Attention! Attention! Reconnecting With Time

Attention! Attention!

Where does all the time go? You would think I should have known better. I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for almost 20 years. I have embraced the Slow Philosophy and work every day on becoming a Flaneur of life, treating it like a stroll and drinking in the detail. Endeavouring to become unhurried and unflustered.

Still the time disappears.

At least I am not alone.

Robert Anton Wilson tells a story about William Burroughs in Tangiers. One day he got up, had coffee, made a little breakfast went down to American Express to mail a letter, stopped by a cafe and had coffee with a friend, came home and it was late afternoon. Burroughs said, “Where did the whole day go to?” He decided the Short Time Mob had moved in.

The Short Time Mob are extraterrestrial invaders who steal our time when we are not paying attention. If you are paying attention they can’t steal your time. But if you are not paying attention, they steal a few minutes here, a few seconds there, half an hour here. Pretty soon there is a whole day gone and you don’t know what happened! The Short Time Mob has stolen your time.


Aldous Huxley agreed with this. In his novel, “Island“, the leaders of the Utopian Society of Pala, have released Mynah birds to call out “Attention”, “Here and now boys. Here and now!” and other phrases to keep the inhabitants present:

“Attention”,  a voice began to call, and it was as though an oboe had suddenly become articulate. “Attention”,  it repeated in the same high, nasal monotone. “Attention”
“Is that your bird?” Will asked.
She shook her head.
Mynahs are like the electric light”, she said. “They don’t belong to anybody.”
“Why does he say those things?”
“Because somebody taught him”, she answered patiently
But why did they teach him those things? Why ‘Attention’? Why ‘Here and now?’
“Well …” She searched for the right words in which to explain the self-evident to this strange imbecile. “That’s what you always forget, isn’t it? I mean, you forget to pay attention to what’s happening. And that’s the same as not being here and now.”
“And the mynahs fly about reminding you—is that it?”
She nodded. That, of course, was it. There was a silence.

How Can You Stop The Short Time Mob?

Luckily there are some simple steps that you can do to stop time just disappearing and the Short Time Mob from stealing your day away from under you.

Organise Time Around Tasks…

…not the other way round

We may have invented the clock to measure time objectively, but that is just an abstract notion. We really measure time in thoughts, or thought processes. The more thought processes we have, the longer time seems to be. However, there is a balance , if you jump around randomly from task to task, or “multitasking” as it is hilariously called (see my thoughts on the nonsense of multitasking here), it can have a detrimental effect as you are constantly interrupting yourself and not getting anything meaningful done.

You need to avoid the two extremes; jumping around from task to task every few minutes, and spending a long, long time on a single task. Train yourself to work in chunks or blocks of time. Set a stopwatch, pick a task, do it for a set length of time. Stop. Take a breather for a few minutes. Start again with a different task. 25 to 30 minutes tends to be considered a reasonable chunk of time, but experiment and see how it works for you. After four or so chunks (about 2 hours), take a longer break of say 20 to 30 minutes, have a cup of tea.

Have Your Own Mynah Bird

I am not suggesting you actually go out and buy a mynah bird and train it to say “Attention!” (although if you want to that’s cool, but only if you look after it properly), but you could set another stop watch for random intervals within the time chunks above, so it jolts you back to the now if your attention wanders off.

Whilst researching this blog, I came across an excellent little app that seems to have been influenced by Huxley’s “Island“, called Mindful Mynah, check it out here.

Reduce Habituation

Habituation is a where we naturally decrease or cease to respond to a certain stimulus after repeated exposure. Which means we stop paying attention to things that are constantly around us or we go onto “automatic pilot” when we do something we regularly do (our commute to work for example), which means we can “drift off” for hours, giving the Short Time Mob plenty of opportunity to steal some time off you.

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to reduce our natural tendency to habituate. Meaning we can pay attention more, for longer. You may think that you don’t have time meditate, but if you do it on a regular basis you will find you have more time not less. There is an old Zen proverb that goes something like this, “You should meditate for 20 minutes. But if you are busy you should meditate for 40”.