Here in New York, the way we use our time is, in a word, busy. We constantly have events that we’re rushing to attend. Likewise, we’re expected to be accessible 24/7 for the last minute changes or updates. A week and a half ago, I was in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, one of the most laid back places on the planet. The way they saw time was the complete opposite. The rather slow and relaxed pace of like was something to experience first hand – it was a very good thing that I knew of it beforehand so that I could leave my NYC habits at home and enjoy the experience in Bahia.
What I found most interesting was how “Bahia time” infiltrated every aspect of what one would go through in a day. Here’s a handful of experiences that illustrate the phenomenon:
- I usually woke up whenever, without any alarms. There’s no rush. I would have something to eat eventually and prepare to leave the apartment – again, eventually.
- There would be some event I’d like to go to. It might start on time. Or it might not. Or it could be outright cancelled (I didn’t experience any cancellations myself, but I hear that it does happen and it’s not a big deal).
- I wait for the buses somewhere between a few minutes and an hour. There wasn’t a schedule or even published maps of the bus routes.
- After an event, my friends and I would go for dinner. In one instance, we had to hit up a second place to eat after we learned that the chef had gone home, after we placed our orders. At another dinner, we spent quite a bit of time talking, and many of the locals were laughing and singing together.
- There was a store I wanted to check out, but it happened to be closed at the time I went – again, there’s no schedule.
These examples encompass the uncertainty aspects of a relaxed culture. From a busy New Yorker’s perspective, it sounds awfully terrible. How can anything get done? I myself like to make the most of my time, and most certainly would not want to live this way (though it was fine for the purpose of vacation and experimentation*).
Given all this, I still found a great value in Bahia time – no one there seemed to mind. That is, no one was ever in a rush. No one was stressed about waiting for something or someone. People really took their time doing things. For example, when I was late to an event, no one that was already there was upset, not even close. In fact, they were happy to see me. It was astounding to see this pervade the culture. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. After all, a couple popular phrases were “relax” and “be happy, you’re in Bahia” (translated), said with a relaxed smile.
Now I’m not saying that we should just throw away our sense of time and be forever patient with everything and everyone. This might be a nice way to live if we were immortal, but many of us would prefer to get more done and do more things. Still, there’s much we can learn from this. We put ourselves under a great amount of stress in our always rushed, busy culture. “What if I’m late?” “Why isn’t she here yet?” “Don’t you know I have ten other things to do today?” This isn’t good for us. This isn’t good for anyone. There’s little happiness coming from this – and if you can’t be happy, what’s the point of living?
Although I’m not 100% sure, I believe there’s a happy medium between the get-it-done but stressful NYC time and the relaxed but uncertain Bahia time. Would it not be incredible to have certainty and accomplishment in one’s daily life while also doing so happily and with little unnecessary stress? I don’t have a precise answer yet, but I believe I’m onto something. Even before my trip to Bahia, I’d been deliberately making progress to become more relaxed and laid back over a few years (enough that coworkers were surprised to learn that I was a native New Yorker and not some hippie from California). The experience in Bahia has strengthened my resolved in being more relaxed and provided me insights to apply it more broadly.
Here’s a few thoughts to infuse the best of both worlds: We shouldn’t make a big deal over timing, especially lateness in ourselves and others – assuming that it’s not a common occurrence. We should attempt to be as timely as possible, leaving some buffers if necessary. Once in a while, stuff comes up or plans go awry. Assuming that this isn’t a frequent occurrence, neither side (the late person and the waiting person) should be stressed about the situation. We should also do our best to not blow up plans at the last minute. Ironically, planned events seemed to fare well in Bahia because it wasn’t feasible to change them – it seemed that not many folks had cell phones. Hence, people stuck to their word when they said that they’d be somewhere. While there was no guarantee of them being on time, we can do much better to hold up plans.
It’s helpful to have ways to make use of potential waiting time. I always keep a few articles, essays, or videos synced to my app phone in case I run into unexpected dead time. I’ll even keep a book with me if the waiting time is probable. There’s a great value in keeping around audiobooks. I use them while driving and listening to them while being stuck in traffic makes for a surprisingly relaxed situation – I almost forget that I’m trapped in a mess of cars.
