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Time Worship – Love Your Work, Episode 236
When I was working with Timeful — the productivity app co-founded by behavioral scientist and Love Your Work guest, Dan Ariely — we had a great feature. You could put todo items on your calendar.
You could estimate how long a todo item was going to take, and then you could drag that todo item onto your calendar. It would be right there on the timeline, along with any other events you had planned for the day.
This todo-items-on-calendar thing was a handy feature. It makes sense, really. Too many of us have a todo list a mile long. We know what we intend to do, but we have no idea when we’ll actually do those things.
When Timeful built this feature, and I finally got to use it regularly, I made a discovery. We’re really bad at estimating time. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Our vision is distorted by our “time worship.”
Our perception of time is warped
My own faulty time estimates went both ways. I might think it would take me less than fifteen minutes to respond to an email. I’d be shocked to discover that it took half an hour. I might think it would take an hour to draft a blog post, and I’d be pleasantly surprised to see I could do it in only ten minutes.
Instinctively, we know that our perception of time is warped. We know the saying that “time flies when we’re having fun.” Our perception of time changes. It changes according to our mood, our personality, or the number of events that happen within a certain amount of time.
But if our perception of time is so warped, why is time so important to us? Why do we treat time as if it’s the only thing that matters? Why do we practice “time worship?”
The way we measure time is arbitrary
It turns out, the way we measure time is pretty arbitrary. There’s nothing in the natural world that says that we should divide our days up by twenty-four hours, with sixty minutes in each of those hours, with sixty seconds in each of those minutes.
Our heart may beat about sixty times a minute, but if we’re exercising, it could be 160 times a minute. We breathe about fourteen times a minute, but if we’re running, it might be forty times a minute.
Aside from the rotation of the earth and the earth’s revolutions around the sun, there’s nothing about the natural world that says we need to measure the time the way we do.
Dividing the day up into twenty-four hours, sixty minutes an hour, sixty seconds a minute — that’s leftover from a 4,000-year-old Babylonian numbering system.
And hours weren’t even originally a fixed length of time! Back in the days of sundials, hours were relative to the amount of daylight in the day. Hours in one season were shorter than hours in another season.
It wasn’t even until the late 16th century that there was a mechanical clock that kept track of sixty minutes in an hour. To measure seconds, we had to wait until a century later — the 17th century.
Even the earth’s rotations are unreliable
Yet even with this mechanical precision, the way we measure time doesn’t totally match up with the natural world. In an atomic clock, 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation in the caesium-133 atom represents one second. The atomic clock uses this atom’s radiation to keep time, because it’s one of the most reproducible and stable things in all of nature. Certainly more reliable than grains of sand falling through an hourglass, or even the vibrations of a quartz crystal.
But still, even with the help of one of the most reproducible and stable things in all of nature, the atomic clock is not perfect. We still have to add an extra second — a “leap second” — to our measurement of time. We add a leap second eight times a decade.
It’s hard to match mechanical or even atomic precision to time, in part, because even the thing that time is based upon isn’t perfect. There are tiny, portions of a millisecond, differences in the length of a day — that is, the amount of time it takes for the earth to rotate. These differences fluctuate over the course of multiple years and throughout the year, as well as every several days.
So why does time rule our lives?
So if our perception of time is warped, if our measurement of time is arbitrary, if even the things upon which we measure time are unreliable, why are we so reliant on time?
Most of us wake up to an alarm clock. We break for lunch at a certain time. We meet for coffee at a certain time, through synchronized clocks on our phones. We go to bed at a certain time. You probably looked at how long this podcast episode was before you decided to listen to it.
One reason we’re so reliant on time is because keeping track of time is useful. It allows us to do more things in less time. It allows us to coordinate with others, so we can synchronize complex systems that make our world work. Keeping track of time helps us make connecting flights, it makes sure the grocery store shelves are stocked, and it even helps us remember to do things we might otherwise forget.
Time is our “God value” (and it shouldn’t be)
In a complex world, there are only so many ways you can make a decision. This is where values become critical. Values help us choose which factors are the most important in a given decision.
The “right” decision in any situation varies according to our values. If we value family over money, we’ll decide one way. If we value money over our mental health, we’ll decide yet another way.
