Temporal Scaffolding | Thinking Out Loud No. 36

Or in other words: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hi friends,

The days are getting longer — at least for me in the northern hemisphere — and vaccines are being deployed quickly here in the UK, where about 15 million people (c. 22% of the population) have received the first dose. I am beginning to feel optimistic as a much-needed spring gets ever closer.

In this edition I talk about preventing my sense of time from turning into grey goo, again.

We remember our lives in event time, not clock time

At the end of last year my girlfriend and I did an annual retrospective, where we wrote down on a timeline all the things that happened in 2020.

As you can imagine, the timeline was pretty sparsely populated. At first we just chalked that up to “2020, heh, what a ridiculous year”, but there was more going on beneath that easy interpretation. While we struggled to point to things that had happened, in actual fact a lot of important, life-defining things had happened — we were just struggling to access them.

The problem comes down to the difference between clock time and event time. I’m sure there’s research on this out there, but it’s clear enough from my own experience that when a lot of novel, discrete events happen in a given period of time, that period will seem subjectively longer than if it were full of very similar, mundane activities.

For example, let’s say that Month A involves a holiday visiting lots of exciting new places, starting a new job and meeting a new romantic partner (I assume months like this happen to people). And let’s say that Month B involves four weeks of a familiar 9–6 day job with weekends spent watching TV.

Obviously you’ll get to the end of Month A and think, “wow, what a lot of life I just lived, that month felt so long!”. On the other hand, you’ll likely get to the end of Month B and think “…where did that month go?”

This is what happened in 2020: our memories went looking for the temporal scaffolding of salient events, came up with very little (because they didn’t happen), and decided that, looking back, 2020 went by in a heartbeat.

The problem is that plenty happened in 2020! Speaking for myself: aside from a couple of blessed weekends away in the summer, I made many things, including an online course that allowed me to quit my job. That’s huge! 2020 will probably end up being one of the most transformative years of my life, ever, but it doesn’t feel that way, because “writing another newsletter”, “doing another Zoom call” and “getting another 100 subscribers” don’t stand out in memory.

It looks like I need salient events to make time stretch out the way I want it to, so that when I do a 2021 retrospective, there will be things on it. It’s unclear how much longer we’ll be living under COVID restrictions, but it’s certain that normal life will not be resuming any time soon.

In the absence of life automatically giving me salient events, I am left with two options:

  • have another year like 2020, or

  • try to create salience in any way I can

The point here is only to look back and be able to say “hey, remember that day when X?”

Today is Valentine’s Day. Normally I don’t give a second thought to Valentine’s Day, this most commercial of occasions invented by a business that makes mediocre greeting cards. I know, I’m a hopeless romantic, truly. It’s one of my hallmarks.

But this year, I’ve decided that Valentine’s Day can be something else: a moment in the year that we can point to come December and say “oh yes, Valentine’s Day! I remember those beautiful roses and the lovely steak we made. Put it on the timeline.”

This idea is changing my perspective on all the little celebrations, festivals and occasions that normally pop up throughout the year, and that I’ve usually dismissed as silly.

All this time I’ve been actively reducing their salience, but what if the entire point of them is to create salience, to build the temporal scaffolding that marks out the passage of life?

I have a feeling that, come the 31st December of my own life, I’ll look back and appreciate that scaffolding.

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Little life updates

There are some other salient events I’d like to note for posterity

  • I recently passed 1000 subscribers over on Expanding Awareness, my Alexander Technique newsletter, and this makes me very happy. The latest issue is a new attempt to explain what Alexander Technique is — if you’re interested, but don’t ‘get’ it, you might like this one.

  • Next week is the first week of cohort 2 of the Part Time YouTuber Academy, and the week after that is the first week of cohort 6 of Write of Passage — I’ll be an alumni supporter/mentor on both. It’s going to be an intense sprint of creative output and I can’t wait.

Until next time!


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