Mental time zones
Why information speed matters
Let’s talk about mental time zones and why it’s valuable to get “slow news.”
In the book Anathem, Neal Stephenson writes about a world where there are many concentric "convents" with different time horizons. The gates of each convent are closed and they only open once every certain time period: the “One-offs” communicate with the secular world once a year. The Tenners talk with the external world every 10 years. The Centenarias every 100 and the Thousanders every 1,000.
One of the interesting insights of this book’s thought experiment is that time zones “synchronize” based on communication; whenever the convents open their doors every X years, they sync up. So for example, a convent that only opens every 1000 years synchronizes with the 100, 10 and 1 by opening gates and then they get the information they’ve been missing during this time.
Extrapolating this concept to our world, we all live in different mental time zones - it’s just we usually are in sync with those around us. Occasionally we’ll find someone that isn’t and then need to “catch them up” - “Oh you haven’t heard about X? Do you live under a rock?” No. It’s more that they are in a different mental zone. The channels we use to consume information, and the frequency with which we “sync” with others, shape how we process the world. While we often think being “online” vs. “offline”, the truth is there are many more shades in between.
Different mental time zones lend themselves to different types of thought. For example, if you want to do deep work, you need to make time for it and get into the right state of mind. Other times you might be working on a very urgent and timely problem that requires you to be extra connected and chatting with a lot of people constantly - this requires a different mode.
Similar to Anathem, mental time zones sync via communication. If you are in one mode (say you are trying to be “off the grid” and not check Twitter for the day) as soon as you get in contact with someone that is fully online, you synchronize: “Have you heard about X? Did you see Y?” The more deliberate, open, reflective state you might have had changes, and time zone slippage occurs.
Under this framework, we can enter many different mental time zones based on how actively we communicate with the outside world. Zones include:
Turbo (e.g., being online non-stop / twitter always open)
“Normal work day" (e.g., open phone or check email every 15 mins or so)
Focused (e.g., check your phone every few hours)
Quasi-sabbath (e.g., check phone 2-3x a day)
Sabbath (e.g., check phone once a day)
Sabbath++ (e.g., check every 10 days)
Quasi-permanently off the grid (e.g., only receive paper mail)
One reason it’s helpful to think of mental time zones is that acknowledging them helps you ensure you structure rest appropriately - i.e., making it “deliberate rest”. As explained in the book “Rest” by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, rest and work are complementary:
For everyone, work and rest are like night and day: the one cannot happen without the other. For super creative people, though, deliberate rest plays an important but usually unrecognized role in their creative lives. Some kinds of deliberate rest stimulate creativity. Many notable creatives do their most intense work early in the morning, when their minds are freshest and least prone to distraction. They go on walks or take naps during the day to revive and maintain their energy while allowing their subconscious minds time to wander and explore. They often leave a small task unfinished when they stop work, to make it easier to start the next day.
They structure their days to have time for both intense, focused work and downtime. These activities help them to develop more creative solutions to problems and to find those solutions more rapidly and with less effort.
Other kinds of deliberate rest make creativity sustainable. Lots of great writers, scientists, and artists exercise regularly, and some are enthusiastic, accomplished athletes. They show an impressive consistency in habits and hobbies. They balance busy lives with deep play, forms of rest that are psychologically restorative, physically active, and personally meaningful. They renew their creative reserves on sabbaticals, retreats during which they’re free to travel, explore new ideas, and cultivate new interests.
Even though they love losing themselves in work, they maintain strict boundaries between their work and leisure. The steadiness and consistency that deliberate rest enforces helps explain why those who discover it have longer creative lives, pursue careers as artists or writers while holding down other jobs, and may even discover completely new interests or produce new works when the rest of us are ready to retire.
Taking breaks throughout the day, dedicating time for deep work, being physically active and taking longer breaks (e.g., sabbaticals) all help enhance creativity. What all these activities have in common is they are clear mental separations from work –checking your phone while doing these restful activities wouldn’t provide the same benefits since it keeps you connected.
One consequence of mental time zones is that you can adjust your days for different modes. If you are trying to shift mental time zones while still being “fully reachable” you won’t be able to enter a new mode. Keeping communication channels separate is necessary to avoid time slippage.
Another implication is that vacations aren't vacations, and weekends won’t be as restful, unless you fully switch mental time zones. The only way to do that is to cut off communication channels - otherwise there is time synchrony. This is why I like the concept of Sabbath and “Secular Sabbath”...
Finally, another implication is that the speed of the information you consume can also have a big impact on your perception of time and your state of mind. Here is Tyler Cowen in his weekly column: “Doomscrolling Has Ruined Our Sense of Time: First Covid and now the war in Ukraine have changed our worldview and shortened our patience”:
The dual crises of the global pandemic and the war in Ukraine have been testing our governments, our institutions, our diplomacy — and our collective sense of time. In part because of social media, both events already seem intolerably long, even though the Russian invasion of Ukraine is less than a month old. […]
Once upon a time, news of war was lumpier and more periodic — people watched the nightly news or read the morning paper. They could turn on the radio and hear more frequent bulletins, but due to the absence of the internet and other means of modern communication, there were far fewer reports from far fewer sources.
The now-neverending stream of information shapes our perception of time. For many people, especially America’s news-intensive elites, it may make the war feel much longer than it actually has been.
Similarly, NY Times columnist Farhad Manjoo had an op-ed in 2018 about how he changed his information sources and how much better he felt: “For Two Months, I Got My News From Print Newspapers. Here’s What I Learned”:
In January, after the breaking-newsiest year in recent memory, I decided to travel back in time. I turned off my digital news notifications, unplugged from Twitter and other social networks, and subscribed to home delivery of three print newspapers — The Times, The Wall Street Journal and my local paper, The San Francisco Chronicle — plus a weekly newsmagazine, The Economist.
I have spent most days since then getting the news mainly from print, though my self-imposed asceticism allowed for podcasts, email newsletters and long-form nonfiction (books and magazine articles). Basically, I was trying to slow-jam the news — I still wanted to be informed, but was looking to formats that prized depth and accuracy over speed.
It has been life changing. Turning off the buzzing breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial, always ready to break into my day with half-baked bulletins.
Now I am not just less anxious and less addicted to the news, I am more widely informed (though there are some blind spots). And I’m embarrassed about how much free time I have — in two months, I managed to read half a dozen books, took up pottery and (I think) became a more attentive husband and father.
And similar to Cowen, Manjoo’s sense of time shifted through this experiment:
Another surprise was a sensation of time slowing down. One weird aspect of the past few years is how a “tornado of news-making has scrambled Americans’ grasp of time and memory,” as my colleague Matt Flegenheimer put it last year. By providing a daily digest of the news, the newspaper alleviates this sense. Sure, there’s still a lot of news — but when you read it once a day, the world feels contained and comprehensible rather than a blur of headlines lost on a phone’s lock screen.
This was written in 2018! How much truer now.
What I’d leave you with is this: be aware that there are different mental time zones. If you are trying to rest or to be more creative and thoughtful, be mindful of the communication channels you are exposed to and create space for deliberate rest. And finally, information speed matters - if the world feels too fast, try moving to slower news.