Time is the stuff of everyday life: quite literally.
It is the thread our lives are woven with. As writer Annie Dillard said: “how we spend our days is how we spend our lives”. And it doesn’t end there either: how we spend our hours is how we spend our days, and so on. Yet though it is the stuff of every day, if you stop to think about what time is, or how you experience it, it is obvious that time is anything but ordinary.
Not all time is the same. We all know the feeling of days that drag and others that fly by. This is true at every level of scale. Seconds, minutes, hours, days, months or years are all elastic, mutable, variegated. Five minutes eating ice cream feels very different from five minutes in the dentist’s chair (though one may lead to the other).
Time can expand or contract. It has dimensions and qualities - of depth or intensity - that transcend mere duration. A few seconds looking into someone’s eyes last an age – they can hold the vastness and complexity of all that you feel for them.
Mishaps or accidents unfold in slow motion. As the car skids on the ice, there is time, somehow, to think about the physics of bridges and realise they are cooled from below, so that braking was a mistake. In the midst of the spin, I find myself coolly assessing the chances that someone is coming the other way at this time of night in a snowstorm, yet there is still time for distraction - to worry about how embarrassing this will be and how I am going to explain my error. I also consider the week ahead, and start to sketch out plans for how I will cope with any injury I might be about to suffer: all whilst in the grip of heart pumping fear and fervent activity as I wrestle at the wheel of two tons of Swedish metal. All told, probably about seven seconds. By contrast whole days, weeks, months or even years can slip by, unnoticed, leaving barely a trace.
Time is different for each of us, depending on who you are. The days that drag for me may fly by for you: or vice versa. Five minutes eating ice cream (or at the dentist) will feel very different if you are lactose intolerant (or a dentist).
The year of 2020 is a vivid example. It is the strangest of years, profoundly different to any of the fifty or so I can remember. On the one hand it feels slow, heavy and dense – almost suffocating. Events that pre-date the pandemic feel as if they are from another life – “The Before” as it has been dubbed.
And yet, simultaneously, I have found myself (and the projects I am engaged in) whizzing along at breakneck speed. In a few short months I have conceived of, created, tested, launched and developed a whole new way of earning a living called Yellow Learning. This has meant jettisoning long held assumptions and beliefs, learning new skills, taking decisions quickly and working in ways I could not have imagined only a year ago.
As a result the patterns of my life have changed significantly in only a few months. Yet for my children – who are aged between eighteen and twenty three – the year of 2020 means something completely different. I cannot begin to imagine how it feels to them, even though we have spent most of it together.
So time, as we experience it, is elusive and elastic. It is particular and peculiar. Yet we often talk or act as if it were ‘absolute, objective and true’. Treating time as though it were a uniform, stable, material commodity may be useful for the calculations of Newtonian mechanics, but it doesn’t mesh with our own experience. In his book ‘The Secret Pulse of Time’ Stefan Klein suggests that: “by giving more life to our time, we give more time to our life”. Which is a tantalising prospect. The question is, how might we do that?
One response, which I have explored at some length in a book of my own, is to pause. At its simplest, the idea is simply to make pause ‘a thing’. This is so obvious that it sounds stupid - but if you can hold off on leaping to judgement (i.e. if you can pause for a moment) you might find that there is more to it than meets the eye.
For example, if I ask you how long is a pause, what would you say? Since a pause is not a single, defined period of time, you are obliged to think for yourself. Which means that to make pause a ‘thing’, you first have to pause to think about what kind of thing it might be for you. Which is rather satisfying: pausing begets itself.
So what is a pause for you? Is it a few seconds here or there - a moment you take whilst reading this to think about what I have said, or notice your reaction to it? Is it an hour or two spent in the garden pottering about? A screen-free Saturday? A weekend away (or at home)?
Or might it be, as it was for Bill Gates, a “think week” holed up in a cabin in the woods? A sabbatical year is also a pause and they are no longer the sole preserve of academics. New York designer Stefan Sagmeister closes his business for a year once every seven years, reinventing it upon his return.
Perhaps, for you, it is all of these? Or none of them? No-one can tell you - you get to decide for yourself. Making pause ‘a thing’ invites you to think about when, where, how and why you pause. Or why you don’t. Or when, where, how and why you could pause? Or how you could amplify, commit to, or modulate the pauses that are already there.
This is helpful, because where you put your pauses, or how long you hold them for, gives shape to your time and your life. Shifting the pattern, over long periods or short ones, with pauses that might be anything from a few seconds to a few months or more, changes how you feel and what you are capable of. So this simple idea obliges you to ask yourself some good questions - about how you are spending your time, what you want from it, and how else you might act. This invites you to think about your own role in creating the experience of the time that you have – it gives you agency.
It takes only a few moments to realise that there is a lot in a pause. Once you have done so, you could happily play around with the idea for the rest of your life, trying out new possibilities or practices as your life twists and turns, and your needs and interests change or shift. So a short time can also be a long time.
My friend Edward Espe Brown, who is a zen priest and a cooking author, says ‘we need more cooks and less recipes’. Whilst ‘make pause a thing’ might sound like a recipe for how to spend your time, it is really an invitation to become a cook. And there are plenty of ingredients to work with.