I wish I could write up a more organized and flushed out post for these ideas, but there’s so much more to think about and experiment with. Still, between the extremes of how time is valued, between New York City and Bahia, there’s much good to pull from each. From the NYC side, it’s about filling those minutes with interesting things – taking into account for unplanned moments. From the Bahia side, it’s about not getting worked up when the unexpected happens.
* Note that this experience was not stressful for me because:
- I was on vacation and let myself relax and not worry about things
- a goal of the trip was to get me out of my comfort zone
- I had a strong interest in experiencing first-hand how a culture lives its daily life in stark contrast to my own
Note: I understand that as a young adult with no major family responsibilities, I have quite a bit more time than others, so this post is geared more towards my peers. Still, for those looking to make the most of their hours and also juggle family responsibilities, check out 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think
I like to think that I live an interesting life. My days are spent doing challenging work at my full time job. My nights are filled with physical activities that include roller blading, martial arts, and indoor rock climbing. Plus there’s the non-fiction books I finish every couple of weeks, the blog posts I write, and other less frequent adventures such as mountain biking. All without cutting back on necessities like sleep and seeing friends. When I tell new friends or coworkers about the life I lead, they often ask me how I have the time to do all this. The answer is: I make time. I fill every minute with stuff that matters and cut out the things that don’t.
Let’s start with a few things going for me:
I’m young and free of major family responsibilities – this is also the case for many of my peers
My job has a very flexible work schedule, and I eat 2 meals a day there
I live in the same house as my parents and have a mom that loves to cook
One major thing I don’t have going for me:
I have a very long commute – it would be close to 90 minutes to 2 hours by conventional means, but after 9 months of experimenting, I’ve got it down to about 75 minutes each way, which is still a lot.
Because I’m fortunate enough to have some very flexible work hours I typically wake up at around 8:30 or 9:00am. Now this “sleeping-in” might not sound like the most efficient start, but it’s necessary because I usually get home around midnight. I make sure to have breakfast – and then begins the commute.
In part one of my commute, I drive halfway across Queens, which is about 15-20 minutes each way (because I leave late enough, I don’t hit traffic and I can find parking without much trouble). Still I don’t let this time go to waste – I listen to audiobooks while driving. I’m presently listening to one on Portuguese survival phrases – I’m visiting Brazil soon. But previously, I was listening to a book about the balance between rules and wisdom in our institutions. I already have some podcasts lined up for future drives.
The second part of the commute is the subway ride, which is about 40 minutes each way. Here, I often read non-fiction books (the topics range from social science to business to self improvement). But I also keep my app phone synced with TED Talks and long articles or essays.
I arrive at work at around 11:00am but stick around until nearly 8:00pm to get stuff done (sometimes I don’t get as much done as I’d like and I’ll let it overflow to a weekend with spare time – it all evens out eventually).
Next comes the fun evening activity. Depending on the night of the week, it’s either roller blading (10-30 miles around the city), capoeira, indoor rock climbing, or karate. I get home somewhere between 11pm and 1am, which allows me just enough time to have something to eat and get a decent amount of sleep.
Weekends are for all the things I’m usually unable to cover during the week. This means seeing family and friends, doing cleanup and laundry, replying to personal emails (which includes looking through articles and videos sent by friends). Weekends also serve for more special activities, from going out on mountain biking trips to writing these blog posts (I typically draft several of these articles at a time when my mind is feeling the zen of writing). Oh, and there’s an awesome capoeira class every Saturday night. Weekends also serve as sort of an overflow buffer. Since I’m running on the margins during the weekdays, I’ll sometimes have a little bit of sleep to catch up on or maybe a project at work that I obsessed with finishing since it’s ready in my head.
It’s important to note that I’ve cut out some less than fully satisfying activities from my life. I don’t watch TV or play video games. For many years of my life, I was obsessed with both of these (in the case of the latter, it was practically my life). It’s not that I actively stopped either of these things. Rather, they just got pushed off the table as I became engaged in more and more interesting and fulfilling activities. Fortunately, it was a rather painless process. There are many timesinks in our media-centric culture – it’s essential to understand their pervasive opportunity cost.
Putting in the time to take care of oneself pays off in spades to avoid disasters and the resulting anguish and time loss. For example, I make sure to get plenty of sleep. The kinds of challenges I have at work are pretty mentally demanding so the day is a wash if my brain isn’t up to the task. Likewise, my body needs to recover to be ready to handle the next day’s physical activities – not getting enough sleep puts me at risk for injury. Likewise, by eating well, being physically active, and keeping social, I stave off illness (at the time of this writing, it’s been about 6 years since the last time I got properly sick).
