How to conjure up free time seemingly out of thin air.
“My goal is to not be bored by what I do.” — Itzhak Perlman.
Why does it feel like time slows down in a life and death situation? As Alan Burdick explains in his compelling book, Why Time Flies: a Mostly Scientific Investigation, our perception of how much time has elapsed is dependent on the amount of data our brain processes in a given quantum of time.
Your brain has an intuitive sense, based on many years worth of prior experiences, of how much sensory data it processes in a typical minute and it uses that yardstick to decide how much time has elapsed in a given scenario.
During a life and death situation, say a car barreling down at you at top speed or a lion chasing you on the savanna, the brain works extra hard to process all the sensory information coming at it in real time. Since this is significantly more processing than it does in a normal setting, the brain is tricked into thinking more time has gone by. The time interval didn’t change, only your perception of it did — based purely on the amount of data you crunched.
Paradoxically, the same expansion of time seems to happen when you’re bored out of your mind. Why would that be? We’ve all noticed how an hour in a boring classroom or meeting seems to take forever. What is there in common between life and death situations and boring tasks?
We’ll come back to that question but, first, let me ask a related question.
Why is it that what’s boring to you can be fascinating to me and vice versa? Why is it that two kids sit through the same, say history, class day after day and yet have entirely different experiences? One is bored out of her mind and the other is riveted with attention, perhaps so much so that it changes the course of his life and career. After all, it’s the same words being delivered by the same teacher for exactly the same amount of time.
The only difference is in the students themselves.
Invariably, the first kid will complain not just about how boring the class was, but also how it seemed to take forever. Yet she often can’t tell you a single thing about what the teacher said during that entire period. Oh my God, I have no idea why we even bother studying World War II or the Crusades or whatever.
Even more frustratingly, she now has to go home and read the history book for three hours in order to catch up. At the end of that session, no doubt, she will bitterly complain about how boring the book was, how it made no sense whatsoever, and how it took forever. She has no idea what she just read for three hours, hated the time wasted, and learned nothing in the process.
These are the same words on the same pages of the same books that another student will read with fascination and awe, gasping at the heroics of medieval explorers or crying over the injustice of the holocaust. Same words, same books, totally different outcome. How come?
You can’t help but notice that the clock on the wall reports exactly the same number of minutes and seconds have elapsed for all the kids sitting in that classroom. Yet, the kid who was paying attention and actually learning in class (or enjoying the book) usually looks up wondering at the end: Wow, the time just flew by. That was fascinating.
Same words, same books, same teachers, same amount of time. And yet totally different experiences and totally different outcomes.
Don’t tell me it’s the teacher’s fault. There are plenty of bad teachers out there but there are also plenty of good teachers whose lessons are lost on daydreaming kids. For the sake of argument, let’s say the teacher is a good one. He is good enough to demand the rapt attention of the kid sitting next to you. Ditto the book.
And don’t tell me the other kid is smarter. The smartest ones among us are no smarter than you and me. They just happen to be better at blocking out distractions and spending more quality time on the topic. The luckiest ones are those who seemingly make time out of thin air by getting so good in a field that they become proficient, and thereby efficient, at it. The more efficient you are at a given task, the less time you need to achieve a given goal, resulting in more free time for other pursuits.
Ever notice how some people find baseball utterly boring while others love it passionately, memorizing batting averages and RBI stats? Every topic you pick, be it sociology, computer science, baseball, or wine, has a vocabulary and a grammar all its own; a language, if you will. You can’t expect to start understanding, let alone enjoying, a given subject unless you become proficient in that language.
If and when you do, the subject becomes even more interesting and you learn even more quickly. Not because the content changed but because you understand more of it. The more you learn the vocabulary and the nuances of the language, the more captivating the topic becomes, the sweeter and more rewarding the hours spent pursuing it. The more attention you pay, the more rewarding and interesting the topic.
The only similarity between the life and death situation and the boring class or boring book is that, in both cases, your brain is working overtime trying to process more incoming data than it normally does. In the latter case, it just happens to be processing tons of information about other stories, other problems, other narratives in your life as well as trying to tune in the teacher (or the book) every once in a while.