As well as being short or long, pauses can be regular or spontaneous, planned or improvised, solitary or collective. There are also plenty of different reasons to pause and benefits of doing so.
For example, you might want to pause for yourself – to disconnect and create a space for introspection, reflection or contemplation. That doesn’t mean you need to go to the mountains to seek enlightenment (though you might) - it could be just a few minutes. I spoke to one CEO who, at the end of every day, would ‘Take Five’ (a homage to the Dave Brubeck track). He would shut his office door and allow himself five minutes alone to do nothing in particular.
There was no recipe for what he did with that time. He might look back over the day he had just had, anticipate something that was coming up, or simply daydream. What made this time different from the rest of his day was precisely that - it was open and undirected. He would allow it to be, or become, whatever was appropriate in that moment. His purpose in doing this was ‘to leave work stuff at work’ and it acted as a buffer or transition between work and home.
Where might you open up a little space for yourself? That might be as short as a single, slow breath at your desk, to feel your feet on the floor. If you were a bit more ambitious you could allow yourself the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee or tea and to do so without answering emails, scrolling through your phone, or chatting to someone. You might focus on the warmth and taste of the drink, or on how you feel, or just allow your mind to wander.
What about choosing a song you love and listening to it (through headphones) every now and then as a brief respite from the tasks that assail you? Just drink in the music feeling how it affects you, or listen out for something you have never heard in that song before. You could combine both these ideas and drink in the music and the coffee at the same time. You could even dance (like no-one is looking – even if they are). That would shake up both you and your day.
Fewer people commute these days, but if you do, you could take that time for yourself and choose not fill it with anything. Instead of trying to learn a new language, listen to music, catch up on work or anaesthetise yourself with games, just allow yourself to be. You might discover something.
During lockdown a couple of my friends recreated their commute. They missed that ‘in between’ space so they got playful with the idea. Nick, who works in his garden shed, takes some of the time he used to spend on a train into London to read for pleasure. He gets half an hour with his nose in a book and still arrives at ‘work’ half an hour earlier than he used to (since his commute was an hour or more).
James has gone further (as it were). In his shed he has a turbo trainer, so he ‘cycles’ to work, following the route he would take across London in his mind as he pedals. Commuting at home is no guarantee of punctuality though. Not long ago James changed jobs. One day he mistakenly headed off, in his mind, (in his shed) to Whitehall instead of Canary Wharf. He found he couldn’t just ‘cut’ to the new route, and had to ‘retrace his steps’ so he ‘arrived’ late for work!
Transitions and thresholds are useful triggers for pausing. The meditation hall in a zen monastery has a low wooden bar across the door, so that as you enter you have to pause and step over it. The bar is there to stop you and give you a moment to notice what mood you are in as you enter. For the same reason I often encourage people to stop and count to one before they enter a room. Even the briefest of pauses can change things.
I could go on. There are many different habits you can cook up, or bake into your routine that leaven the day, or the week. In those little spaces all sorts of things might arise. A pause isn’t just about contemplation. You might have a new idea. Or see things afresh. Or remember something. Leaving space also allows room for others to connect with you. It might allow them to bring you something, or ask you a question, or pay you a compliment.
Beyond the habits and routines, you can also consider how to change the deeper rhythms of your life and deliberately design in pauses with larger scope. This is where Bill Gates’ ‘Think Week’ fits in. Every two years he would spend a week in a remote cabin in the woods. He would disconnect from all communication and read material that was nothing to do with immediate business. Such periods allow you to reconsider priorities and to ask bigger, deeper questions. They encourage you to think what my Oxford colleague, Tracey Camilleri, calls ‘long thoughts’. For Bill Gates (and Microsoft), strategic changes of direction were often the result of these pauses. In a similar way, a weekend Reading Retreat I organised played just that role for a number of its participants, becoming an annual ritual, with anticipation leading up to it and synthesis following it, giving shape to a year.
Ultimately, as habits and design inform each other, making pause ‘a thing’ can become part of your personal culture. I live in Spain and have integrated the siesta into my life with an enthusiasm and commitment that my (Spanish) wife feels is wholly inappropriate for someone born in England. However, to my mind this is as much about immersing yourself in a rural culture, where people move at a different pace, as it is about nationality. Where I live, the locals constantly and unconsciously remind me that the need I feel to hurry is something within me, that I create for myself, not something that is necessary to my existence. If you are the company you keep, considering or changing who you spend time around - old or young, urban or rural - can be a surefire way of shifting the rhythms that you work and play by and creating a personal culture that has pauses woven into it.
In the end you will have to pause anyway. A constant, incessant, invariant rhythm is effective for a machine, but unhealthy for living beings. Even single cell organisms have rhythms that ebb and flow. Cardiologists regard a completely regular, metronomic heartbeat as a sign of concern, not a signal of health.
It may be difficult to do, but if you don’t find your own way to make pause a thing, life has a way of doing it for you. You crash, or burn out. The joy of making pause a thing, is that it gives you something to play around with, in your own way, in your own time, for as long, or as short as you like. It is a very simple idea, but one that is worth spending a little time with.