It’s drafty in here: habits make our lives “shorter”?

Back in October there was an article on NPR regarding the nature of time and how we humans have devised so many ways to measure it yet still lose track of it, especially when the measuring is done by arcs, not moments.

arcs collapse time, for they make time, as measured by the ticking of a clock and the turning of pages on the calendar, irrelevant. They organize time, and everything else, according to their own requirements. The baseball player is counting time with pitches and innings; it doesn’t matter how long the game took in minutes and hours. The basketball player measures time in relation to quarters, fouls, time outs, and baskets, and so on.

How do you count time in a marriage? In a career? In a research project? What is the measure of time during an illness? Not seconds, minutes, hours, days.

So now we come to the crux: time goes faster as you get older, but this is because, as a general rule, by the time we are older, we have settled in on the story lines and narrative arcs by which we structure our lives.

As we become more skilled at a sport or job or hobby, it becomes easier to ignore the actual time required to do it. Once it’s rote, once the movements to perform those tasks are as minimal and efficient as we can make them, the less concentration is required. The less we have to concentrate, the easier it is to forget about how much time is actually passing while we’re doing those things.

Now think about everything we might do in a day and how many times we’ll repeat those actions over the course of a day, a week, a year. Think about how much of what we do every day is done because it’s a habit, all these actions, all these behaviours we’ve ceased to concentrate on because we’ve done them so many times before.

I agree with what the author suggests as a way to fix this loss of the sense of time. The best way to make time feel like it’s passing, not passing us by, is to bring new experiences into our lives as much as possible. Doing new and unfamiliar things requires we be more aware of our surroundings and our actions while we do them, which should be preferable to existing as a mindless drone.

But, as the author notes, there’s a caveat:

a habit-free existence — as I wrote last week — isn’t really possible anyway. It would be an existence without expertise, and so a life without language or meaning. It would be a beginner’s life. But the beginner is confined to the little things, to the meaningless exercises and pointless mechanics. The expert, in contrast, sees the big picture; the world opens up before the sweep of the expert’s skills. To give up one’s habits, to break free of the arcs, is to trade in one’s expertise.

You gain time, but you lose sense.

Habits are a curse, but there is no recognizably human form of life without them.

Aye, there’s the rub. I have a job that’s insanely repetitious but my skill and expertise at doing it is nothing I’d trade off. I don’t remember what it was like to be a beginner at it (I was really observant and caught on fast), but I know what a pain in the ass it can be to be a beginner now that I’ve tried training people to do parts of it. What feels obvious and intuitive and automatic to me really, really isn’t when it comes to them doing it. Oh my non-existent god…

And in terms of communication skill, I’m quite glad I got the English language sorted out early so I had time to gain expertise at expressing myself with it. I’d suck buckets trying to explain myself in French with the very little I know of that language.

I guess the key here is to find a balance between the comfortable expertise and the new adventure, whatever it winds up being.

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