Introduction How Do We Think About Time?
‘One life - a little gleam of Time between two Eternities’
― Thomas Carlyle
More Precious than Gold
What comes to mind when we think about time? Why is time so precious and why do we seek ways to ‘make the most of it’?
Let us go back to 4,000 BC in ancient China where the first clocks were invented. To demonstrate the idea of time to temple students, Chinese priests used to dangle a rope from the temple ceiling with knots representing the hours. They would light it with a flame from the bottom so that it burnt evenly, indicating the passage of time. Many temples burnt down in those days. The priests were obviously not too happy about that until someone invented a clock made of water buckets. It worked by punching holes in a large bucket full of water, with markings representing the hours, to allow water to flow at a constant rate. The temple students would then measure time by how fast the bucket drained. It was much better than burning ropes for sure, but more importantly, it taught the students that once time was gone, it could never be recovered.
Of course, with the advancement of technology, no one uses water clocks anymore. But the fact that time is so limited remains ever true. Time is our most precious possession because, as with the burning rope or water clock, once it is consumed it cannot be replenished. No matter how much we hate to admit it, it will eventually run out. While you can always work more hours to earn more money, you cannot do anything to gain more time. It is such a slippery resource that is only visible when it passes and only valued when it is gone. Unlike money that can be saved in a bank, or gold that be hidden in a treasure box, time cannot be saved. We have no choice but to spend every moment of it, and every moment that is spent is a moment that is gone forever.
Given that time is more precious than money, it seems entirely irrational that many of us are more willing to spend our time in making more money, but are reluctant to spend more money in enjoying our time. We look for the best bargains and think twice before spending our money ‘wisely’, but often fail to do the same with time. ‘Wasting’ a couple of hours is not as bad as losing a couple of hundred dollars from our wallet, even though in reality, time is far more precious than money. We all have that tendency to spend time as if it costs us nothing and it gets worse when you consider that time has an additional ‘opportunity cost’ attached to it. You can divide your money and spend it on various things, like clothes, a new car, or a fancy dinner, but you can only spend your time on one thing at a time. When you spend time on a certain activity, you effectively give up the opportunity to spend it on other things for the activity you chose. Any benefit that might have been derived, had you chosen to do any of those other things, would be lost forever.
Time is also priceless because it is truly a miracle that we are here. The odds that we are alive at this moment in time are one in a billion zillion. Think about it, there was only one chance in all of the history of this universe that you would have been able to exist, and there you are, you made it. If for any reason your father and mother, or any of your grandparents, did not meet at exactly the right time, and at exactly the right place, you would not be here. If any of your ancestors, having gone through wars, famines, pestilences, and all kinds of fatal calamities, did not manage to survive, you would not be here. The odds are astronomically stacked against your existence, but you won the lottery of life, only you do not know that you won and the prize value in the time given to you is kept hidden. You spend from that credit line without knowing the remaining balance. You realize that whatever you spend cannot be replenished and that lottery of life can only be won once, never twice.
Yet, life is relatively short and old age creeps up fast. Before you know it, the grand theater of life drops down its curtains for the final exit. That seems a bit unfair. If it took such an enormous effort for the universe to get us here and against staggering odds, why would it only allow us to stay for a relatively short while? “It takes billions of years to create a human being, and only a few seconds to die”, wrote Jostein Gaarder. We all know that death brings about the end of our own time. However, that reality is mentally and emotionally difficult to comprehend. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker declares that the fear of death is at the heart of the human condition. We all try to deny it. ‘We live our life as if we are never going to die and die as if we never lived’, says the Dalai Lama. But it is not wise to deny that our time will one day come to an end, for that will lead us to undervalue our present time. In the case of such denial, we might not care how much time has already elapsed and go ahead and waste time as if we have an unlimited supply, not knowing that tomorrow may be our last. If on the other hand, we view time as limited and scarce, everything will take on a different dimension and we will place a greater value on the things we do here and now. Every minute that we spend with a loved one, for instance, becomes infinitely more precious; and every hour that is wasted becomes a great unrecoverable loss.
‘The odds are astronomically stacked against your existence, but you won the lottery of life, and you made it’
The Value of Time: Work and Leisure
The value we give to time also depends on the amount of free time we manage to extract from our daily routine and devote for leisure. Inventions and technological achievements of the past 100 years were all made for the purpose of saving time and providing people with more leisure time. Cars and planes were invented to make trips shorter. The computer was developed to make work easier and faster. Phones were devised to make communications faster. So many machines - washing machines, dishwashers, microwaves - have been designed to save time. Back then, people thought that in the future everyone would have nothing to do. The 19th-century British economist, John Maynard Keynes, imagined that in 1930 ‘our grandchildren would work around three hours a day.’ In his day, technology had already reduced working hours and there was no reason to believe that trend would not continue. In fact, according to recent statistics, Americans work 12 hours less each week than they did 40 years ago, and it is even less in Europe.
