Time, Brain Damage and Choices

The Bureau of Labor Statics keeps data on how we spend our time via the American Time Use Survey (ATUS). The chart below is 2008 data, but it’s close enough.

Click on Image to Enlarge

Since I love data, I decided to calculate how much “disposable time” I have available to me before I will probably die. I’m counting “disposable time” as time not spent sleeping, grooming, eating, keeping up the house, taking care of others, etc…Given that the average life expectancy of a women in the US is 80.8 years (ranked 36th in the world), that leaves me ~37 total years.

If I retire at age 67, then 63% of my remaining days will be “working days”, and 37% will be “Non-working” days. According to the BLS I can expect that ~19% of my working day and ~27% of my non-working day can be counted as disposable.

OK…so where does that leave me?  After more number crunching my estimated remaining time looks like this:

If my math is correct, I have ~8 years of total time that I can spend pursuing my interests and passions outside of work…22% of my remaining time on this earth…holy crap….that really doesn’t sound like a whole lot. (It’s at this point I typically have trouble breathing, feel a little light-heated, and need to lie down – throwing the covers over my head)

Staying in “The Now”

There is a popular and effective concept in many religious and spiritual belief systems that promotes “staying present” as the key to happiness.  That is to let go of the past, stop worrying about the future and just be “present” in the moment.  The theory being, the very moment we are in right now is all we really have – the past is gone and future is not guaranteed, so worry (which is typically future based) and guilt and regret (which are past based), are useless to us in the present and therefore – useless.

I get it, it makes sense (putting aside time travel, parallel universes and wormholes for the moment), but it’s incredibly hard to put into practice.  I’m a planner and an organizer.  I have an affinity for putting things in order, breaking things down into manageable, trackable, logical steps.  It’s how I manage projects at work, plan for retirement, and am approaching this blog.  How can I stay in the present if I value learning from the past and planning for the future?

Plus, there is ample scientific evidence that we, as humans, are hardwired to “think”. Our frontal lobe’s function is to help us make choices now by taking into consideration consequences that may result in the future.   Research on people who have suffered front lobe damage has shown that they have a remarkable ability to stay in the “present”, and in many cases, are more content and less anxious.    It’s why a lobotomy was sometimes used treat mental illness, depression and severe anxiety in the mid-1900’s.

Monks spend lifetimes sitting in meditation training their minds to ” be present”.  Short of brain damage or becoming a Monk, how does a mere mortal like myself do this and still function in everyday life?  I don’t know for sure but I have some things I’m going to try.

Taking Action…Now

I’ve been exposed to loads of time management, concepts and in a class a few years ago I learned a technique for handling my email that I think I can apply to this “staying in the present’ dilemma while still moving towards some sort of planned future.  This course had a simple philosophy when it came to email, you could “File”, “Act On” or “Delete” messages.  The task was to examine every single email when it came in and ask that question – and then take action.  I went home from the class and cleaned up 2000 messages from my inbox and now I never let it get much over 300.

Before that simple instruction I used to let my messages pile up in my inbox until I did whatever it was I thought I should do with them…thus overwhelming me every time I looked at the count of emails in my inbox and paralyzing me further.  I was not taking full advantage of the tools that my email program was offering me…when I forced myself to ask the “File”, “Act On”, or “Delete” question I started to explore other options my email program offered – like creating a task from the message, or a new appointment.  Point being, I had the tools available to me but I didn’t know how to use them…I didn’t even think to ask the right, simple, questions.

Moving to the “Right”

There is a great TED talk from Jill Boyt Taylor, a brain scientist and researcher, about her experience while having a stroke.  She was “aware” while this was happening that different parts of her brain were coming “on and off-line”.  She suffered brain damage slowly and lost the ability to walk, talk and think.  She spent 8 years recovering and now she has been motivated to share her story and what she learned. What I find most fascinating about her experience, is that she can articulate what it was like to have her left brain stop working, and experience only her right.  In her experience she described what it’s like to be “completely present” and “connected to all things living”.  Basically, the state of mind that monks and spiritual leaders seek and teach us about.

Again, short of brain damage how do I “move to the right”?  I know it’s better over there…but I’m very LEFT BRAINED.

Since I’m a geek, and I love to visually represent processes and thinking…I’ve taken a stab at flow charting my options for categorizing “stuff”and prioritizing where to put my time (since I have so little left!) and energy – right now.  There is a lot of “stuff” in the world, and a subset of that “stuff” disturbs me, and there is a subset of that “stuff” that I can actually influence.  So like my email, I need to figure out what the next best move is when it comes to dealing with the disturbing stuff.  The figures below combine what I’ve learned from time management classes, strategies from recovery programs, and experiments I’ve performed myself.

There is what I call the “Left Choice” and “Right Choice”. I’ve named them this way because a) that is the orientation of them on the screen, b) it indicates which side of my brain is most involved, and c) because evidence suggests that right-brained thinking leads to more happiness.

As you can see from the diagram, one of the key distinctions between the two choices is the Pain and Suffering Loop in the “Left Choice”.  I’ve spent a GREAT DEAL OF TIME in the Pain and Suffering Loop, and based on my 1st hand experience, I strongly advise avoiding it whenever possible.  I know I’m in the Pain and Suffering Loop when my energy is focused on “wishful thinking” and I haven’t yet determined (or cared to ask myself) if I can actually change the thing that I’m upset about.  I also know I’m in the Pain and Suffering Loop when…well…I’m in pain and suffering.

But there is always a way out…and that is to “move to the right”.  If I stop and create some space from the issue,  remind myself to stay in the present, and ask myself if it’s really something I can change – whatever the answer – I then strive to take the next best action I know how.  If I do this over and over, make a practice of it, and trust in the process, I’m banking that life will head in the “right” direction for me.

This blog is primarily about exploring interests, making choices, facing fears, staying present, and working like hell to be the best person I can be during my remaining time.

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