June 29, 2011

Time Illusions and Workplace Boredom

Time Tricks

TIME TRICKS/Image: Michael Moffa

Boredom is a risk with any profession, especially those that are repetitive and routine—which can include all jobs, if they are viewed, reviewed and described abstractly enough or in very limited detail, even the job of being a U.S. senator, a jet fighter pilot, mom, astronaut, brain surgeon, novelist, deep-sea diver or a recruiter.I’ve known Cessna pilots who concisely expressed their boredom with flying (“like driving a taxi”)—bored with flying? Tell that to a six-year-old.

If you are a recruiter, you are luckier than many: Not only do you have a wide variety of tasks and challenges, but you are also constantly interacting with new people, new tools and new kinds of situations, including unpredictable ones. This is dramatically unlike an assembly-line worker robotically soldering components into a computers that are all as indistinguishable from each other as the Monday through Friday work shifts that create them. Your job may be just as stressful at times, but hardly ever that dull.

Nonetheless, described at a sufficiently high level of abstraction and in sufficiently sparse detail, even your wealth of work variety can be portrayed and (therefore) experienced as limited, routine, predictable and boring, e.g., spouse: “How was your day today, honey?” You: “OK.”

Short-Term and Long-Term Time Perception Reversals

In his 1969 Ph.D. thesis “On the Experience of Time” that became his first best-selling book, Robert Ornstein, a renowned brain and consciousness researcher, and former Stanford University professor, maintained that whether time passes slowly, or worse, drags for us (and by implication, whether it is boring or not) depends on two things: 1. Whether it is experienced immediately and in the short term, or retrospectively in the long term; 2. How much recallable data, detail and information was packed into the time and its experiences—with implications for the associated information storage and (subsequent) processing requirements.

His research and analysis suggested that if an interval of time is experienced and described as uneventful or routine, the elapsed time, of and during that interval, will subjectively seem to dilate and seem longer than the objectively measured time it is taking.

On the other hand, from the long-term retro-perspective after the fact, it is very likely to seem shorter than it actually was or seemed while unfolding. This latter phenomenon is attributable to the likelihood that those experiences will, after some time, be described with a minimum of detail, as though nothing special happened, or worse, as though nothing happened at all—a zero event requiring zero time to experience and recount, much as the bored Cessna pilot seemed to suggest and feel that hours of soaring over what he saw as indistinguishable landscapes and clouds could amount to nothing more than the time and the words it takes to say “like driving a taxi”.

In contrast, if time seems to pass quickly during the interval, in virtue of being packed with vivid and memorable experiences, it is very likely to be recalled in retrospect as longer than it felt at the time the experiences occurred, especially if their rich detail is verbally recounted. That’s like the perceived time difference between routinely working from your laptop and being worked up or over by a lap dancer.

Processing Your Mental Snap-Shots

More recent research citing a “snap-shot” model of time perception supports Dr. Ornstein’s theory: If you are having eventful experiences and taking numerous mental or emotional “snap-shots”, e.g., while traveling through the countless charms of Europe or interviewing many applicants who somehow distinguish themselves, the time will seem to pass very quickly—which is one reason that office reception areas and medical waiting rooms provide distractions in the form of TV screens, promotional videos, stacked magazines and wall mirrors.

After a lapse of time, when recalling and reviewing those trips, interviews and waits, your brain has to retrieve, sort and order them, which, in virtue of the additional storage space and time required to process the recalled details, can cause the original sequence to seem to have lasted longer than it was felt to last at the time or even perhaps objectively did.

Hence, even if the experiences have not been verbalized, there is a likelihood that the more detailed, emotionally significant and otherwise valued the experiences are, the likelier it is that you will have captured them in some form and the longer and more significant the sequence will seem in retrospect.

Consequently, a three-day trip across the endless, planted plains of the Canadian prairies is likely to seem longer than three days spent in mountain-ringed Kathmandu and vibrant New Delhi —but only during the trip, whereas much later, the time estimates will be reversed, with the prairie trip seeming dramatically shorter, as your two photos of limitless seas of rapeseed and corn will attest.

