#8 how you experience time today

Hello!

Welcome to The Makers. and a very warm welcome to new subscribers joining us this week. You can read previous issues here (scroll to bottom of the page). 

The aim of The Makers is to share ideas to help you engage more positively and purposefully with the future. 

It accompanies the YouTube channel Ours For The Making which explores “how to get ‘future-fit’ in an age of short term thinking and uncertainty.”

After last week’s longer email on how time can play havoc with long term commitments – and what to do about it, today is a bit briefer.

Today I want to share with you a few thoughts on what’s shaping your contemporary experience of time, and how you might respond. 

The expansion and collapse of time ⏳ 

So much of the struggle of our contemporary experience with time is, on the one hand, expanding future frontiers tempt our minds to ponder prospects on the horizon and beyond, and yet, on the other hand, powerful forces pin our attention firmly to the present.

Time isn’t quite what it used to be. It feels, at least to me, a little bit different, and at times dizzying and disorientating.

But why – beyond lockdown disruption and social distancing – does time feel increasingly unfamiliar and somewhat ‘otherly’?

On the one hand, our idea of ‘the future’ is expanding before our very eyes across three frontiers:

  1. Life expectancy. We’re living longer as life expectancy extends out towards 100 years and beyond. Our personal time horizon’s are stretching out further into the future. Throughout the 20th and into the early 21st century, there has been a steady addition to the number of years a person can reasonably expect to live. This lengthening of life has, of course, profound implications for how we think about our own futures, and how societies organise themselves to look after their populations for the future.
  2. Science and technology. Advances in science and technology bring with them a wider range of future possibilities. New technologies could see us transform life and work with AI, or colonise space. Medicine might shift from being an equaliser, whereby we seek to raise everyone up to a similar ‘healthy’ level, to being something that enhances the lives of the lucky few who can afford access to treatments that build their abilities beyond what’s considered normal or average.
  3. Climate change. We have an improved understanding and visibility of some of the long term issues the world faces, such as climate change. As Kate Raworth notes in her book, Doughnut Economics, “Ours is the first generation to properly understand the damage we have been doing to our planetary household, and probably the last generation with the chance to do something transformative about it.”

And yet, at the same moment, powerful forces pin our lives to a shrinking territory of time, here in the present. These forces are:

  1. Technological. (The flip side of above.) Picture the scene: every morning, as you reach for your smart phone, technology draws your attention into a ‘now’ that consistes of minute by minute updates and refreshes every few seconds.
  2. Societal. In the world around you, the structures of government and commerce are tightly wound around short electoral cycles, quarterly reporting and near-instantaneous trading. 
  3. The wiring of our minds. Our own minds (or, at least part of them) are wired for prioritising the present ahead of the future – even if this means settling for a more meagre reward today, over waiting patiently for a larger reward in the days, months or years to come. (This is epitomised by the classic 1960s marshmallow experimentconducted by Stanford psychologist Walter Mischel. Mischel presented children aged between four and six with a single treat (usually a marshmallow) and told them if they could sit alone in the room and holdback from eating the treat for a quarter of an hour, he’d return and reward them with a second treat. Two out of three children couldn’t wait to double their marshmallow.)

All this shortening of our ‘now’ contributes to what some call a ‘moment of myopia‘, where the complexity and rate of change in our lives is so great, that our time-horizons are collapsing into an ever shorter ‘now’. Public philosopher, Roman Krznaric, suggests that we now live in an age of “pathological short-termism”.

What I find so dizzying and disorientating about time, as we experience it, is the combination of these expanding frontiers – revealing prospects that reach out into distant futures – with collapsing forces that seem to rob us of the time we need to engage in any meaningful way with all of these possibilities. 

Our minds are perpetually teased out to the long(er) term before being tempted back into our phones, and into the here and now.

Finding your footing in temporal upheaval 

So, how can you find your footing in this age of hyperchange?

1. See changes for what they are 

Well, seeing these changes for what they are – forces that are present, but not in your gift to completely influence – is perhaps a start. Holding up a mirror to our world is always a good prompt. It invites you to either ‘go along with it’, or see ways in which you can quietly (and loudly) rebel.

2. Accept your finitude

Second, you (and I) might need to just confront and accept what author Oliver Burkeman describes in his book 4000 weeks as the central tension that lies at the heart of our relationship with time. 

And that is this: time, and our ideas of what could happen over the course of time, is infinite. Yet, our own personal time – the hours that you and I have available to us – is very much finite. 

This simple statement of fact, Burkeman suggests, reveals the absurdity and impossibility of trying to fit in everything you want to do (or think you need to do) into the stubbornly limited time you have available. 

Perhaps letting go of the idea that you can (or should even try to) fit our infinite imagination into your finite life, releases some of the pressure of expectation to get-everything-done-in-order-to-get-EVERYTHING-we-can-possibly-think-of-done.

Accepting our finitude – in the very least – opens up our time in the present. It allows us to breathe a little more freely, lift our eyes to more distant temporal horizons and perhaps even engage a bit more with some of those future possibilities. And maybe create a few new ones of our own. 

Thanks 🙏 

Thanks for reading, watching, subscribing and being a Maker! I really appreciate it.

Until next time…

Best wishes,

James

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