It takes more brain power to context switch between a dozen narratives in your head than it does to pay attention to a single topic. That additional processing, in turn, fools the brain into thinking more time has elapsed. In other words, it’s all in your head.
You’re sitting there daydreaming, thinking about your girlfriend or the soccer game or the bully who threatened you during lunch or the abusive dad who smacked you last night. You name it. The problem is not that you’re not paying attention, the problem is that you’re trying to pay too much attention, processing several narratives simultaneously, and not doing a good job at any of them.
Your brain is wandering, tuning into and out of a dozen narratives, and maybe even spending a minute or two on the topic at hand once in a while: history or biology or math, take your pick.
Human cognition requires uninterrupted journeys based on narratives, on stories. If you zone out a dozen times through the story of Newton and the Apple or that of Galileo and his eventual recantation, you miss the whole point of the story, both scientifically and historically.
A computer can multitask effectively because it carefully records, and later restores, the contents of CPU registers, suspending the task at hand while it runs another one. The teacher in the classroom or the presenter in the meeting, by contrast, keeps talking even after your brain switches to a different topic, causing you to drop bits in the process.
There are a thousand reasons why a kid may be preoccupied in school and they all have one thing in common: they distract him or her mentally. They force her to multitask while sitting in class or trying to read a book or do homework, tasks that require singular focus.
How often have you looked up from a book after reading a paragraph or a whole page to realize you have no idea what you just read?
While your eyes were dutifully scanning the page, some part of your brain was processing the words into sentences, doing so at least well enough to fool the rest of your brain into thinking it was actually “reading” and making forward progress while, in fact, there was no comprehension going on at all. You just “finished” the paragraph but you have no idea what you just read.
I bet, in 100% of the cases, your brain was multitasking. It was actually thinking about something else — your taxes, that bug in the code you’ve been working on, the argument with your wife last night, the mortgage, something, anything, other than the words you were supposedly “reading”.
Here’s the problem. If you don’t pay attention in class, because you have random other topics on your mind, you won’t understand the basics in a field of study. If you’re distracted at page one of a book and don’t get the premise, you’ll never understand the rest. You never have a chance later because you never learned the language of the topic, the vocabulary needed to decipher the topic later.
It doesn’t matter how hard you try to catch up later, cramming formulas into your head, memorizing dates and facts. You missed the starting gun. As long as you’re distracted, you will never learn the topic, regardless of how much time you spend on it.
You can apply this same logic to your work (those interminable meetings where you keep glancing at your phone for a distraction) to your personal relationships (my girlfriend just blabbers on and on) to exercise (running for an hour can seem so boring) to pretty much anything you spend time on.
In an earlier blog, I quoted the author Sam Harris as saying “Boredom is just a lack of attention” and followed up with my own corollary: If you pay enough attention, everything is interesting. I stand by that assessment.
You have to flip the idea of “boring” on its head in order to take control of it. The topic at hand is not really boring. In fact, there is no such thing as a boring topic. You’re the one making it boring by not paying attention — and your reward for doing so is that the experience will seem to take even longer, increasing the agony.
If you don’t believe me, just look over at the kid sitting there next to you in ecstasy, looking at the teacher as if in rapture. It’s boring only because you’re not paying attention. If you just pay attention, it wouldn’t be boring. And you’re the only one who can fix that problem.
In fact, I bet you would find the topic interesting because it would actually make sense. You would understand it, you would learn something, and time wouldn’t drag on. The key is that making it interesting is fully within your control. And the only way you can pay more attention is to have fewer other “things” in your head that your brain can randomly jump to.
The irony is not lost on me. That one hour class feels like it’s taking longer because your brain is processing more information than it would in a “normal” hour. Your brain is working harder and yet you’re learning less.
I’m sure I’ll hear from those with ADHD, explaining how their brains actually work better when they multitask. That’s great but less than 10% of the population has been diagnosed with ADHD. I’m talking about the other 90%.
So, is there any practical advice we can walk away with? It seems banal but I’ll say it anyway. The less you do, the less topics your mind has to distract itself with. The more things you engage with, the more narratives in your mind, the more topics you’ll get distracted with while trying to study or read or pay attention in a meeting. In praise of the quiet life. Do less so you can do more.