We use different values in different situations to make different decisions. But we tend to have some values that dominate over all of the others. Whatever we value the most is what author Mark Manson would call our “God value.”
Too often, time is our God value. Too often, time is the one big factor we use to make decisions. It’s time worship, and it’s bad.
Time worship at work
Think about the way time is used in many organizations. In many companies, you can see the open slots on the calendars of your coworkers. You can then fill those open slots by inviting your coworkers to meetings.
This is easy to miss, so I’ll spell it out. The logic is as follows: This time is open. Time filled is better than time not filled. Therefore, I will fill this open time with a meeting.
Time is the God value in this decision.
When we’re on the receiving end of these invitations, we also tend to think of it only in terms of time. Again: Time filled is better than time not filled. There is unfilled time, therefore, I will fill it with this event.
Again, time is the God value.
Notice that we also tend to negotiate with time. Ever been really focused on something, only to have a coworker tap you on the shoulder and ask, “Got a minute?” A minute. That’s the thing they want from you. Time is the God value. If you hesitate, maybe they’ll assure you, “This will only take a minute.”
Your focus is broken, and someone is impeding on that focus. Maybe you’re a little annoyed. But you don’t want to look uncooperative, so you go along with it. You stop what you’re doing, and help your coworker out. Then somehow, you burn away the rest of your afternoon trying to get back to where you were before that coworker tapped you on the shoulder.
You lost a whole afternoon of productivity, all because time is the God value in your office. You lost a whole afternoon of productivity all because of time worship.
Time worship in life
There are some situations where other values take over. You won’t stop delivering a eulogy to check your stock prices because it will take “just a minute.” You won’t stop having sex to answer a text message because it will take “just a minute.” (The text-message response, that is.) It’s obviously inappropriate in both cases to treat time as the God value.
Yet there are too many other situations where time shouldn’t be our God value, yet it is. Time worship permeates throughout our culture, affecting the way we treat one another.
Am I the only one annoyed when a waiter slams a check on the table before you’ve finished chewing your last bite? The logic is a remnant of Taylorism, which I talked about on episode 226: The amount of time a table is open for business is a “production unit.” The more paying customers you can fit within that time, the better.
It’s not the waiter’s fault. In the U.S., there’s a good chance I’m a “clock-time” person — as I talked about on the previous episode — ready to get moving to my next activity. There’s a good chance I’ll be annoyed if the check isn’t on my table by the time I’m done with the act of eating.
Time worship in schools
Consider the way we use time as a God value in schools. We send children to school not according to when they’re awake and ready to learn. Instead, we send them according to time. When can parents drop them off? When are busses available?
Down with time worship. Up with performance.
Daniel Pink’s When outlines a number of drawbacks for sending kids to school whenever it’s convenient: Testing kids late in the day leads to a reduced test performance on par with missing two weeks of school a year, or having parents with lower income or education.
By contrast, rescheduling schooling according to what works with kids’ energy levels improves learning. Having math early in the day improved students’ math GPAs. Providing breaks improves performance. Overall, Pink finds, “delaying school starting times improves motivation, boosts emotional well-being, reduces depression, and lessens impulsivity.”
Fortunately, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC have issued policy statements recommending that middle schools and high schools start later in the morning, to better accommodate the shifted sleep rhythms of adolescents.
And it’s not just in schools that we could improve performance by reducing time worship.
Olympic records tend to be broken in the late afternoon or early evening. Jurors produce less-discriminatory verdicts in the morning. Hospital workers who are well-rested and are working with fresh energy wash their hands more, diagnose diseases more accurately, and make fewer life-threatening errors. That’s right, time worship kills people.
Think of time descriptively, not prescriptively
What’s the alternative to time worship? Don’t think of time as prescriptive, think of time as descriptive. You can use time as a general guide, but using time as a mold into which to forcefully fit activities is unnatural, and ineffective.
Next time you’re making a decision, and you start to think about how much time it’s going to take, try a mental shift.
Instead of asking how the decision will affect your time, think about how it will affect your: focus, momentum, mood, motivation, mental state, energy level — literally anything other than your time!
Stop the time worship!
Image: Separation in the Evening, Paul Klee
Thanks for sharing my work!
In Instagram, thank you to @letterbworld, @poor_bjorns_book_lab, @livroschatos.
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