“I can’t believe how dark it is. Can you?”
These chilly, misty evenings have enveloped us to the point where the clock ticking towards 5pm now represents the blackest of witching hours. As our commutes and evening routines now take place in darkness, our worlds seem different to a few weeks ago.
Notes on a commute
During a recent journey on the luxurious Northern rail line, I found solace in the darkness by observing the behaviours of my fellow commuters.
There was a uniformity to our behaviour. The shadows and gloom that had descended outside the carriage meant that attention was turned inwards. What distractions could we find to still and soothe our frantic minds? How to transform this dead time into something more productive? These gaps in our busy days offered windows of opportunity. To eek out another drop of productivity before the train shuddered to a halt.
So, one by one, out came the phones, the books and the laptops. Blue lights flickered into life, illuminating eyeballs and activating swipey little fingers. White buds popped into ears and music and podcasts seeped steadily into brains. A variety of stimulation to offer a little respite from the mundanity of a dark train journey.
More inputs, more thoughts, more distractions.
There is an ever-present desire to optimise every minute. To cite Dr Seuss, if we aren’t constantly “biggering, and biggering and biggering” ourselves then we are doing our professional and personal development a massive disservice.
It is easy to fall into a trap where we attempt to fill every minute of every hour with something.
The recent Tory MP second-job scandal is a timely reminder of the detrimental impact of a devotion to hustle culture.
The pursuit of ever-more inputs can stymie our ability to do one thing at a time to the very best of our ability. Time and attention focused on other work is going to ensure your attention is diverted from your constituents. Far from adding a richness to public life, it can mean that the finite attention of a human mind is being diverted to other endeavours.
These MPs model a familiar behaviour that encourages us to unthinkingly add more to our lives, filling our diaries, brains and bank accounts to bursting point. But unleashing our brain’s full potential does not come from overloading it with ever-more inputs in an ongoing - ultimately self-defeating - attempt to optimise every minute.
No matter your salary, position or IQ, you can only ever have one human brain. And that brain performs at its very best when we harness its full power by creating the circumstances for it to rest, regenerate and rev up again. The more we divide our attention, the more we divide our intelligence.
Staring out of windows
Back to the train. It’s apparent that much like a solicitor recording 6-minute windows of work, we have also started to measure our leisure.
Will this YouTube video be worth 5 minutes of my time?
Am I being productive enough by simultaneously listening to a business podcast whilst scanning Instagram?
Time without your conscious brain engaged is widely - and mistakenly - thought to be time wasted.
As I scanned the carriage, there was a notable absence of eyes staring out of the window, or into space, or anywhere that was not a screen.
Very few of us recognise that the darkness outside the window offers a chance for reflection. The reduced view actually provides the opportunity to turn our thoughts inwards and figure out the jumbled contents of our own minds. Our eyes occupied and our brains disconnected from our daily travails.
To quote the excellent School of Life, “We tend to reproach ourselves for staring out of the window. Most of the time, we are supposed to be working, studying or ticking things off a to-do list. The very phrase ‘staring out of the window’ can seem almost the definition of wasted time.
However, the point of staring out of a window is, paradoxically, not to find out what is going on outside. It is an exercise in discovering the contents of our own minds. It is easy to imagine we know what we think, what we feel and what’s going on in our heads. But we rarely do entirely. There's a huge amount in our brains that circulates unexplored and unused. Its potential lies untapped. Its illuminating insights are driven to the darkest corners of our minds via a swathe of external inputs, thoughts and voices that aren’t our own. Sitting down and staring out the window gives us a chance to understand ourselves a little better. If we embrace the opportunity to do it right, staring out of the window offers a way for us to be alert to the quieter suggestions and perspectives of our deeper selves.”
Most of our days are filled with noise. Constant communication and instant content options to soothe our itch for a quick distraction. An unending menu of things to occupy our minds.
As winter nights draw in, staring out of dark train windows offers a rare opportunity for us to listen.
Not to others, but to the contents of our own heads.