The main problem that social scientists had to tackle seemed to be: what can people do with all that free time? It cannot obviously be placed in a ‘Time Bank’ for future consumption, nor can it be passed on to our children or to some friend who is short of time. But free time did not turn out to be a problem after all. A look at how people spend their time nowadays reveals that people are busier than ever. Time scarcity has in fact increased, especially in the corporate world, and particularly among working parents. It turned out that the problem is less about how much free time we have and more about how we perceive that time. And this all started with the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century when clocks were used to measure labor and the value of time became associated with money. Due to this association, the more valuable we perceive our time to be, the less eager we are willing to ‘waste it’ on leisure and the scarcer it will seem.
In a recent study that was carried out at the University of Toronto, two groups of people were asked to listen to the same piece of music, ‘The Flower Duet’ from the opera Lakme. One group was asked to calculate their hourly wage before the song started while the other group was not asked. The participants in the group who had made the calculation felt less happy and more impatient, while the music was playing. They felt that listening to that music was a waste of time that could have been spent in a more profitable way. The study showed that most people tend to avoid wasting time so as to maximize the money that they can generate. The additional free time that technology has freed up is often not spent on enjoying life but on more work and money-hoarding. And though people may be earning more money to spend nowadays, they are not earning more time to spend it in. The higher the paycheck, the scarcer time seems and the more rushed people become.
We all seem to be running after something, trading our time for money and all sorts of things, but for what? Given that time is our most precious resource, we have to consider to what extent is the exchange worth it? You have probably heard the saying that money cannot buy happiness. An interesting 2009 Gallup survey conducted over a period of two years and which gathered 450,000 responses concluded that people are happier and more satisfied with their life as their annual income increased. However, when annual income passed above 75,000 U.S dollars, life-satisfaction continued to increase but happiness did not improve any further. Earning more than that income threshold did not contribute further to people’s emotional well-being 2. If the purpose of life is to be happy than this implies that on average, spending time on earning more than 75,000 U.S dollars is the time that is not well-spent as it does not make us happier. A central question is, therefore, this: are we making the most of our limited time? How much time is unnecessarily wasted on things that are not beneficial to our life fulfillment and emotional well-being? Of course, defining ‘wasted time’ is largely subjective; and there is a saying that ‘time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time’. However, we will later explore in more detail that there are certain activities that are considered optimal for life fulfillment. It will suffice to note for now that these are the type of activities where people experience ‘being in the zone’ or ‘in the flow’. Spending time in that state of mind is not only extremely gratifying but also alters our experience of time itself.
For now, let us look a little bit further into the ‘value’ of time and ‘wasted time’ as it relates to the culture, country, and the pace of life in the city we live in.
Time & Culture
The culture we grew up in affects how we view time, the value we place on time, and how we spend it. Time is perceived differently by Eastern and Western cultures, between countries of the same culture, and even between cities within the same country. In Western Europe, for instance, people living in Switzerland view time very differently from their neighbors in Italy. In Northern America, the United States and Mexico view time in an entirely opposite manner that often causes friction between them. Similar opposing views exist in the East as in, for instance, Thailand and Japan. Let us start with the Western concept of time.
In Western culture, time is viewed as something that is linear. We travel through time on a line. Life is considered a ‘journey’ and death is the ‘end of the road’. The past is something that is behind us and the future is a path that stretches in front of us. Time is an arrow. There is a beginning and an end to everything. This is based on ideas derived from the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), where the Universe had a clear beginning and will one day come to an end on judgment day. In those religions, humans are born once and die once.
This linear view of time permeates many facets of Western culture. It explains why Westerners tend to be more focused on the future. It allows them to forecast future events, such as quarterly sales projections, through meticulous planning. You can be extremely confident that the train in Zurich will leave at exactly 10:07 a.m. tomorrow morning and arrive at 11:04 a.m. sharp. People in these cultures aim to eliminate future unknowns to their best of their abilities. As a result of this linear view, time is considered very precious and limited in supply.
The linear view also allows for the value of time to be equated with money. If you ever had to deal with an American lawyer or doctor, you would quickly realize that time is money. Americans live in a profit-driven society where time is precious and needs to be quickly utilized as fast as it is passing. To achieve a decent status in U.S. society, you have to make money and you view your time in terms of your hourly wage. To save one million dollars by the age of 30, you would have to earn $100,000 annually, which is around $40 per hour. This is a linear mathematical relationship between time and money. Equating time and money is also why Americans do not generally tolerate idle time and prefer action over ‘wasted time’. They look for ways to save time, such as improving efficiencies in factory production.
