It seems like I’ve been marking the passage of time with toothbrushes.
I don’t know why I started doing it or if it’s even Dentist Approved™ but maybe two years ago I set a recurring thing in OmniFocus to tell me to buy a new toothbrush every three months. Like clockwork, I’d go buy a new one when I was told to and then not think about it until I was reminded again. It was systematic. I didn’t have to think about it and I liked it that way.
Recently the time between toothbrushes has seemed to disappear.
The conversations and moments in between pass by quickly and the memories of them have mostly fallen through the cracks. Even though I can recall the fun we had, I can’t remember whether I visited my friends in Toronto this past May or was it already over a year ago? I have to scroll back in my calendar to confirm that it’s been six toothbrushes since that long weekend. My calendar doesn’t have the guts to tell me but I know I’m missing out on some essence of life.
I’m missing out on the way the past can influence the future.
That’s something I’ve started to realize as I try to reflect and recall. My past is engrained in my nature but it doesn’t seem emblazoned in my mind. As I’ve become more aware and mindful of how I can approach my life by design, I feel like I’m much more “forward thinking” and spend less time tracking, reviewing, and thinking about what has passed. I don’t often ask the questions of why or when or what in the past tense, to myself or to others. And even when I do, it’s hard to find answers.
Systems help me solve other problems but I’m not sure a system is what I need to encourage reflection. Part of the problem is just how much of my life has become systematic. When we automate things, we do it to free up cognitive cycles so we can focus that attention in more appropriate places. But I think that we can start to expect ‘automatic’ and then we struggle with the things that aren’t. We’re training ourselves to believe everything should come easily and that software and workflows can solve our problems when many problems are about awareness. They’re about presence and like mindful meditation, presence is a path—a practice—and that’s intrinsic not systematic.
So how do I make it intrinsic to organize my thoughts of things that passed? How can I do it in a way where they are archived and indexed for when my memory fails? It’s not that I want to begin spending a lot of my time reminiscing but I want a practice that means when I do, I can do so well.
I think part of the answer is Day One. It’s not the whole answer though and that’s the challenging part. I already use Day One occasionally and can see benefits in saving things to it but like my friend Andrew Marvin said in a conversation on Alpha, there’s no immediate consequences to not have a practice of writing down what has passed. It can instantly affect us when we forget an idea that we think is genius. A name for the app we’re working on, a sentence we think will pull the whole piece together, that thing we have to grab from the drug store, or a link to the answer which will fix the bug we’ve been working on. We’ve been learning to capture these things before they sublimate into creative despair because having that idea leave us can be painful. But memories fade much slower. It feels like there’s a lot less riding—within our jobs, relationships, and projects—on keeping clarity of the past as remembering what needs to happen in the future.
How can we be as mindful about capturing our past as we are for our future?
I think the answer manifests itself in the idea of it being a practice rather than a system. With a system, B can work and A doesn’t. It’s trial and error. With a practice, it’s a much longer path and one that’s about being aware of the things which bring pure joy, the conversations that have hurt, and the scenes that are beauty in its essence. Those are the moments that we can’t let slip by.
Those are what we need to practice holding on to so when it’s time for a new toothbrush we have moments to embrace which remind us our path is filled with blessings.