It’s not my intention to gloat or show off with what I’ve said here (ok, maybe a little bit of the latter). I just want to point out that our daily or weekly lives can be full of all sorts of fun, productivity, healthfulness, and meaning. I grow disappointed when I hear someone say that they don’t have the time to read this book or try that new activity, or even worse, not take care of themselves. The true disappointment, however, is on the individual, because he or she will miss out on living an extraordinary life that spans into the everyday. Make the time, be awesome!
As those who know me know, I’ve become pretty much impossible to get a hold of by nearly any means of instant communication. This might come as a shock, as it rides against the convention of our always on, always accessible culture. This isn’t a matter of disregard or a lack of consideration for others. It’s actually the opposite – by using these communication tools this way, I’m free to provide my full attention to the experience at hand, and the people I’m with.
We have so many technologies that allow us instant communication – phone calls, texting, emails, instant messages, and video chat. It’s not that I’ve stopped using them – in fact, I have access to all of them on my app-phone, a device that I almost always have with me. But I keep my phone on silent most of the time – it’s only allowed to get my attention when I’m expecting an important call or message. So for the most part, phone calls, text messages, and instant messages are used in a delayed response fashion (this goes doubly so for emails, where notifications are turned off altogether).
I do check on up on messages, but the interval varies immensely. If I’ve got some dead time while walking somewhere, or waiting for code to compile at work, or actually using my communication device to do some light reading, I’ll take a look and triage or reply to messages. But if I’m out doing stuff like skating around the city or spending time with friends, or if I’m in the middle of a coding spree at work, it could be hours before I check on messages.
Now this seems like quite a bit of inconvenience, for me in that I may miss important or urgent messages, and for others that are trying to reach me. But there’s two major points that ameliorate this concern. The first is that messages are hardly as urgent as they seem – many of them can be replied to later. Likewise, many seemingly urgent messages are artificially urgent, often due to a lack of foresight in planning. For many folks I interact with, this isn’t a problem [anymore] because they know to mention things to me early and not at the last minute if they wish to get a response. I find that this actually helps to make everyone’s plans more consistent.
The second and more outstanding point is that by ignoring my phone, I’m allowed to achieve flow, a mental state of intense focus, efficiency, and enjoyability. This is something we induced constantly in karate class, where we took the time to meditate at the beginning of every class. This served to put us in a mindset where nothing else mattered in the world outside of the dojo: any concern or problem was irrelevant and the training before us was the only thing we were to have in mind. In a pragmatic sense, this held very true, and this intense focus was necessary to push our minds and bodies to new levels. At the end of our training sessions, we meditated once more to prep our minds to return to the real world. This tenet in karate to train only with an absolutely focused mind applies to most other aspects of life – when engaged work, play, learning, and with other people. I experience an enormous sense of liberation when I’m in such a state of mind – that there’s only one thing that I have concentrate on.
Fittingly, I feel most connected with the experience at hand when I’m disconnected from everything else – the benefits are incredible: At work, it permits me to engineer a solution to some complex and mentally demanding problem. When reading, it allows my mind to drift into that of the author, where our ideas mingle to form new ones. When writing, it means i can surface the months or years of experience and learning into a concise article, like this very one you’re reading.
Being inaccessible to others for the sake of the above examples seems to come off as a selfish act. But the application for flow applies when engaged with people because it imbues that one is completely accessible. At work, this means I can devote my full attention to answer a coworker’s question. When out roller blading, it means I can push my friends harder while minding the roads for hazards. When with friends and family, it means I can listen to their thoughts and ideas and make for a meaningful conversation. You can’t put a value on giving a person your full attention.
This manner of using [and ignoring] communication technology has come through a lot of mindful experimenting and observation. In the process, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even offended a few people. But I’ve come out with a strong sense of how to make the best of these tools, gaining the ways to connect using new technologies while keeping intact the more sacred connections of here and now. I suggest trying your own experiment with this. Evaluate how you use phone or emails. You might find a life more focused on the things that matter most.
