How time traveling changed my life
It was the summer of 2015 and a bunch of friends and I had decided that it was the ideal time to enjoy a cultural holiday and visit Rome for a week.
Frankly, once out of England I don’t usually give the weather report a second thought, so I had just thrown in some shorts and SPV 50 sunscreen in my luggage and assumed everything would be fine. Alas, how naïve and inexperienced I was…
Among us was my friend’s adorable three-year-old, who had already proved to be extremely resilient after a grueling schedule of visiting ancient monuments, churches and fountains — though on the plus side, she got to eat a fair share of Italian ice-cream.
This particular day we had tickets to visit the Vatican, so we woke up early to make the most of the marvelous works of Michel Angelo…and so did what seemed like hundreds of people. As we approached the Piazza we realised that, even with our fast track tickets, we had a to queue for a couple of hours under the blazing sun with no respite. There was no awning, no corner where we could hide.
I had always thought that I dealt well with extreme heat. After all, I grew up in Madrid, where temperatures in August can reach more than 40 degrees even in the shadow. I barely sweat, I hate air conditioning and I just think that dry heat is nice on my skin and overall an enjoyable experience.
However, no matter how well we had dealt with it in previous days, that day all of us, including me, felt the heat — literally. The little girl was crying — and I don’t blame her as I secretly wanted to cry too.
I was tired after a few days of sightseeing and a whole of set of negative chatter was quietly running through my mind — all exaggerations and distortions, of course. I was not enjoying the holiday. I was sick of monuments. No matter the hype, the Vatican was surely not worth seeing if I had to go through this purgatory. I was going to collapse very soon.
Then my friend, the mother of the child and one of the wisest persons I know, turned around and said:
“Um, I am just thinking of the really cold beer that I am going to have when we finish the visit”.
Now this took me by surprise — I had been caught up in unpleasant thoughts and I had zoned out of anything that was not my inner experience. I had not considered projecting myself into a near future when the ordeal would be over.
I decided to give it a try — not without effort; there is a sinister pleasure in returning to those luring negative thoughts once and again. I don’t like beer too much, so I decided to focus on a glass of coke, sweet and cold. And it did the trick. Suddenly my holiday was not so bad and there was a lot to look forward to.
This was as small of an aha moment as can be — but it really changed me. I could not hold a negative thought about my present while having a pleasant thought about the future at the same time. There was just no room to apply both approaches to “the problem” simultaneously. Most importantly, I had passed from one to the other in a matter of not even minutes, but a few seconds.
This little experiment was the beginning of the end of my era of negative thinking — and it opened a lot of doors, starting with my own mind.
I began applying what I decided to call time traveling to other situations. At work, when I had to do repetitive, unpleasant tasks like archiving, I time travelled to a coffee with a friend at work. At home, when I could not postpone cleaning any longer, I planned to time travel to an episode of my favourite show or a chapter in a good book. And so on. Soon it became a habit to time the unpleasant task and prepare my little reward before starting: a bit Pomodoro technique, a bit marshmallow experiment gone right.
It took a while to really ignore the reflex to put pleasure first. However, once I managed, I found that once the dreaded task was out of the way, the pleasure was more intense because I not only felt the satisfaction of completing it, but I also felt relaxed because I had time — and I could focus on whatever I wanted without guilt.
Once I started feeling relaxed regularly, I realised that what I actually wanted was not coffee or cake or even good TV but more often than not it was time for daydreaming or if you want, dolce faire niente. This is a true luxury, the most precious commodity, and soon it became more important for me than whatever I had to do to get to that blissful state.
This led me to perfecting the technique and maximizing the pleasure by stacking two or more painfully boring tasks followed by a nice break. In my experience, anything that is worth doing has a long string of unpleasant tasks attached to it: from attending interviews to filing in taxes, from checking spellings to dealing with estate agents or solicitors or gynecologists. Once we overcome the feeling of being unfairly treated by life, what will happen next becomes more important.
Once we overcome the feeling of being unfairly treated by life, what will happen next becomes more important.
You might say that this could turn into a form of soft escapism: one could potentially focus on the reward and entirely disregard the task at hand. Conversely, there is the fear that we’ll end up forever wheeling around a series of unpleasant tasks that won’t take us anywhere.
The reality is that we are in charge of which thoughts we entertain and we can learn to be the masters of ourselves, regardless of what is going on. We can switch between negative and positive thoughts relatively easily once we get the hang of it. And it just takes repeated painful practise, repeated boring practise, repeated practise, practise time, just time.
Blaise Pascal famously said that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”. I would add to that that many of humanity’s unpleasant situations stem from our inability to do the hard tasks first, and enjoy afterwards.
Once we free ourselves from caring about the dreadful tasks, we’ll have more time and energy to think about where we want to time travel. This is not positive thinking — it is not just “follow your dreams” or “you can achieve anything”. It is being realistic about what doing something of value entails and still being able to mentally place ourselves in a better future. It’s knowing that there will be a cold drink waiting for us at the end of the journey.
Once we master time travelling forwards, we may decide to time travel backwards. Why not? Making sense of our memories can inform our present differently. Or we may want to trace our path back from the place of our dreams to the present moment.
But that, dear reader, is another story….