Time passes no matter what but it’s our attention to every minute, every moment that seems to have an effect of stretching it out making it fuller, richer, longer. Forget the discovery of gravitational waves and their potential to expand our understanding of the universe. Paying attention is our own tool to disrupt the space time continuum; we can speed up or slow down our lives at will. It comes down to choosing to either be mindful or not.
The 2006 movie Click perfectly illustrates this principle. Here’s the trailer:
In the past, I used to make heavy use of time travel by being in one place while my mind was where I’d rather be, often somewhere my future self would be in a matter of hours or days. It was an effect brought about by an almost-obsessive focus on projects and “deliverables”, often at the expense of everything else I thought I valued in life. Unfortunately, more often than not, my friends and family were spending time with my body but not with my spirit.
Now that I’m paying greater attention to the world around me I, regrettably, recognize the symptoms and result of my past time travels:
- I can’t tell you the ending to many of the movies I’ve watched. Sometimes I don’t even remember the plot itself. My eyes were looking at the screen but my brain, busy with other matters, wasn’t immersing itself in the story.
- I remember more about work than I do about events with family and friends. Most past family gatherings during the first decade of this new century are somewhat of a blur and, at one of the more recent ones (two years ago or so) my sister in law commented that it was nice to see me happier and engaged. (Ouch.)
- I didn’t realize that some of my relationships were deteriorating because I didn’t notice the signs and didn’t invest in the depth of discussion needed to sustain any meaningful relationship with close family and friends. Unfortunately, for some of these, it was already too late.
- I didn’t understand that part of why I was good at meeting people on vacation and staying in touch over the years was that I was a far more attentive person on vacation, when being in the moment came more easily.
- My personal habits mostly consisted of activities that could be done on autopilot, making room for the “important thinking work” that I wanted to be doing at all times. This attitude turned any manual task into a drudgery which only made me even more prone to mentally escape and temporary amnesia*.
- I lost the ability to play just for the sake of playing. If a game didn't include some sort of ultimate goal (networking, skill development, competition), it wasn't worth the time investment. This belief cost me in the areas of health and wellness, creativity in all aspects of life and, ultimately, joy.**
- My sleep—which I thought of as a wasteful activity—was constantly interrupted either because I felt I had better things to do or because I’d wake up to jot things I thought of that would or should merit my attention in the morning.
My life has slowed down quite a bit over the last three years. Not due to a reduction in its pace—I’m more productive than ever—but due to an increase in attention to what’s in front of me now. There are still 1,440 minutes in every day but I remember more of them and many of them are fuller because I didn't just live them, I experienced them.
This phenomemon is akin to the experience we have when feel a surge of adrenaline—possibly as a result of a near-miss or an extreme sport experience. Time seems to slow down to a crawl. We remember details that we’d never remember when time marches on at its regular pace. Paying attention is like developing our own version of bullet time, one that we can call upon any time, not just in times of extreme emotion.
What can we do in the moment?
We need to remember to remember.
When I remember to remember, I immediately take in my surroundings to better understand what I want to take away from the moment and there’s nearly always something:
- What people look like: rested/tired, deshevelled/put together
- What people present appear to feel: boastful/shameful, apprehensive/confident, sad/happy, scared/optimistic, angry/joyful, irritated/patient
- What the environment is like: bright/dark, cold/hot, comfortable/uncomfortable, chaotic/peaceful, noise level, its contents
- What objects are in environment
- Sensations I’m experiencing: clothing on my skin, my breathing, how my body feels, my mood, myreaction to food & drink or other material I’m consuming, such as entertainment
Remembering to remember automatically heightens our awareness of the present. We can’t remember much when we're in autopilot mode during all the moments we think are “in the way” of living our lives. Those moment are our lives.
Our memories are etched based on how much attention we pay to a given moment, any moment. That’s how our minds work. If we’re very focused on something, it stays with us.
Moreover, when we focus on the present, even what we might otherwise consider mundane becomes more interesting. Being in two places at once in our minds makes us less effective at both activities and saps us of energy when we finally get to be where we think we want to be most.
Not convinced? Here are a few examples:
- How does impatience during a long/demanding commute affect your ability to get going with your day? Were you able to park those emotions as soon as you got to the office?
- How about the effect of spending time planning for a conference call during dinner. Did you even taste the food? How was the conversation with your family?
- How about the experience of watching the much-anticipated football game while busy taking selfies and updating your social media accounts? Did you really take it all in?
Contrary to popular belief, focusing on the present doesn't rob us of our potential for future success. Being in two places at once by multitasking our way through life is what robs us of happiness in both the present and the future.
Keeping our minds in the future allows us to put part of our lives on autopilot so that we don’t have to feel emotions we don’t want to feel and think thoughts we don’t want to think in the present. Busyness is a different kind of drug. It’s active avoidance of our current reality.
Staying fully immersed in the present is like simultaneously being the director of, and the protagonist in, the story of our lives. We get to know ourselves better and it makes us get real about what we’re like and what we want.
Being present allows us to make fear-inducing decisions sooner because we stop medicating ourselves with thoughts that we can ignore the present because we believe our future selves will be happier.
That belief is real life fiction and it saps us of our current potential to experience the bounties of life in the present. After all, the most important characteristic of a long and rich life isn’t how much time we have, it’s how much attention we pay to every minute, every moment.
Are you living life in fast forward?
*Driving is a great example. If you get somewhere and you don’t remember anything about the commute, start looking for signs of this type of amnesia in other aspects of life.
**For more on the importance of play, or any other activity that brings you joy, see Shonda Rhimes's February 2016 TED Talk.
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