Time’s First Principles

A little more than a year ago, I started this newsletter with the idea that I’d sit in the early morning darkness of my home office once a week and write something. I’d just write it. Ideally, with no fussing — no hesitation, no outlining, no backspacing — just one-directional, unartificial writing. Web-logging like the old days of yore.

Some weeks, it’s like that. But most of the time, it isn’t. Most of the time, it’s bits of text added here and there to a .txt in Dropbox from my machine arsenal, at home and the office and coffee shops and hotels and airports and conferences and even spoken into my phone while stuck in traffic in my car. Like this one, which I actually dictated into Google Keep thanks to the wonders of the natural language processing technology which, I believe, will someday free us from the tyranny of the screen. But then, those bits get formed together and, believe it or not, edited. Not expertly, by any means, but I do go back over them, rereading and restructuring and rewording until I feel like they’re ready. I only point this out to correct a mistaken impression that many readers have that I just effortlessly write this stuff. I know this from many replies I’ve gotten from many of you over the past year, most recently in the thousand-word “Dear John” I received just this morning from a kind reader who needs to stop reading email for a while and felt badly that quitting his newsletter addiction cold-turkey would also mean missing out on Don’t Think About the Future. He wrote,

“What you share is very valuable. I really like your style, in fact I even envy you a little bit if the easiness of seamlessly blending grand themes with the everyday. I’d had a lot of fun and inspiration staying on your list. But I can’t. Thank you for the time together.”

I’m glad it’s been of value, and I’m glad that it’s been an inspiration. But I can assure you that there’s been little ease to it; I even labor over the lousy letters. Someday, I hope to get there, where I can just write these things and just send them and just know that they sound like me and that’s all that matters. I’m trying that out right now, by the way. There’s no outline here, no map, no plan for what this letter is going to be about, no backspacing or fussing. I’m trying to just go forward. I did that once before in a 2,100-word rant about AI that was a fun experiment in there is no [Delete] there is only [Send]. But as I recall, that one resulted in a pronounced hemorrhaging of subscribers, and so my people-pleasing and vanity backslid me in to fussy essays about advertising and perceiving the machine, like this and this. But what do the data say? They say that you all liked this one the best, because 60% of you read it. That’s a roughly 10% jump in what’s normal — typically, it seems like 50-ish percent of you end up reading the letters I send — if the data are to be trusted (and of course, there are good reasons that email marketers know all about to doubt the reliability of open rates and the like). So, why? Maybe it’s because the subject line was, for once, the same as the newsletter itself: Don’t Think About the Future. It was my self-titled album. Maybe it’s because it was a guided meditation and a lot of you are west-coast new agers. Kidding. But seriously, a lot of you are, and I like that. But maybe it’s because you, like me, think a lot about time, and wonder why it speeds up so and why it’s so precious and why technology is its kryptonite. I wrote:

“Think about the now. Think in moments. Small, bits of time. How they feel. Then think about stretching them out. Every second. Grab a hold of them and pull. Stretch them until they blend, one into another. Slowwwww things down. It makes life last longer. We are not very good at that, and time is ever more precious to us, isn’t it? That’s why I chose this odd name, Don’t Think About the Future. It’s something we need to get better at. Our futures depend upon it.”

You know, in the 126,370-odd words I’ve written to you in the last year, time has been invoked almost 600 times. That’s not quite 1%, but time is a rich word. It’s an iceberg noun; it sits atop an enormous, swelling mass of meaning. And so, when the majority of those 126,370 words were mechanical — the cogs and switches and fasteners of the and is and it, 600 times means something. Because we labor and toil and all the while, we yearn for more time to stare through the the trappings of this world that envelop us in a permanent haze of confusion and find the meaning of it all. Why we are here. What we are working for. Because we are all working for different futures, and we just want something real to happen.

