One of the reasons I moved to London was to slow down time.
Your teens and twenties are full of first-times, new experiences, surprising occurrences. We have a memory peak around that time called the reminiscence bump, because it’s such a unique period in our lives. Once you settle into adult-hood however, you start forming regular routines of work, leisure and socializing. And this repetition means the days and months and years can start to blur into one. The experience of being fifteen years old was a lifetime away from my experiences as a seventeen year old. In contrast, was life at 29 really so different from 27? If you’re not careful, it can quickly start to feel very same-ish.
So I’d read somewhere, that moving to a new place makes everything fresh again. You have to figure out a new routine, a new workplace, a new culture. You can’t slip into autopilot. The logistical challenges force you to be aware. And it’s this awareness of the present, that slows down the passage of time. And it’s true. London has added a new and interesting chapter to my life. But that only lasts for so long, before the autopilot mentality comes creeping back in.
The wonderful words of David Foster Wallace are finding a new lease of life online at the moment, thanks to these guys. And in his speech one of the things he talks about is the evils of autopilot. The dangers of sludging through life in a numb, self-centered cocoon. It’s so easy to do.
Bad autopilot is letting life pass you by, because you live for the end of work at five o’clock, and you live for Friday evening when you can escape the office, and you live for your two week holiday when you can escape your regular life.
What Wallace is encouraging is a conscious awareness of your surroundings and your daily life. It’s the same practice of mindfulness that’s rooted in Buddhism and encouraged by psychologists as a way of increasing happiness. It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do.
But there’s another kind of autopilot that’s the polar opposite of the type described by Wallace. It goes by many names and descriptions: “being in the zone”, “hitting your A game” or just “flow”. Flow is when you’re unconsciously engaged in an activity at that perfect balance of challenge and mastery. You get so absorbed in a task that it’s effortless and yet you’re completely motivated throughout.
Modern life can make achieving flow really difficult. Our noisy open-plan offices, our always-on phones and our “multi-tasking” conspire against us, and rob us of the opportunity to get into a flow state at work. And after such an exhausting day, it’s no wonder that in the evenings, all we want to do is choose passive activities like watching TV, over more effortful hobbies like playing sport or music or reading or gardening or painting, even though they would bring us more satisfaction.
Yet understanding these two versions of autopilot is so important for happiness. We need to break the mindless version of autopilot described in the video above. We need to slow down the passage of time by becoming aware of what’s happening in the present moment, avoiding the zombie life at all costs. But alongside this we need to pursue the positive, enriching autopilot state of flow, where we sometimes lose all track of time because we are so enjoyably engaged in what we are doing. Because in the end, it doesn’t really matter how much time we have, what matters is whether it was time well spent.