It was while reading a bedtime story one night that journalist and TED Talk presenter Carl Honoré realized that he had lost his grip on time. He was skipping pages of the story in order to get back to work more quickly, and his son, who knew every word by heart, was having none of it. What should have been the best moment of his day had devolved into a nightly battle for no reason other than the fact that he felt short on time.
I can’t recall if I ever had this kind of make-or-break moment, but I can name dozens of smaller incidents, each a symptom of an unhealthy attitude toward time: avoiding colleagues in the hallway because I couldn’t afford to get into a conversation, compulsively calculating the fastest route whenever I walked across campus, not being able to remember the last time I ate dinner without simultaneously doing work. The cumulative effect of these many troubling moments was the stark realization that I was losing some kind of battle with time and that something had to change before I blew an artery or lost my mind.
I strongly suspect that Honoré and I are not the only ones who struggle with time. For most of us, there never seems to be enough of it. Now that summer has officially arrived and many are taking time off for vacation, it seems an appropriate moment to reevaluate our relationship with time.
In retrospect, I see that my real problem was not so much that I was losing a battle with time. Rather the problem was that I was (and sometimes still am) mentally boxed in by a certain way of thinking about time. Martin Heidegger famously wrote, “Language is the house of being.” There are few better examples of what he meant than our accustomed language about time. Phrases like “time is money,” “time is running out,” and “working against the clock” roll fluidly off our tongues. At the root of these phrases is the same metaphor – time as a finite resource. Thinking and speaking of time in these terms has a tangible impact on our day-to-day living. Because we think of time as a limited commodity, we obsessively track it, hoard it, and deny it to others. We avoid people in the hallways and skip pages when reading bedtime stories to our children.
Everyone I have ever met feels discontent with this state of affairs, and now, thanks to researchers like Matt Killingsworth, we have scientific evidence verifying our intuitions of just how detrimental this race-against-the-clock mentality is to our happiness. Having analyzed 650,000 real-time reports on the daily lives of 15,000 people, Killingsworth observed that “mind wandering” (thinking about something other than what one is presently doing) makes people less happy than if they were present to the moment, regardless of what they happen to be doing. This is precisely what hyperactive time consciousness does to us. Because we are always calculating how long this meeting will take or how much time that detour will cost us, we are seldom able to enjoy the present moment.
So it would seem that, when it comes to time, the linguistic house we built for ourselves has become a prison. The good news is that we are the ones who built this house. We can tear it down and build anew. Read More