Monotony Collapses Time; Novelty Unfolds It
"Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next - and disappear. That's why it's so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives." - Joshua Foer, Moonwalking With Einstein
Somewhere around mid-December this year I started to notice something odd. I was suddenly experiencing a strange sensitivity to sensory input. This meant listening to music while working was exhausting. Watching a film with friends felt draining. I couldn't focus on a conversation while listening to or watching something. Going for a walk past glowing Christmas lights left me with a headache. As did being in a room with multiple people talking at once. Even reading a fast-paced or dense book was harder than usual. My reading speed appeared to be a third slower than my baseline.
While hard to explain, it was an intolerance to too much stuff happening at once that left me short tempered and on edge. I've never experienced anything like this before, so I didn't even try explaining it to anyone. I could only put a name on it after sitting thinking about what I was going through for a good hour or so.
But to confuse matters, my ability to focus on a single, complex task seemed better than usual. When I honed in on one thing while alone and in silence, my focus was laser sharp.
As I said, this hasn't happened before so I was at a loss about the causes. The explanation that occurred to me was that December has been - as it is for most people - a far more hectic month than usual. I segment my life by the month, reviewing each at the end, and the majority of the time not a lot goes on. This last month has been far more overwhelming and varied than usual.
In a typical month, I stick to the same daily routine almost every day with at most one weekend away from work to take a train somewhere and visit friends. Maybe two evenings where I do something which isn't work or reading.
By comparison, December has been manic. New work projects on new topics, parties, gatherings, events. A week in Malta, and Christmas which is exhausting for almost everyone. There have also been a few intensely emotional occurrences.
I am attributing this sudden sensory insensitivity to that - unexpected overload. That's not a bad thing. It has been great to do a lot of new stuff and take more time to decompress.
The odd part was noticing how different my perception of time has been this month - the days have seemed to crawl past. Life otherwise goes by quite fast.
When we stick to a routine and do much the same each day, time seems fleeting.
It is only the deviations from a routine which stick in our memory and slow down our perception of time. The more new or unusual things that happen on a given day, the longer it appears to last. It's a basic idea, yet one which is easy to forget.
“You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book… or you take a trip… and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating. The symptoms of hibernating are easily detectable: first, restlessness. The second symptom (when hibernating becomes dangerous and might degenerate into death): absence of pleasure. That is all. It appears like an innocuous illness. Monotony, boredom, death. Millions live like this (or die like this) without knowing it. They work in offices. They drive a car. They picnic with their families. They raise children. And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death. Some never awaken.” ― Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin
There has been an explosion of interest in daily routines and habits over the last few years. I blame Mason Currey for kicking it off (in a good way. Daily Routines is a wonderful book.) My Medium homepage is always saturated with articles on the 33 Daily Habits For Unstoppable Success. Or the One Hour Morning Routine That Made Me A Billionaire. That stuff doubtless gets a lot of clicks, it’s an easy way to humblebrag, it allows for the incorporation of whatever supplement brand or meditation app the author is shilling for at the moment. Some of it is useful, but I suspect it mostly just makes us all feel bad about ourselves.
I used to write articles like that in my late teens, when I was a vegan who got up at 6 am, went to the gym twice a day, meditated, studied four languages before 8 am, drunk coffee with coconut oil and was in bed for an hour of reading by 9 pm. The response was always overwhelming.
Consistent, exquisite routines have become as aspirational as fancy possessions. Waking up at 4 am to write blog posts about waking up at 4 am has begun to denotate health, success, productivity, and a bundle of other positive traits.
The part that gets missed out is the sneaky reality that repetition compresses time. If we do the same thing every day, our subjective experience will be of time going by fast.
I opened this post with an extract from Moonwalking With Einstein. A lot of people seem to miss the point of the book. It gets billed as a guide to improving your memory when it’s more of a reflection on the nature of memory.
(If you haven’t read it, the author is a journalist who covers the US memory championships. After hearing that anyone can become a memory champion, Joshua trains in their techniques. A year later, he returns and wins.)
But the parts I found most valuable did not cover specific techniques. They were about his new understanding of the nature of memory.
