I began writing this on a flight to London, a few weeks back. My computer was wedged on the tray table in front of me and the sun was going down as we flew across what I suspected to be the Netherlands.
The last rays of daylight were tinting the cabin in a warm, golden light; and since the plane was traveling Westwards, the sun appeared stuck, constantly on the brink of fully disappearing on the horizon. Each time you thought it would disappear, the plane would catch up, resulting in an abnormally long sunset.
The abundance of sunshine on that day coupled with the humming of the engines were – of course – a far cry from normal workdays. Typically, I would have spend this time of the day at the dark office, possibly catching a glimpse of light when sneaking out for a cup of coffee. Still, the afternoon on that airplane felt infinitely longer than that.
Most of us have witnessed the elasticity of time before: Ten minutes can feel like an hour when spent waiting for time to pass or when being surprised. Particularly the unexpected gives our minds more information to process, more impressions to record, all with the element of surprise on top. With the right circumstances, seconds can feel like minutes
A while ago, I read an article about routine that I have been mulling over ever since. It talked about the neurological processes underpinning everyday life and mentioned – among other findings – that one of the hardest tasks for the human brain was to depart from any kind of routine. Unfortunately I can no longer seem to find the article, but I remember it explaining that our brains cling to established patters in order to facilitate dealing with the unknown; favoring the familiar to the unfamiliar alternatives.
This explanation of course makes empirical sense: We are hard-wired to trust what we know and fear the unknown. Familiarity gives us a sense of peace by structuring our days and focusing our attention on what is appears crucial. Always taking the same route to work is as boring as it is effective; the most important part is getting there on time. A day full of work, people and ideas can appear complex – a routine helps us manage the workload by eliminating the element of chance that can cause the unfamiliar.
Routine often entails repetition, which beats the anxiety of doing something new. There is a drawback though: A routine limits our possibilities since it focuses our vision to the established patterns. In that sense, it is the very antidote to serendipity.
This is where the real paradox comes in: Most of us love doing new things. The trouble seems to be that we don’t normally plan them, partially because what normally appears coincidental (such as spending an afternoon on a plane at just the right time) seems difficult to arrange. It is easier to stick to the routine and deal with whatever little surprise arises along the way.
On an episode of the CBC’s WireTap, Jonathan Goldstein interviews a man who has taken on this paradox by having scheduled a new activity for each day of a month. At the end of the experiment, he concludes that doing so has made the month feel amazingly much longer. At the same time, his guesses as to how long each activity took were completely off. The new and unfamiliar made everything seem to last much longer. Elasticity of time strikes again.
Days can sometimes appear short and we are forever struggling to find time for just about anything. I wonder if deliberately disrupting our routine can create that effect – by engineering surprises, if you will.
In a completely unrelated video about photography, an artist talks about how taking regular snapshots has improved his work: He had surrendered some of his creative process to serendipity – something most people said they had no time for. He responds:
“It can be achieved on a daily basis, it can be achieved by a long walk every day, with a camera. Whatever it is that you can do in a day, whatever it is you can do to create and separate from your normal routine, you will be rewarded.”
It strikes me now that I have been so busy trying to finding the right routine, the one definitive blueprint for each day, that I might have missed seeing what he allures to: The best routine is not to have any. And to rather than figure out a routine, it makes much more sense to find the time to be surprised by chance.