James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, Tweeted, “Life is short. And if life is short, then moving quickly matters. Launch the product. Write the book. Ask the question. Take the chance. Be thoughtful, but get moving.”
It caught my attention because it floated into my feed during the Rapid Response art exhibition at the LTB Showrooms in Coventry. It resonated with the visual-sound collage I contributed to the collection, which explored nervous system responses to cultural ideas around time scarcity.
The Autonomic Nervous System and The Story That “Life is Short”
If we’re in an autonomic state of connection, this message might feel like a positive invitation to take action on a meaningful thing. If we’re in a protective state, we might interpret it as an urgent threat requiring immediate action.
How does the current state of your nervous system respond to the essence of this message?
The story is instinctively familiar. We don’t need to be told that life is finite and time is short.
If we’re in a regulated autonomic state, we might feel a warm buzz of energy at the thought of making progress on meaningful pursuits. But telling ourselves “we must act because life is short and we’re running out of time” might not be the best way to access this state. In fact, it might send us into a spiral of anxiety and foggy restlesssness.
“Act now because life is short” can narrow our lens on the world and limit our ability to think creatively. It primes us for reactive, impulsive choices that promise us safety from the threat of time. It doesn’t matter which direction we go, just as long as we don’t stop moving. The need to “be thoughtful” is drowned out by the noise of existential urgency.
The Fuel of Urgency
Many of us have been trained to use the fuel of urgency to motivate action. But when we do, we can lose the ability to pause, check, and intentionally choose the best way to proceed. The pause to check is a core survival function of a highly sensitive nervous system. This trait has evolved with many species, including humans, to help co-regulate the collective nervous system and prioritise conditions for social safety, innovation, and creative exploration.
A well-regulated nervous system also sends biological cues of safety to others. This is contagious and spreads within a group. Acceptance and belonging allow us to connect with our senses and perceive the world within, around, and between us with openness and awareness.
It is from this state of co-regulated stillness where the parasympathetic nervous system permits the body to rest and digest.
We are creatures of rhythm. There is time for action and time for stillness. Time to move and time to pause. Time to react quickly and time to respond slowly.
“It’s Better To Be Wrong Than To Be Still”
One response to James Clear’s tweet stood out above the rest. It read, “It’s better to be wrong than to be still.”
As you might imagine, these words left me scratching my head. What does it mean? “Don’t think, just do…something…anything”? “It doesn’t matter as long as you don’t pause”? To be honest, I’m still unsure. But, yikes!
It strikes me as the mantra of this world we’ve hurtled towards and find ourselves trying to make sense of today.
Perhaps it’s the reason we rarely pause to check in with what our sensory sensitivities and neurological perceptions are telling us. Other responses to the tweet seem to reinforce this. One person wrote, “A sense of urgency is a prerequisite to success”. That was another head scratcher. I would argue just as easily that a sense of urgency is also a prerequisite to failure. So definitely not a one-size-fits all philosophy for life.
Why are so many people afraid of slowing down and resting our urgent spirits?
When It Feels Safer To Panic
Maybe it’s what Deb Dana describes as the draw to our “home away from home”, where we gravitate to the draining familiarity of a defensive autonomic state (sympathetic fight/flight or dorsal shutdown). When this happens, our nervous system might take some strange comfort from the world feeling urgent, hostile, and like a zero-sum competition.
In fact, some people appear relieved when they find permission to reside in this home away from home. For example, when gifted a celebrity scandal to be outraged by, a moral panic to buy into (or rail against), a trending rabbit hole of information to fall into, hoard, and become consumed by.
Perhaps we have become disconnected from our natural social instincts, leading us to perceive the world as urgent, hostile, and ultra-competitive. This story becomes ingrained to the extent that time itself feels like a monster to control and dominate. We view the brevity of life as an enemy to overcome with productivity hacks and indiscriminate efficiency targets.
In other words, we fall under the tyranny of scarcity, where we lose ourselves in an anxious pursuit of striving, grasping, and clinging to something that is forever slightly out of reach. Manufacturing, creating, and producing conditions that are fuelled and sustained by urgency.
The modern world can overwhelm us with noise and distractions, but we don’t have to let it. Gentle rebellion questions and pushes against stories of coercion, manipulation, and power over nature that disconnect us from ourselves.
More Stillness, Slowness, and Depth are a Good Approach Because Life is Short
To pick out some of the responses that gave my nervous system some creatively mobilising energy, “Sure, life is short, so maybe we should slow down and experience it.”
“But also, since life is short, take it slower. Cherish the current moments in your life and know that things aren’t as serious as they seem.”
Life is short. Don’t rush it. Savour the flavours, colours, and textures when they arrive. Move towards but don’t force before its time. Begin with the knowledge that today is enough. If this is where it ends, we are already there. Complete. Maybe everything else from here on in is simply an unfolding adventure.
Be a place of stillness in the ebb and flow of the collective nervous system. Co-regulate. Create. Encourage. See this moment in the bigger picture. See the bigger picture within this moment. It’s all we have. Now.
Striving is a rupture in time. When we tear ourselves from where we are, we relocate beyond the reach of the perpetual present. Stillness brings connection. A seasoned through-line perimeter. Cyclical and linear. Straight and curved. A rhythm that moves, carries, and returns. Who we are, where we are, back to where we’re going.
Maybe today is the day to begin that project, send that message, write that book. Perhaps this is the perfect chance to take that chance. But only if you’re feeling the hum. The buzz. The creative energy of possibility. Otherwise, today might be the day to rest. To be still. To co-regulate together. No demands, pressures, or expectations.
Today doesn’t need to be productive. It doesn’t need to be remarkable or memorable.
That doesn’t mean it won’t be.
But we won’t know until we know. And by then, who knows…
Still Time was inspired by responses to the question, “If tomorrow was your last day on earth, what would you choose to do (or not do)?“. Listen to the song here.