Wanting to escape the present

I was a huge ZenHabits fan back in high school when he was more habits and less zen. I don’t really follow it these days, but I just happened upon this recent post and found it resonated a lot.

Something I forget a lot, and have to remind myself about a lot: I’m not on my way somewhere.

This moment isn’t just a stepping stone to get to another place. It’s the destination. I’m already here.

I’m not on my way to a more important moment. This current moment is the most important moment.

I’m familiar with the experience of wanting time to move faster because some future event seems better than the present… and I’ve been trying for awhile to figure out how much sense that actually makes.

Why might you want time to move faster?

I mean, the short answer is that the future seems better than the present. This seems to apply really broadly: students who dislike school find themselves wishing they could just fast-forward a few years. On the other end of the spectrum, someone being tortured would also like to fast-forward out of the experience. (This post is aimed towards the boredom thing, not the torture thing.)

But you can’t fast-forward. Especially not in acute situations where you’re already in them. Outside of that, well, you can distract yourself, or even intoxicate yourself, such that you don’t really notice what’s going on as time passes. You can even simply sleep longer—the classic technique known as “make Santa come sooner”.

But if I’m sitting in a boring meeting or meal, I basically can’t fast-forward. And yet I want to. Why?

In particular, why is it associated with such discomfort?

Model 1: costly precommitment against doing boring things

Nate Soares has written about how feeling guilt isn’t really helpful. What’s helpful is that if you know you’ll feel guilt when you do certain “bad” things, then that can potentially stop you from doing the things. But if you’re doing the bad things and feeling guilty anyway, then you’ve got the worst of both worlds.

So maybe this kind of boredom is aversive because even though I can’t escape from the situation itself, knowing that I’ll feel it becomes a deterrent against me getting myself in a similar situation in the future.

Needless to say, like guilt, modern adults are systemically bad at avoiding boredom.

Model 2: sometimes it works

Some meetings or dinners are escapable. If I’m at one such event, against my own interest, my boredom module can be really effective at getting me to either leave the event or cause it to end sooner than it might otherwise. And given the social costs or whatever, if I didn’t experience that discomfort, I might not bother to actually leave.

…but neither this nor Hypothesis 1 quite explain it. They cover why I might feel discomfort, but not why I would feel this bizarre drive to skip ahead in the timeline.

Model 3: we’re not adapted for meetings with schedules

Our brains and their time-processing and basic feelings like boredom evolved in a context without clocks. There were probably very few events that were terminated at some specific future time that was unaffected by a participant’s desires or actions. So we evolved a desire to make-the-end-of-things-come-sooner, and it was a drive that made sense.

Fast forward (ha) to today, and consider a man in a meeting of managers, mindlessly minding the minutes. He has that same prehistoric drive to have the meeting end sooner, but it’s scheduled to go til noon, and… it’s only 11:08. So the only way for the meeting to end sooner, experientially, is for this poor soul to skip straight from 11:09 to 11:59.

So there’s an explanation, though not a justification.

Thought experiment: would I push a button, in the moment, to actually just blank out for an hour?

Another way to test the extent to which this drive makes sense is to imagine what I would do if I could actually use it. When I imagine this experiment, I feel like I wouldn’t really do it. It seems like asking to die an hour sooner, and I think I’d trade an hour of boredom for an hour of nothing. I strongly suspect that people being tortured or otherwise experiencing extreme sensory or mental overwhelm would take this option though.

But for boredom, it feels like the hour is just too salvageable for this to be worth it.

Thought experiment: would I later want to take a pill to forget the last hour?

Here’s a slightly modified option. In this one, I live through the experience like normal, but then after the fact I take a pill which just totally blanks out my memory of what happened.

This one I might take? Although not so much to escape the boredom as to make life more surreal for my future self by setting in motion plans that I’ll have no memory of causing. Which would of course make the next hour rather interesting, as I’d have to make up a new plan so that it wouldn’t be something I had already thought of.

A practical model: be more creative / curious / present

That last point suggests another hypothesis, which is that if I approached the situation with a different mindset, then I wouldn’t be bored and wouldn’t want to fast-forward. This doesn’t itself explain why the impulse is of a fast-forwardy nature, but it does generate suggestions for how to respond to these situations, which is actually more useful.

I think that one driving factor in the bored mindset is a background sense of entitlement to the external world being interesting. “I want stimulation, and if I don’t get it, I want out,” says this mind module.

I remember learning about the ideas of mindfulness and presence from Eckhart Tolle’s books when I was maybe 16. One interesting effect of this was that I now had the idea that there was a thing I could do that one might call “meditating” and that I could do it almost anywhere and any time, and that it was worth doing. So when, once, I found myself in a theater watching a horror movie that was totally not my jam, I walked out (Fight the sunk cost fallacy!) and just sat on a bench and meditated while watching the sunset. For like an hour. It was great. (My friends who stayed in the movie said it turned out to be really dumb.)

So, as Leo Babauta of ZenHabits suggests in the post that prompted this one, you can escape this escapism by becoming present to the experience.

There are other ways, too, that are more creative. You can make the experience into a game. Is there a word you’re trying to eliminate from your speech? Listen to see if you can hear anyone else saying it. Notice how they seem to be thinking about the word. Or, just pay attention to people’s body language, and see if there’s anything you can learn about them (or about body language) from that. Pretend to be someone else. What would your mom think of this conversation? What would Barack Obama think? What does the person sitting next to you think? How sure are you? Or you could even just deliberately think about something totally unrelated.

I’ve only personally tried some of these, but the point is that to the extent that you can direct your attention (and mindfulness helps with this too) you can find yourself lots to be interested in. This is just a list I came up with right now.

The key is to notice this impulse to escape into the future. Noticing is a necessary precursor to responding. I hope this post has crystallized the concept of the fast-forward urge a bit clearer, so that it’ll be more readily noticeable and act-on-able, both for you and for me!

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About Malcolm

Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace. Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.

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