That’s one reason I took a sabbatical. To get some distance from the noise that my day to day routine had so voluminously produced. To defrag my life. To slow down time a bit. To remaster it, so that when I go back to work, I will use it more wisely. Of the many lovely experiences and epiphanies that have come from the last four weeks, may that one be the greatest: That Time can be an ally — not an enemy — of life. Though output and achievement were the opposite of my intent for this time away, everyone asks me what I’ve done with it. What am I doing? Am I making anything? Not much, and no, not really. Ah, the disappointment that can’t be hidden from faces when they hear that. Oh well. But I’ve also not done a good job of fully answering those questions, either. The real answer, clear to me now as I reflect upon my sabbatical on this, its last day, is that I’ve spent my time in seven different ways:

  • thoughtful time
  • practical time
  • relational
  • physical time
  • whimsical time
  • educational time
  • professional time

Thoughtful time has been time I’ve spent practicing meditation, taking walks (without earbuds or phone and often with dog), and writing (with a pen in a journal). Practical time has been filled with projects around the house that I hadn’t gotten to before, with cleaning and organizing and taking care of our animals, and cooking. I could easily make a case for how practical time is really just thoughtful time in disguise; while your critical mind is distracted by mundane labor, the rest of it can work in deep and unexpected ways. Relational time has been spent being with, thinking about, and serving the people I care about. Physical time has meant trying new things to rescue my daily exercise routine of the last decade from monotony. I can report success there. Whimsical time, in the words of a friend of mine, has been time spent doing things that are “un-Chris.” Which, honestly, have been very few, other than, of course, taking this sabbatical itself. I haven’t done many especially un-Chris things, which I’d say are things like jumping out of planes or sleeping in the woods or shooting guns or trekking deserts. I haven’t done anything like that. I’ve stayed put. But, I’ve done things like left my house without a purpose or destination and gone where my impulse has taken me. I’ve had spontaneous lunches and walks with friends. Afternoons at museums. That sort of thing. So not exactly Wonka-levels of whimsy, but things done on a whim, which is enough to break the mold of how I typically spend a day, and that’s enough for me. Educational time has been spent reading books, listening to podcasts and watching the occasional talk online. On that note, I’ll recommend a couple of books — What the Dormouse Said, by John Markoff and Last and First Men, by Olaf Stapledon — and a few talks — with Jony Ive, J.J. Abrams, Elon Musk and Sam Altman, Paul Ford, and Amit Gupta. And lastly, I’ve spent a little bit of professional time this week, thinking through new ideas and new solutions to some of the thornier problems that I’ve wrestled with for years at the office. Not at ton, of course, because I’m not supposed to be working, really, but some because when my mind wants to work, it works, and there’s little point in fighting it if the thoughts are good ones.

As this unique and special privilege draws to a close, I will cherish what it has already yielded and hope for a long afterburn. I’ve promised myself to be more intentional about making those seven kinds — thoughtful, practical, relational, physical, whimsical, educational, and professional; in different orders and levels of priority, depending — my time’s first principles. When I ask myself, “Why am I doing this?” the best answer will draw upon them. And when it doesn’t, then that will be time I will need to reclaim.

How are you spending your time? How would you like to spend it? I’d love to know what you do to bring the time you spend and the time you’d like to spend into alignment. Hit reply and share your ways with me. I covet your wisdom.

CB, December 18, 2015

Last week, I shared a few ideas I’ve had with you, and many of you wrote back with some cool stuff that I’d love the entire group to see, too. Tom Price pointed out this Kickstarter project that feels the same way I do about album art in the 21st century. Tom Critchlow reminded me on Twitter that he’d written something similar about machines with faces. Michael Babwahsingh also reminded me of an exhibit at the Cooper Hewitt about designing practical things for people that included a very Tamagotchi-Like robot vacuum. He also shared an interesting article by Clive Thompson about Frédérique Constant, who are making a mechanical smartwatch. For those of you who can’t afford its $1,200 entry-level price tag, check out the Withings Activité, another analog smartwatch priced for the masses. Also, here’s another home thing with a face. Keep that stuff coming!

Recent Tabs: The /now page is a thing. “The food was decent, but the vibes were dystopian.” — a spot-on turn of phrase from Robin Sloan. “I’m over by the fruit bowl, listening.” And even more on the rot of Twitter. Why sci-fi has so many Catholics. Deep thoughts on print-on-demand. The art of spreadsheets.

Written by Christopher Butler on November 13, 2015,   In Essays

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