactly is it?

And this is compounded when there’s a train travelling along that track, you have to answer, in digital terms that a computer can ‘understand’ – ‘where’ is it ‘when’.

As I write I’ve just seen a plane coming into land at the airport. For a moment it was in a specific place in space and time and then – well, it wasn’t – it had ceased to exist in that place and briefly existed in another and then moved on.

That specific ‘event’ in time-space, occurred, but no longer exists, and cannot occur again.


But you and I, and everyone else are fixated on this idea that time, which does not exist, is like that railway track, flightpath or piece of string.

We insist on placing ourselves somewhere on that ‘timeline’. We divide it up into periods – days, minutes, hours, seconds, years and so on, giving these artificial entities a finite existence that is entirely false.

We say that ‘we don’t have time’ – now that is true – we don’t, nobody has time, none of us, because it doesn’t exist. It’s purely a figment of our collective imagination.

But you and I, our predecessors, and everyone else have had to develop some sort of framework within which to manage our lives – even maintain our lives by hunting, growing crops, making things and so on.

Most religions created a ‘full stop’ day, one in every seven, when people would devote the day to something other than ‘the daily grind’. Some people also undertake a number of ‘observances’ during each day, again to help ‘chunk’ the day up so that people would know ‘where’ or perhaps ‘when’ they ‘were’ in the day, week, month or year.

This became especially important as people moved out of the equatorial regions and the lengths of day and night varied at different seasons of the year.

But as humanity moved away from agriculture which relies on planting and harvesting crops at specific points in the year these ‘time’ parameters became less important.

You and I now have the capability to do whatever we want whenever we want, without worrying about the climate or the length of the day or night.

The necessity to do certain things at certain ‘times’ has gone

So we procrastinate.

The Romans started it.

‘Procrastinare’ means ‘to defer until tomorrow’ in Latin.

But quite often we defer things for much longer, sometimes failing to take action at all.

You see – ‘tomorrow’ never comes.

‘Today’, ‘now’, is yesterday’s ‘tomorrow’.

Today is Friday and yesterday was Thursday. But on Thursday, ‘tomorrow’ was ‘today, and now tomorrow is Saturday.

In reality then, ‘procrastinate’ means to defer for ever, because deciding to do something ‘tomorrow’ is impossible.

You and I cannot take action in the future, even if we ‘decide’ to. The best we can do is to plan (which is an action in itself) to take a specific action on a specific day or at a specific time and hold ourselves in covenant to that ‘promise’.

When you and I plan to do something than that plan is worthless unless we hold ourselves accountable in some way to take that action.

Because when tomorrow turns into today we can’t go back and take that action ‘yesterday’. (Feel free to take a ‘moment’ to think about this!)

You and I can only act in the present moment. We can only act now.

Whatever we do, we do now, not in an hour’s time, not at 6pm, not at any ‘time’ in the future or in the past.

We can only act NOW.

And whatever it is we do now will have consequences. Because what we do now will have an impact on what we do now.

Because now is another time.

What we did then and then is done and what we do next will be something else.

‘Now’ of course is never a fixed amount of time, because there is no time. The action that we do may be a long action or a short action, but whatever it is, the action we take now is the action that matters.

So perhaps we should stop thinking in terms of ‘time’ but in terms of the actions we take – the actions we are taking now.

Until the next action . . .