All my life, I’ve been obsessed with time.
And now, as the pandemic has disrupted our routines and forced us to pause, everybody is obsessed with time. It’s become a great topic of conversation. Searches for “what day is it” have spiked online in recent weeks, as have references to Groundhog Day, the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray as a T.V. weatherman who relives the same day again and again.
And while our sense of time seems distorted, we’re actually experiencing time in the non-linear way that’s closer to how physicists describe time — with past, present and future laid out together.
As physicist Paul Davies wrote in Scientific American, though most of us feel time is something that flows — always coming at us, and then rushing behind us — that’s not actually what happens: “Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety — a timescape, analogous to a landscape — with all past and future events located there together. It is a notion sometimes referred to as block time.”
Melanie Rudd, a University of Houston psychology professor who studies time perception, put it this way: “We’ve got this objective time construct, measured by clocks and calendars. But that doesn’t tell the whole story.” That’s because, as Arielle Pardes wrote in Wired, there are other factors at play, including our collective uncertainty about when it will end and what’s waiting on the other side. “Coronatime has no scale. ‘Time’ has become a stand-in for all that we cannot control. It is both the breakneck speed at which things are changing, and the burden of how much is staying the same. We are scared this might go on forever. We are scared it might end too soon.”
While this forced pause is filled with social, economic and health challenges, our changing relationship with time also presents an opportunity. As Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slowness sometimes called the “godfather of the Slow Movement,” writes, “Let’s not waste this moment of mandatory slowness. Let’s use it to rethink and redesign our lives. To rediscover the many upsides of slowing down.” Additionally, the reckoning around racial justice has led to a renewed emphasis on reflection, studying and listening, all of which require moving away from our frenetic, breathless way of living, where there was no time for reflection or studying that wasn’t connected to our jobs, and very little time for listening.
So the architecture of how we live our lives has been badly in need of renovation and repair for a while now. Because what we really value has been out of sync with how we live our lives. And the need is urgent for some new blueprints to reconcile the two. In Plato’s Apology, Socrates defines his life’s mission as awakening the Athenians to the supreme importance of attending to their souls. His timeless plea that we connect to ourselves remains the only way for any of us to truly thrive.
Think back to just a few months ago, before we went into “Groundhog Day” mode, when we went about our days in an always-on, perpetually stressed out, fight-or-flight state of being. We talked about how “slammed” and “swamped” we were with work, always on the edge of burnout.
Researchers have a term for this very B.C. (Before Coronavirus) sense that there’s never enough time for what we want to do — “time famine.” Every time we look at our watches it seems to be later than we think. Dr. Seuss summed it up beautifully: “How did it get so late so soon?” he wrote. “It’s night before it’s afternoon. December is here before it’s June. My goodness how the time has flewn. How did it get so late so soon?”
Feeling like we’re experiencing time famine has very real consequences, from increased stress to diminished life satisfaction. We suffer from an epidemic of what James Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything calls “hurry sickness”: “Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers — they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel.”
When we’re living a life of perpetual time famine and hurry sickness, we rob ourselves of our ability to understand our history and to empathize with our Black colleagues who have a very different experience of life in this country. We also rob ourselves of our ability to experience wonder, our sense of delight in the mysteries of the universe, as well as the everyday occurrences and small miracles that fill our lives. Our discoveries and rediscoveries of these mysteries and small miracles have been one of the happy side effects of life during lockdown, from birdwatching and baking to gardening and reading.
Our opportunity, as we move into the next normal, is to take the lessons of the pandemic with us and remake our relationship with time — so that we are in control of our time, not the other way around.
That doesn’t mean scaling back our ambitions, being less productive, or chilling under a mango tree — not at all. It means experiencing time differently so we don’t feel perpetually rushed, unnecessarily stressed and breathlessly live our lives. As Honoré writes in In Praise of Slowness, “Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs, and what the slow movement offers, is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes in between.”
That’s where recharging comes in. When we consciously build moments into our day to recharge and reset, we improve the quality of our time — making us more present, more productive and better able to focus and prioritize what matters most.
We also increase our chances of achieving “time affluence,” the flip side of time famine. Some people are naturally time affluent. My mother, for instance. In fact, when it came to time, she was filthy rich. She moved through her days like a child does, living in the present, stopping, literally, to smell the roses. A trip through the farmers’ market might be an all-day affair with little thought of All the Things That Must Be Done. I still often think of the advice she’d give my sister and me when we were faced with a hard decision: “Darling, let it marinate.” In other words, give yourself the time to think about and live with the consequences of the decision.
Sadly, I’m living proof that time affluence is not an inherited trait. But if you’re not born time affluent, there are things you can do to turn your time famine into a feast. Studies have shown that, as Keith O’Brien wrote, “Small acts, simple emotions such as awe and even counterintuitive measures like spending time doing tasks for someone else — essentially giving time away,” can make us feel more time affluent. Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford business professor, corroborated this in her study on people’s perception of time: “It’s not just that people felt less impatient,” she said, “but they reported higher levels of subjective well-being… They actually felt better in their lives.”
Another gift of life in quarantine has been the outpouring of wisdom about time. From studies and articles to tweets and memes, it qualifies as its own genre. As Carlo Rovelli, a theoretical physicist at Aix-Marseille University, wrote, the pandemic “is putting in front of our eyes something that we usually prefer not to look at: the brevity and fragility of our life. We are not the masters of the world, we are not immortal; we are, as we have always been, like leaves in the autumn wind.”
Whenever we emerge from the pandemic, it will be the ultimate opportunity to reset — to have a deeper and more accurate understanding of the systemic racial injustice in our history and a healthier and more fulfilling relationship with time.
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