It’s rare to come across something that touches the very fabric of our existence in such profound ways – it’s mesmerizing. So it is the case with What Technology Wants, by Kevin Kelly. In one of the most insightful books I’ve ever read, Kevin Kelly weaves together thoughts on the journey of technology (which as a whole, he calls the technium) and ties it in with all other parts of life, the universe, and everything (quite literally). This is of course through a broad interpretation of the definition of technology, going beyond just gizmos – to inventions and knowledge. It’s quite similar to the a crucial perspective I take on this blog and hence I welcome this understanding. With this, Kelly connects technology with the very birth of the universe and the increasing complexity that has emerged from the universe itself – from simple hydrogen atoms to energy-dense microprocessors. He likens technology to a sort of unstoppable force and considers it another kingdom of life. As strange as that seems, it’s very plausible in my eyes. His incredible comparisons between technology and evolution fit well in presenting such arguments – these comparisons are so thoughtful that I felt my deep background in evolution was strengthened with his discussion (and there is no question that he blew away my understanding of technology).
Kelly reconciles two opposing concepts – ordained-ness and free will – in an a strangely convincing manner. He states that technology, to elaborate that it’s an unstoppable force, builds upon itself and that its agents (we humans) inevitably bring it to greater life. This is the basis for his explanation of why similar ideas and invention seem to appear simultaneously from different areas of our globe. He shows that such convergent “evolution” is very much the regular case in the technium as it is in the [other] kingdoms of life. At the same time, he assesses the free will of technology and goes down to the very level of the seeming free will that appears in the random noise of subatomic particles.
There is a practical element to Kelly’s discussion as well. Kelly provides a framework by which to consider technology – new and old – providing guidance as the world around us is increasingly transformed by technology. For example, because he believes that the emergence of any technology cannot be indefinitely thwarted, he presents some rules on how to approach any technology in a manner that beneficial for the global human community. He discusses such rules in the seemingly extreme case of the Amish. Interestingly, many groups of Amish are not quite the luddites we typically perceive them to be. Rather, they’re extremely mindful of the technology they use: they take care to consider the potential community problems arising from inventions and often experiment and observe with a small adoption – one can’t help but respect such mindfulness. (In fact, this discussion is so striking that I suggest that you check out Kevin Kelly’s blog post on it.)
There are a couple of points where Kelly is off. Well, not quite off, but rather he’s missing a level. For example, he states that advances in human communication – such as the inventions of language and writing – were the cause of our uniquely human power. Based on the research of folks I work with, these communication technologies were instead a consequence of a more precise cause of our rise to dominating the planet – solving the conflict of interest problem on larger scales thus facilitating greater level of human cooperation. This Human Uniqueness Theory that I work with does well to explain the Behavioral Modern Revolution of 40,000 years ago and the Neolithic revolution of 10,000 years ago, among our other technological revolutions that Kelly mentions. It’s understandable why one would assume that communication tools were the catalyst for human advancement, especially given how closely they relate to our uniquely human trick of cooperating on large scales to do incredible things. Still despite these minor details, Kelly’s insights are very telling and completely appropriate.
As someone entrenched in technological and humanistic disciplines, I’ve had a real pleasure reading this book. Some of Kelly’s thoughts are sure to raise a few eyebrows, but it seems he accomplishes his goal to get us to step back and think over the technology our lives are intertwined with. At the very least, you’ll see how thoroughly he has put together his thoughts, and so eloquently too. I recommend this engaging book deeply to anyone with an interest in technology and to anyone that wishes to learn more about the world around them. I especially encourage those in technological fields to consider Kelly’s points.
If you know something to be dangerous, then you can prepare for it. You can take steps to account for the danger. You can be ready to take it on or brace for it. In a way, the danger is no longer so dangerous.
But if the danger is neither seen nor expected, it can blindside you. Even something minor, if not accounted for can trip you up or even set off a chain reaction. We should take care to be as aware of all dangers, however minor, and intelligently prepare.
Foresight can be a great asset. Understanding the manner by which problems arise helps you take steps to prevent said problems. Often, preventing problems of the future (benefit) does require extra effort (cost) at the present. But it is well worth it because the effort required to deal with a problem if, or when, it crops up is typically much greater than the initial prevention requirements. So keep the future on your mind. Avoid yourself great expense and especially great suffering.
The most obvious application for this is with your own wellbeing. Everything you do every single day plays a role in this. Unfortunately, it is something that many of us need to improve upon.
What are some other places to apply this concept? And what are ways to fight impulses of the present that sabotage the prevention of future problems?