Closer to home, imagine you go on a one-week holiday to Florida Disneyland with the family and somehow are not as enthralled by guys in over-sized costumes as your kids are. The time drags and snags, like a Snow White cape on a forest floor. Yet, when queried by curious colleagues when you are back in the office, those slow-as-molasses holiday moments are boiled off in a three-second summary: “We rode some rides and did other stuff.” Distilled into a concentrated and meager speck of recollection and reminiscence, your holiday now seems to have passed as quickly as the time it takes to read a fortune cookie and, in retrospect, now seems to have been only slightly more interesting than the predictable printed fortune that says “you will travel to somewhere interesting.”

Even if your Disneyland trip was much more interesting and rich in detail than that and even if the time spent there sped past like an Octopus Rocketride, your terse 8-word summary of the trip has made it seem and sound boring—not only to your colleagues, but also, and more importantly, to you.

Applying the same psychology and logic to your professional experience, it’s not hard to see that if your after-work summaries and descriptions of your work day are terse to the point of being as brief as a nod or momentarily nodding off, it is very unlikely that those experiences will be remembered as interesting—especially if they weren’t, but also if you simply did not verbally “code” them in your long-term memory as memorable, detail-rich experiences.

Ironically, even if you keep your after-work summary short, e.g., “OK”, just to avoid boring your spouse, you may inadvertently accomplish precisely that by reducing your work day to a virtual grunt that suggests your job isn’t worth talking about.

The Unconscious as the Unmentioned, Not Just the Unmentionable

Basic Psychology 101 and behaviorist psychologists suggest that what is unconscious or at least not easily accessible to recall is that which is unverbalized. Although the unconscious mind includes what is unmentionable, most of it is merely unmentioned and unverbalized, e.g., the way you tie your shoelaces. Accordingly, you are more likely to remember a national park landmark, a Disneyland pavilion and an applicant if you have explicitly described them or at least learned their names.It’s the same with tying the laces: If you attempt to put that process into words afterward, it will seem to have taken longer—especially since for most grownups it will certainly take longer to say it than to do it.

Obviously,you will not remember as interesting anyone or anything you barely remember (because you haven’t verbalized the experience in the requisite detail). As for the truly interesting, yet unverbalized moments, at best you are likely to recall the day or the interview as you would a Woody Allen movie: Loved it, but can’t recall the lines, the sequences or many other details.

This is why there once was a time when many people kept what they charmingly called a “diary”.

Existentially Short-Changed by Short-Cut Technologies?

In an age in which diaries and rich verbal descriptions and narrations are being displaced by license-plate-length simplistic text messages and bumper-sticker tweets, the chances that you are creating or accessing archives that can imbue your professional and personal life with rich and memorable detail are diminishing as rapidly as such “ experiential short-cut technologies” advance. As for your Facebook/Flickr photos, chances are that many of them will, in time, become incomprehensible if there are no verbal captions and dates on them.

If talk and words are not your thing, the least you can do is to attempt to capture your experiences in some other way, e.g., visually—through photos or even sketches (although not on the job), despite the aforementioned risks of uncaptioned and undated photos.

No Label, No Package

In comparing descriptions and recollections of jobs that seem boring with time intervals that in retrospect seem shorter than they objectively were, what is common to both is the dearth of remembered and expressed detail in summarizing the jobs.

It’s almost as though an explicitly verbalized label is necessary for a package of experience to be remembered well and to count.

From the correlations between being bored and having little detail to pad the retrospectively estimated passage of time, perhaps it may be inferred that not only does having been bored imply recalling very little detail, but also the converse: Recalling very few details may lead to feeling bored with the experiences that have been stripped of them.

Lessons at a Turbine-Disc Lathe

One night, in an earlier era of aviation and during my brief stint as a very bored night-shift center-drive lathe operator for Pratt & Whitney Aircraft (before graduating from college), I marveled at how the operator at the monster-sized turbine-disc lathe next to mine reveled in and described the stimulation and variety the job afforded him: “Yesterday, I worked titanium parts; the day before, stainless steel. Tomorrow, who knows?. Then there’s the variation in diameters…..”

For sure, that work shift, for him, seemed in retrospect at least as long as it did for me in the middle of it. If you want to make your work time fly by and be memorable like that, try doing what that lathe operator did: verbalize the details that engage you or that could if you did.

Then, maybe when you say your day was OK, you’ll mean it….

…and possibly much more.

Michael Moffa, writer for Recruiter.com, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).