‘Trying to learn new stuff every day and surprising yourself slows time down a bit,’ said Prof. Hugh Montgomery in a recent interview. Well he should know. As his interviewer noted, aside from the ‘day job’ as chair of Intensive Care Medicine at University College London and a practising clinician specialising in genetic research, Montgomery is an ultramarathons runner (that’s over 50km at a time, I believe), skydiver, world record holder for playing the piano underwater (110 hours). He also has a family, and sets out to learn a new skill every year – not, say, juggling with three balls or sketching a still-life in charcoal, no, but learning the guitar, undertaking a triathlon, or mastering the concepts of Particle Physics, for example. Oh, and he’s just published his first novel (in addition to research-based writings), a medical thriller called Control. Because he enjoys all of this – and, significantly, because he’s highly aware of the brevity of life. ‘New experiences make things seem to run slower’, he points out, ‘… Trying to learn new stuff every day and surprising yourself slows time down a bit.’
Some people really do make you wonder what you’ve been doing with your time…
And if novelty is the hero answer to slowing down time, then routine, of course, is the enemy. Routine makes time go faster, whilst unique and notable events slow it down.’
Do something different every day, we are advised. Shake up the mundane, create interest and novelty, don’t just let the days fly by in the same old way. And it is true that when you’re on autopilot, you sometimes find it hard to explain where the time went, at the end of a working day, of a commute, or an evening of vegging in front of the TV.
The idea, as I understand it, is that monotonous routine means you’re not learning anything — one of the reasons time seems ‘slower’ when we’re young, there is so much novelty, every day. And when you’re not learning anything, you’re not developing, not taking risks. And become what? An automaton? Also that doing something new makes you see yourself in a different way, challenging your ‘normal’ state of mind and perception.
Except. At the moment, I am yearning for routine. After the summer, the kids on their long vacation, going away on holiday, more than the usual number of days off… I am usually settled back into routine by now. But it’s still all in the air. The job situation that won’t get any better, is irretrievably toxic, and my (so far unproductive) attempts to move on. Various family crises, a funeral. The hideous political situation here in UK that makes us all feel on a knife edge, at once afraid to look at the latest news, yet unable also to pull away from it.
One of the casualties of all this is writing. Creatively, I have written almost nothing, ideas desiccating like unwatered seedlings; neglecting my blog, and not reading enough of others’ — on of the things I particularly enjoy, ordinarily.
It is oft quoted, ‘we are creatures of habit.’ And there are some benefits: routine can help you manage your time — and also to ensure that you make time for some of those things you want to do. In turn, it brings repetition, which aids improvement. Most of all, for me right now, certainty and regular patterns can help relieve anxiety.
So yes, I see the virtue in trying something new, in change, not getting stuck in ruts, only right now, I crave a bit more predictability. Hiding out in my comfort zone, if you will — just for a bit. I use the word ‘brace’ in the title of this post as in reinforce, make stronger.
‘Routine is a ground to stand on, a wall to retreat to; we cannot draw on our boots without bracing ourselves against it.’ – Henry David Thoreau.
Emma Beddington, ‘Physician, ultrarunner, thriller writer … meet the man who lives life to the full’ in The Guardian, 17 August 2019 retrieved 29 September 2019.
Photos Messala Cuilla on Unsplash
and Maria Zeigler on Unsplash