Our relationship with time: It’s complicated

I recently read about an insane time hack involving a microwave and a “ruthlessly” organized university chancellor. Instead of setting cook times of 1:00, 2:00 or 3:00 – this time hacker types in 1:11, 2:22 and 3:33, saving the their index finger one inch of travel time. I tried it out, it saves roughly 0.2 seconds, which compounded over my estimated lifetime microwave usage (once a week for the rest of my life) translates into 7 hard earned minutes over the next 40 years.

I’m literally the last person who should be throwing shade about time hacks. My life story is one of incessantly trying to extract water (i.e. time) out of a stone (i.e. its finite nature). I’ve listened to podcasts at 2.5x speed (while shortening the pauses in between words), worked out in 4 minute tabata incremements (with burpees, of course) and employed parenting-ninja-multi-tasking (via running networking meetings while the baby naps in the jogging stroller). It’s all helped, but the late poet John O’Donohue tore down my time hacks with the simple quote: “Stress is a perverted relationship to time.

What’s with our obsession with time? And why do rational people act so bizarre in the face of this fleeting resource? Let’s start by examining a cultural mainstay, Amazon Prime. “People don’t just hate paying for shipping,” describes Eugene Wei, “they hate it to an irrational degree.” Wei worked at Amazon in the late 90s when the company tried to explain to its users that even with shipping expenses, they saved money in the form of getting to a store, taxes, gas, and depreciation. Nope. People weren’t having it. Wei continues:

People didn’t care about this rational math. People, in general, are terrible at valuing their time, perhaps because for most people monetary compensation for one’s time is so detached from the event of spending one’s time. Most time we spend isn’t like deliberate practice, with immediate feedback.

There are so many more examples of this irrational behavior. Raise your hand if you don’t flinch at an overpriced cocktail, but will walk for blocks to avoid an ATM fee? And there’s a surprising culprit – rising wealth. In many Western countries, people with higher incomes are more likely to agree with statements like, “There have not been enough minutes in a day.” This counterintuitive thinking can be attributed to the inextricable link between time and moneyas the value of our time goes up, we perceive it as a scarce resource. Another bizarre example: wealthier people spend more time engaging in stressful activities, such as commuting, despite the well researched fact that commuting distances and life satisfaction show a strong inverse correlation. What makes our relationship with time so complicated? And can it actually be slowed down?

Time and money: what’s the link?

Spending habits strongly influence one’s perception of time. And if you’re lucky enough to have some extra income on the side, using it to buy time – in the form of common household chores (cleaning, shopping, and cooking) and living closer to work – as opposed to material purchases, has been linked to greater life satisfaction. A research paper by Hal Hershfield and Cassie Mogilner titled People who choose time over money are happier contains a slightly different take, yet points to intentionality and scarcity thinking:

[People who chose money over time], were more likely to be fixated on not having enough, [whereas] people who chose time focused more on how they would spend it, planning to “spend” on wants rather than needs (e.g., cultivating a hobby versus completing chores at home) and on other people rather than themselves — two expenditures that have previously been linked to elevated levels of happiness.

Their paper also demonstrates that “temporal investments are viewed as more connected to one’s self than are monetary investments” and “individuals led to focus on time also became more self-reflective than those led to focus on money.”

Can you slow down time?

But let’s move beyond money into the realm of time perception, and specifically how our brain processes time. Neuroscientist David Eagleman distinguishes clock time from “brain time” adding that “the brain goes through a lot of trouble to edit and present this story to you of what’s going on out there and how fast or slowly it happens.”

Picture your brain as a video camera capturing all of your life experiences. In a typical day, this camera would record your morning trip to the coffee shop, commute, daily meetings, workout, and so on and so forth. But in the vein of System One and Two thinking, the brain is constantly looking for ways to preserve energy and resources. And if the video is pretty much the same each day, it will take shortcuts and stop “recording” each unit, since it knows (with high probability) what will happen next. So it starts skipping frames, in a manner analogous to an HD video and a Giphy – the story remains the same, but there’s a drastic deterioration in quality. NYU psychologist Lila Davachi described this concept of memory units in 2016 TED Talk:

In an environment with a lot of variety and change, you’re forming far more memory units than in an environment with very little change. It’s these units–the number of these units–that determine our estimates of time later on. More units, more to remember, and time expands.

Now this doesn’t imply you should quit your job or become a digital nomad, in fact just small tweaks to your routine can “trick” the brain into the creation of more memory units. Author Laura Vanderkam analyzed the time diaries of 900 professionals and found that people who felt time rich had all done interesting things in their recorded days:

One woman went to salsa dancing lessons. Another subject took the family out to a movie. A big band concert appeared on another log. Not all the Monday adventures were elaborate–it could just be a family walk after dinner–but for the most part, these people had created the conditions for creating memories. Having made memories, they felt they had more time.

Making time for contemplation

Another commonality amongst individuals who don’t feel time scarcity is that they are more reflective and have regular contemplative practices. Vanderkam discovered that at a minimum, contemplation is just a trigger to hit pause during our frenetic lives:

I discovered that people who felt like they had enough time for the things they wanted to do were far more likely than time-stressed people to engage in reflective activities multiple times per week: meditating, praying, journaling, etc. It’s not that these people had more free time than others. After all, people with low time perception scores spent more time watching TV and perusing social media. It’s just that pausing to reflect on our lives makes us feel like time is more abundant.

And whether we’re talking time – be it in the form of hacks, perception, “buying” it back or contemplation – I always recenter myself with the saying: a life is lived in hours.

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