Our troubles started when time was first sliced into tiny artificial units, and we have been subject to their increasing tyranny ever since. Medieval clocks divided the day into mere hours, but by 1700 most timepieces had minute hands, and the second hand was turning up regularly a century later. We found ourselves handcuffed to time by the late 19th century, when wristwatches were provided to German naval officers. They soon became essential for the rest of us, and now we are colonised by clocks, on our bodies, phones,computer screens and the walls of our homes. We are addicted to knowing the time and forget it’sa modern invention: Leonardo da Vinci was not checking his watch while painting The Last Supper.
The Industrial Revolution ratcheted up the pace of daily life. The steam train and the telegraph speeded up travel and communication, while, most insidiously, factory bosses introduced “clocking in” to punish employees for lateness. We changed the way we talk and think too: phrases such as“saving time” and “time is money” transformed the stuff into a precious commodity. “Wasting time” became a sin. In the 1910s, the efficiency fanatics Frank and Lillian Gilbreth even filmed their children washing up to find ways to make them more productive.
So what have we inherited? High-stress, high-velocity living with constant deadlines, fast food, power naps and speed dating, which makes it difficult to pause and savour the passing moments of our lives. The solution that is usually put forward is “effective time management”, such as only checking emails once a day or becoming an expert delegator. But this ideology is designed to make us more productive workers for our economic masters and only serves to dig us in deeper.
Western culture has instilled in us a linear notion of time as an arrow that travels from the past, dashing through the present towards the future. We fret about tomorrow’s uncertainties and relive yesterday’s mistakes, unable to find a still place in the here and now. But that arrow would be a peculiar concept to a Buddhist monk who practises mindful immersion in the present, rather than busily filling his electronic calendar, and his future, with appointments. Doing less may be the ultimate way to bring us into the now. In the words of Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “Don’t just do something – sit there.”
No one can miss how digital culture is further altering the social fabric of time. High-speed gadgets and social networks keep us in quick-fire contact with people and news. The result? A massive increase in the quantity of communication, but not the quality of conversation. Of the 100 billion texts sent in the UK every year, how many lead us to say things we have never said before, or take our lives in new directions?
These forces have fed our pathologically short attention span. Politicians can’t see beyond the next election, nor can financial markets see beyond the next quarter. Deep geological time means nothing to us, and we barely think ahead even a generation or two. With no long-term perspective, we have bred an irresponsible culture, squandering resources and bequeathing our children an altered climate and fragile ecology. We must liberate ourselves, as individuals and as a society, from short-term thinking. The place to start is on our wrists, by overthrowing these tyrannical timepieces. Try a chronological diet, abandoning your watch for a week and covering the clocks in your home. Then embark on slow-time activities: visit just one painting in an art exhibition, or stand in a park each morning to spot a single change and bring stillness into your day. Speak with new metaphors: give your leisure time more value by calling it “time on” rather than “time off”. This is no manifesto for inaction. If you’re procrastinating about changing careers, know that life is short and start stepping towards a different future. And if there are tensions at home, what are you waiting for? There’s no time like right now to clear them up.
In the end, we face a choice. We can embrace the philosophy that more is better, packing as much activity as we can into our daily routines. That’s the approach of author Umberto Eco, who does everything at double pace with the hope that he can live twice as much as the rest of us. The danger is that we become human doings rather than human beings, constantly trying to get things done.
The alternative is to pursue depth of experience. Here we can learn from another writer, Gustave Flaubert, who said: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.” Take your foot off the accelerator and don’t let the world pass by in a blur. That may be our surest route to sucking all the marrow from life.
Illustration by Marcia Mihiotich