This view is also shared in Britain and generally the Anglo-Saxon world, along with Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries where time precision for the sake of reducing wasted time is immensely important. Time is extremely regulated for the Swiss, for instance, who made precision their national symbol. Their watches, optical instruments, transportation, and banking industries stand witness to that. In 1836 Britain, John Belville began to sell time by setting his pocket watch at the Greenwich Observatory where he worked and selling the precise time to clients in London! People living in Anglo-Saxon countries view time as being wasted if it is passing without any decision or actions being taken. They prefer to focus on one thing at a time so that they can efficiently complete more things within a certain deadline. Those countries are influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which associates success with working harder and longer hours. Examples of popular idioms are ‘The early bird catches the worm’ and ‘Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today’.
Contrast that to societies that existed in the Soviet Union, where success is achieved by those who make the most by working the least. The Anglo-Saxon view is also considered naive in Southern European countries, like Italy, Spain, Greece, or the Arab world, where success is often associated with privilege, birthright, and connection to authorities. Time is often viewed as a rubbery flexible thing. People in these countries are generally not very interested in punctuality or setting deadlines, but more on the end result, regardless of how long it takes. A meeting, for instance, is not constrained by clocks but by the discussions themselves and time can be stretched or manipulated to reach a reasonable conclusion. People from these cultures generally feel less rushed. Time runs at a slower pace. While Americans tend to think about time in 5-minute increments, people living in Mediterranean countries and the Middle East do so in 15-minute increments. Popular expressions are ‘In Sha’ Allah’ that you hear often in the Arab world and means ‘If God wills’, or the Italian proverb ‘Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves’, or the Turkish proverb ‘What flares up fast extinguishes soon’.
People in Southern European and Middle Eastern countries tend to be more focused on the present, not the future, which likely is the reason why such countries are behind in planning and are relatively less developed than their northern counterparts. It also explains why people living in Spain, France, and Greece, save less money on average, with Italians being the worst savers, when compared to people living in countries like Britain, Netherlands, and Germany who tend to be more focused on the future and are among the highest savers in Europe. However, this emphasis on the present is also likely why people in Mediterranean cultures appear to enjoy life more, as it is happening now, e.g. the Italian La Dolce Vita (the sweet life), and generally prefer smaller immediate gratifications over larger long-term rewards. Now, what about the Eastern view on time?
In contrast to the West, time in the East is viewed as being cyclic. The sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, generations follow generations, governments succeed each other, and this goes on forever. Time is more like a boomerang, not an arrow. This idea originates in Eastern religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism) that believe in reincarnation. People in cyclical cultures also tend to focus more on the past because they believe they can find many links to what is happening now. People’s actions in previous lives, known as karma, determine what type of existence they will have after rebirth.
Unlike their West counterparts, Asians are generally not pressed to make quick decisions but prefer to contemplate and take their time. Time is not a scarce commodity in this view. For them, time does not race away in a linear fashion but comes around again in another cycle when they will be wiser to act on the same opportunities and risks when they re-present themselves. As a result, they are less disciplined in planning their future and more lenient to go with the natural flow. Popular idioms are the Chinese proverb ‘Wise men are never in a hurry’ or the Japanese proverb ‘A proposal without patience breaks its own heart.’
The Chinese and Japanese, in addition to adopting this hesitant contemplation view of time, differentiate themselves from the rest of the Eastern countries by having a keen sense of time. Punctuality is considered very important. Chinese often arrive at meetings 15 minutes earlier so as to finish on time and maximize efficiency. They appreciate the time being contributed in a meeting, more than any other Asian countries. But they would still take their time for repeated deliberations before the deal is closed.
The Japanese have a similar deep sense of the passing time. This can be observed in the contrast between the rapid pace of Japanese factory workers and the slow easygoing pace seen in Japanese gardens or Japanese music. However, an additional feature of how they view time is how meticulous they are in dividing it. Japanese view time as segmented by tradition. These divisions do not follow Western ideas, where tasks are sequentially allocated to time slots for maximum efficiency but are more concerned with how much time is given to proper courtesy and tradition. In social gatherings, Japanese have marked beginnings and endings that follow traditional phases. People are expected to conform to the heavily regulated society. This helps in defining where people stand in social and business situations. Exchanging business cards in the first 2 minutes of a meeting is a clear example that marks the beginning of a relationship. Students in Japanese schools are expected to formally request their teacher to start before the lesson begins. At the end of the class, they offer a ritualistic sign of gratitude. The same rituals apply in tea ceremonies, New Year and midsummer festivities, company picnics, sake-drinking sessions, martial arts sessions, and cherry blossom viewings. These activities are experienced by the Japanese in an unfolding manner. For them, time is segmented into slots defined by tradition where it is important to do the ‘right thing at the right time’.
In brief, the difference in views on time between the various cultures, being linear, flexible, or cyclic, affects the value people place on time. Depending on the culture you grew up in, you will be more inclined to place a higher value on time, as a scare resource that is running out swiftly, or less value as an abundant resource that will always come back again. This also affects whether you are more focused on the past, present, or future.
Excerpted from "The Power of Time Perception" by Jean Paul Zogby. Copyright © 829 by Jean Paul Zogby. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.