My bad time travel habits

Two books I’ve read in recent months made me acutely aware of my bad time travel habits. I know, it may come as a shock I can travel through time. It most certainly surprised me. You may believe it’s a gift, but it is really more of a curse.

Now, before we go any further, I carry some bad news I really need to share with you: you are likely cursed with the same affliction. I’m quite sure you travel through time as well, and not in a good way. I understand that in order to proof that, I first need to show you that we can travel through time and actually do pretty much all of the time. Let’s go.

Frequent time travel can and will hurt you

But perhaps not in the way you think it may. This time travelling business is not about travelling back in time and accidentally killing your dad resulting in you never being born in the first place. That would be a paradox. Paradoxes are not real. They exist only in your mind. keep that thought on mind and paradoxes for a minute while I explain something else first.

When are you?

Now, I would like to invite you, right now, to think about when you are. Not where you are, but when. Sounds confusing? Let me give you some examples:

I often find myself 5 minutes, a couple of hours or even a couple of days in the future, thinking about what I will be saying to someone, or how I will be dealing with a difficult situation or a reluctant audit client. Rehearsing how I will act in a meeting, and what I will say.

While I may not physically be there, or rather then, for all intents and purposes my mind is. Let’s compare it to a feeling most of us are familiar with. You can drive your car and go through the motions of driving without really being present. Your life is on automatic pilot, while your mind dwells somewhere else. Be honest, how often have you caught yourself doing just that?

Sometimes I find myself back in the past. I am be thinking about what happened in a meeting, or during a discussion, or during the execution of a specific audit activity. And if it was a particularly difficult meeting, I will go through it again and again, considering the reactions of the people present, trying to understand what they meant, chewing over what I said and what I should have, could have said … over and over.

That again illustrates a pretty typical situation in which I am not now but rather back then with most of my mind. What is now is just my body and some of the basic functions that keep me alive. My internal collision avoidance system, so to speak.

Being somewhen else makes sense some of the time

Let me be very clear: none of these actions are bad for me if they occur at the proper place and time. For example, thinking about a presentation and rehearsing it can be a part of preparation. Thinking about what I still need to do for a specific audit may be part of planning. Reflecting on what happened in a meeting yesterday may be done in the context of dealing with my notes and next actions, while I’m working through my backlog. That’s often called processing. In those instances it makes sense to not be now, but somewhen else. But those blocks should be limited. And to most people, they are not.

The transparant sauce pan lid of the mind

The problem is we often fail to give these thoughts and ideas the appropriate time and place to begin with. And of course that does not make them go away. Rather, they tend to bubble up through our minds. Mind is not necessarily the wonderful instrument that most would want you to believe, right?

Our minds are like a transparant lid on a sauce pan in which a sauce is merrily bubbling away. When the sauce is starting to get warm, you can barely make out the surface through the mists of condensation. And then it gets hotter, and hotter, and hotter. You cannot avoid the bubbling of your unconscious, but if you don’t turn down that heat by using a couple of specific techniques, the bubbling will eventually lead to sauce spattered all over the glass lid of your conscious mind. Your mind will react and try to wipe the stains away. It will consider each of the stains. It drifts off to somewhen else. And if the heat is particularly high, there’s going to be a lot of spatter. Lots and lots of reasons to be somewhen else.

Being in the zone

It is not all negative. You, like me, have periods when you are now. Those are the periods of deep, concentrated production. The moments you are “in the zone”.

For me, for example, I get in the zone when I am writing, like I am now. I have my notes, I have what is in my head, and I write. I also am now when I teach. I’ve taught classes when I didn’t even notice how time progressed.

These are the moments you are deeply focused and actively present. You are fully aware and in tune with what you are doing. That can be your text, or your class. There is no sensed passage of time, there is just now. There is no consideration of things outside of my awareness. There is just what I feel, which can be a group of people or a concept I am trying to catch into a set of words. It may even be something entirely different.

We’re learning to ride horses. It’s a fun family activity. While initially there was a certain apprehension – horses are very big up close – I’ve been relaxing into it, becoming somewhat aware of the fact that there was a silent participant in all of this, the horse. By the way, it’s a she, and she’s called Fox. Last weekend, I fell off. I did. Actually, entirely through my own stupidity, I was more or less catapulted off when learning to properly gallop. Now, I had been very focused on things going on around me, especially behind me, where my wife and kids were riding and where there were discussions going on (my kids are rather vocal) … and then suddenly I was now, in the dirt, after having flown a couple of feet. I got back up on the horse … and became very aware of how she had become scared by what had just happened. I could feel, really feel her insecurity. What then happened was the best gallop in my very short career gallopping. Because I was fully and totally there, entirely committed.

Now is the only moment

Now is not a moment. Now is the only moment. All the rest is what we believe was or will be, and it is tainted by mind projecting through very strong filters. Now is when it happens. Only now. All time spent anywhen else but now outside of specifically assigned spaces for such reflection is wasted time.

Techniques to manage the heat

I’m coming back to my sauce pan. We need to control the heat. There are a couple of techniques that assist you in doing that which are relevant here:

One of them is David Allen’s weekly review, to which I’ve added David Sparks’ daily review. These well known GTD practices help you to both look forward and look backwards in time, serving as a very good basis for planning.

About the second technique: I’m always surprised on how much of the sauce splatters I consider during the review actually get discarted. They were noise in my system, things I believe I needed to react to, but really did not have anything to act on or to work with. Still, it would not pay to simply discard these feelings, ideas, frustrations and whatever. That’s why I like journaling so much as a technique. My weapon of choice here is Day One, an excellent Mac and iOS app, but you can use any tool you want. Writing in my journal allows me to consider what happened in the past day, and how I see that figuring in the broader scope of my life.

Constructs of an over active mind

Now, remember those paradoxes that only exist in the mind? The past and the future are constructs of your over active mind as well. Best to dwell on them within the correct context, but not to give them free reign, because they will distract you from the now. When you are in the now, you are no longer aware of time. Ask any athlete that is operating at peak performance … but also look at yourself when you are at your best.

And now is the only moment you have to do something, to produce something, to do the work. Spend as much as you can in the now. So get to it. Now.