Mnemonic techniques have little use outside of championships or high school exams. Memory champions use vivid, wacky images to encode facts in their minds. The way to remember more of our lives is to have more unusual experiences, not to focus on memorization.
It is only recently that I have been able to even stick to a routine because I now have some stability in my life. When I traveled for a few months earlier in the year, every day was different. I’d wake up in the morning with no sense of what the day ahead held. I could get lost in an unknown city. Or get some of my stuff stolen in a hostel. Or stumble across an interesting sight that held my attention for the rest of the day. Even the calm days were unusual, so they were kind of exciting. I would have continued with that if other events hadn't intervened.
When I lived in the crappiest flat imaginable for a few months, it was hard to stick to a routine too. I didn’t know if I’d come home to no electricity, or broken plumbing, or a jammed front door, or some new thing that had gone wrong. I spent hours and hours each week trying to sort out the myriad problems with the place. It was unpleasant and made me miserable, but it prevented me from sinking into a comfort zone.
Likewise, for the first six or so months of freelancing, I lived in fear of everything falling apart. My hands shook every time I emailed someone. Submitting work usually prompted a panic attack. A minor setback was the cause of a meltdown. Over time, I’ve developed more confidence and have a solid safety net. Freelancing never lets you get too comfortable - which is why I love it. But there is a big difference between sweeping emotional highs and lows, and a degree of self-assuredness.
With this push towards stability in my life comes calm, coherence, less chaos, and a better quality of work. Solid routines mean less decision fatigue and are the bedrock of creativity. Producing any kind of good work on a regular basis necessitates consistent rituals that produce the appropriate mindset and focus.
At the same time, it has led to monotony, a sense of time compressing, and an intolerance to drastic changes (in particular if they are out of my control.)
The most useful perspective I have found on this comes from Twyla Tharp's The Creative Habit: "Before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” In other words, there is a tremendous value to having some sort of routine. It doesn't need to mimic someone else's, it needs to be whatever works for each of us. But taken too far, routines can lock us into mediocre stasis. In other words, we need a box, and we need the flexibility to think outside of it.
There are three main strategies I have found to be very effective for managing routines without slipping into a monotonous rut.
1. Regularly reviewing how well habits and routines are working.
Milestones, however arbitrary, are ideal opportunities for reviewing how things are going.
It's a little too easy to get bogged down in a regular routine, then to wake up one day and find months have passed without us realizing. Consistency is good, continual improvement is better.
Every Sunday, I review the week and take a look at how I used my time, which areas I improved in and which I didn't, and so on. I do the same on the last day of each month. If I find I am consistently hitting a short-term goal, it's time to make it a little harder. If I have gotten into the habit of wasting time or money in notable ways, I can course correct on that. If I haven't failed at anything for a while, that's a bad sign. Regular reviews allow for iterative adjustments.
2. Planning novelty in advance.
This might sound counterintuitive and it kind of is. But for most of us, life doesn't hand us novel experiences. It just pushes us into a comfortable groove. Deviations from the norm are rarely forthcoming. We need to plan them.
For me, that means scheduling time abroad every few months, having Google Alerts for interesting events in my area, or even just looking for areas of my life where I can inject some variety. If I don't make an effort to plan these things, they won't happen and another month will go by with me barely lifting my eyes from my laptop.
Then again, we also need to engage with novel experiences. I can't count how many times I have planned something fun, then not enjoyed it much because I was too preoccupied. Hence the benefits of scheduling - it allows us time to ensure everything else is cleared to neutral and we're not distracted by loose ends.
It is not just the number of atypical experiences that dictate our enjoyment of life. It is the intensity with which we pay attention to them that matters. Some people derive no joy from wonderful circumstances, while others find happiness in shitty times.
3. Moving towards sources of friction.
Another issue with routines and habits is that they can't be difficult or they won't stick. We have a natural tendency towards easy, comfortable habits.
For a while, I have made a habit of working on one thing I find aversive (but with obvious benefits) each month- cooking, sorting out my finances, phone calls, talking to new people, shipping things faster without agonizing over every detail etc.
One month I set myself the challenge of going out and talking to at least 3 random strangers each Sunday. Another month I aimed to sort out one major part of my finances each Friday. While aversive tasks may be monotonous, turning them into a challenge somehow changes that.