There’s Time for Experience

morning train

If there was only one feature that could describe modern technology, it would be in its masterful feat in effectively saving time. It’s amazing to think that there was a day, just over a couple of decades ago, where emails didn’t exist, where you needed to remember to get a camera whenever you wanted to take a picture, when you needed to locate a payphone to make a phone call, when you needed to carry pens and paper with you if you needed to make notes, an actual alarm clock, an actual phone book, and a countless number of other things.

The amount of convenience technology has brought to our lives is incredible. And yet, we are still looking for ways to save time, to save energy, and to find more convenience. We can now shop online for just about anything, and we can watch anything anytime we want without commercials, we can get a glimpse into other people’s lives who are thousands of miles away from us, and we can do all of that without moving an inch, without wasting a single extra second.

And yet, despite the truly amazing progress we have made in terms of efficiency, it seems that we might be missing the bigger picture. Rory Sutherland in an insightful Ted Talk discussed the importance of perspective in our lives. He was discussing how the stress of waiting for a train was solved by not making the train faster, but by putting a countdown clock.

 Waiting seven minutes for a train with a countdown clock is less frustrating and irritating than waiting four minutes, knuckle-biting, going ‘When’s this train going to arrive?Rory Sutherland

His idea was that what irritated people wasn’t the fact that the transportation system needed improving, that trains needed to be faster, or that we can’t wait anymore for the new groundbreaking lightning fast transportation system, it was that we just needed to tweak little things to greatly enhance our everyday experiences.

I think that’s quite an significant point. Many of us are fixated on reducing the time it takes to get to our destination, often spending a considerable amount of time and effort into finding the least time consuming route possible, and to a large extent, we’re not really making ourselves any happier. If anything, we might just be making ourselves more miserable.

I was discussing with a friend of mine a few ideas of how the future might look like, how future inventions may very well make the time we spend waiting to get somewhere, waiting to buy something completely negligible. I expressed how  I was annoyed at the task of grocery shopping as it took an exceptional amount of time, and effort that could be used for something more meaningful. I started to enthusiastically discuss all the innovations that are making live grocery shopping a thing of the past. I imagined it would be truly incredible if we had so much more time to spend on things we loved doing, instead of just waiting for our stop, or walking around aimlessly in a supermarket buying things.

I was, however, promptly interrupted from my enthusiastic musings when he said, “Yeah, but what about the experience? You keep talking about how we’ll have so much more time to spend, but what are we going to spend it doing? Don’t you have moments throughout the day where you don’t really want to work or anything, or that you’re just too exhausted to really think? And wouldn’t it be refreshing to go out to supermarket and just walk around?”

He explained his point further by explaining how much of an experience mundane things can be if we look at them differently. We tend to take them for granted as time-wasting activities but there’s a kind of unique experience that they offer where we couldn’t really get elsewhere. Even travelling in a bus, or train, or waiting for them to come doesn’t have to be seen as a time wasting activity.

When I thought about it and how it applies to me, I realized a couple of things. I didn’t take too much pleasure into picking out items, that to me was still boring and time-consuming, but the second thing I realized was a little less obvious to me.

I realized that almost all of the time I spend alone with my thoughts, without interruption, happen in those mundane, time-consuming, pointless moments. When I’m doing something so boring, and requires minimum mental effort, I start to have thoughts. I think about many different things, and have the rare opportunity to do so peacefully. It’s difficult to sit in front of a laptop, and decide to put it aside and think, to be using your phone and think, to be working on something, socializing, or studying and think. Those rare moments of thought only have any room to happen when I’m just about to sleep, taking a shower, or when I’m commuting by foot, or by car, bus, train, or plane.

This is all really interesting to me because I’m often frustrated by the task of waiting. A long queue in front of me can often put me in a horrible mood for the rest of the day, and what this made me realize is that it would be great if instead of focusing my attention on counting the number of people ahead of me, and trying to figure out how much time each individual takes, and then trying to figure out how much time it would take in total before it’s my turn, it would be a far more rewarding and useful experience if I used that time to just entertain myself with my own thoughts.

Other than trying to change your perspective on the mundane experiences that you need to deal with on a daily basis. Trying to appreciate them as activities that can be enjoyable and interesting, you can purposefully use that time for thinking about absolutely anything, and it seems that such an opportunity will happen even less in the future, so it might be a good idea to try to make the most of it when you can.

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Overwhelming Choices

choice

In a world of large scale production, mass consumerism, and high market competitiveness, the amount of choices we have keep on increasing, but our satisfaction, paradoxically, doesn’t. Typically, the more choice we have, the happier we are because we feel we have more freedom to make a decision that perfectly matches our tastes and preferences.

There are a couple of points I’d like to make about choices, and in particular, food choices. Before I discuss how we can manage choices more efficiently, according to research from the field of Behavioral Economics.

First, imagine you were reincarnated as Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway, and were stranded on an island. After getting over the shock of what had just happened, you begin to instinctively find ways of sustaining your health. You look for water, food, and shelter. With time, you begin to innovate new ways of creating ways of doing those things more efficiently. You might design a clever way of collecting water from leaves after rain fall, you might design and learn to use new weapons to hunt for food or develop better techniques for collecting fruits and vegetables.

You may then look for ways to protect yourself from nature, or sheltering yourself. You may find new ways of creating clothes or building a house (Or live in a cave). You’ve already prioritized what really matters, everything else is irrelevant. Self-preservation is all that matters.

Food choices are the least of your concerns. All you care about is finding anything with nutritional value that would help you survive. The only criteria that you’re using is functionality. It’s how we once lived for a very long time, and now are living in a very different world from the cavemen who we consider our ancestors. At one point, we didn’t care about what kind of food we ate.

We now care what kind of food we’re getting, if it looks fresh enough, how good it tastes, how well it’s packaged, what brand it is, and which store we’re getting it from, and how much we’re going to pay for it, whether it’s good value for money, and how long it will last, how many calories it contains, and how much saturated fat, unsaturated fat, sodium, and sugar it has. Of  course, I’m not suggesting that this is a bad thing in itself, and that we should go back to eating coconuts and fish, and talk to a volleyball. But too much choice is overwhelming, it’s mentally draining, frustrating, and can make us supremely inefficient.

The criteria mentioned above include only some of the things our brains need to calculate, and in reality, we couldn’t possibly calculate with any reasonable accuracy what the most ideal choice would be. Often times, we are so overwhelmed by all this data that we sometimes make no choice at all for fear of making the wrong choice. We always have that dreadful fear of thinking back a few days later, and wishing we had gotten that other one.

This problem of choice can, of course, be extended to several different areas of life, food is only one of them and I think deserves particular attention as I feel it ought to be the least complicated choice we make, but is quite the opposite.  In restaurants, menus often have 7, 8, or 9 categories of food, and every category has about 8 or 9 choices of its own. That’s a range of 49 to 81 choices on what you’re going to consume, for a very short amount of time. Sometimes,  people spend more time choosing what they want to eat than time actually eating. This isn’t because people are indecisive, it’s because there’s simply too much choice. There’s too much data to process to make a confident decision about what you want to eat.

Choosing food should not have to take so much of our time. The simple reason is opportunity cost. The amount of time and energy that we spend on simply choosing what to eat could be effectively used for something much more worthwhile and satisfying.

There are many people who are aware of this, and have devised clever ways of dealing with the problem of choice. Think of how much time you spend choosing what to wear, every single day. Imagine that time were used differently, and that energy was put into other activities. An interesting solution is one used by the president of the U.S. Obama himself has admitted to wearing only grey or blue suits. “You need to focus your decision-making energy,” he told Vanity Fair. “You need to routinize yourself.”

As for buying or ordering food, a smart way of dealing with all this choice chaos is simply by making choices before looking at the menu. Decide if you want meat, chicken or fish, whether you’d like it with vegetables, or without, with cheese or without etc.. Grocery shopping, Clothes shopping, Electronics shopping, or any kind of shopping work the same way.

Once you’ve identified what you want beforehand, you’ve already removed choices you would have had to make in the future. This narrows down your options, and in this case, it’s exactly what you need, that is of course, if what you need is to use your time and energy more efficiently towards other things.

References:

“The Paradox of Choice”, Barry Schwartz

http://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2012/sep/17/barack-obama-secret-weapon-routine