You don’t have time to read this post. I don’t have time to write it. Tick tock.
There is no doubt that many people in our culture feel like they have less time. As CNN has reported:
“People seem to have the sense that their time has become more limited – that compared to earlier generations, we spend more and more time working and have less and less free time.”
Not enough, never enough. Each year time compresses and the hooks on it appear to expand . . . so we’re living in a constant state of temporal scarcity, a perpetual screaming impotence to get out in front of the beat. Why?
Now, let’s agree that time per se is not getting scarcer. It may be relative, time, but there is just as much of it as there was when the first century Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote “On the Shortness of Life.” It follows, then, that the perception that we have less of it is either a function of (1) having more to do (more work), or (2) is just that: a perception. Or it’s both, or it’s something else, which I’ll get to in a moment.
When it comes to time, no one can agree on anything. Maybe we’re too busy. In 2014, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote an essay in the New Yorker called “No Time” that basically bemoaned the grinding lack of leisure in our lives. Inspired by Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Kolbert points out that the assumptions of early 20th century economists, notably John Maynard Keynes, that by now we’d all “scarcely have to work,” have all gone hideously wrong.
Later, writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson offered a rebuttal that this time-crunch phenomenon is a function of economic class. In the U.S., it’s only the more affluent and educated who actually have less leisure time than our earlier models. There is some evidence that average hours worked in our country have declined about 11% in the past 60 years. But an examination of leisure time unleashes the ta-da that people with more schooling really do have less leisure time than our less pointy-headed (and poorer) peers. And we are getting more busy.
One hypothesis: richer people know (and feel) their time has higher cash value and so get more anxious when they’re not “doing something.” Therefore we get a hard-to-pity group the Swedish economist Staffan Linder calls the Harried Leisure Class, begrudging their moments of freedom from work and desperate to maximize its productive unit value by, say, studying up on Hadoop at the beach. (You know who you are.)
Then our old pals at Fast Company piled on with a story that echoed the above and added some ammo from the University of Maryland’s Americans’ Use of Time Project. Among other things, the Project showed just how bad we are at estimating what we do. Our perceptions of time are awry. We overestimate how much we work and underestimate how much we sleep, perhaps for self-serving reasons: just as we tend to think we’re better-looking than we are, we also like to think we’re busier than we are. Busy people are important. If we’re not busy, well . . . you see where that train goes.
And then the Economist stomped into the circus with a typically erudite squib called “Why Is Everyone So Busy?” (One obvious insight we can get from my little survey of articles about time is that, whoever else they may reach, journalists are certainly reading one another. From Schulte’s book to Kolbert to Thompson to Fast Company and the Economist and now me, there’s a pretty clear daisy chain of, um, inspiration.)
After touching the pillars, including Keynes, and adding a delightful apercu from William James (circa 1890: “Our sense of time seems subject to the law of contrast”), the author parades us past studies and polls that amply attest to the “yuppie kvetch.” That is: people who earn more feel more stressed about just about everything, including time. There is also more choice — about just about everything — which makes previously simple decisions awfully complicated and fosters a fear-of-missing-out (FOMO) delusion that there’s a lot more interesting choices to be made (about buying, learning, amusing ourselves) if only we had . . . time.
And then there are darker truths. We all feel a bit insecure about our jobs, and we tend to earn more if we’re seen by the boss to be at our desks earlier and later, like modern day Ben Franklins working on our brand. Big prizes are scarce. We’re frantic not to be the failed startup, the glossed-over veep. In the words of Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz:
“In a winner-takes-all society you would expect this time crunch.”
All of which is very interesting, and true, as far as it goes. But I think it misses the really crucial point. There is another reason we all feel under the time gun, strained by forces we don’t quite understand. There is another factor here. It is obvious, and like many obvious things, impossibly hard to see.
What Really Happened
Let’s take the case of journalism. Until the new millennium, magazine writers worked on a story, were paid, and saw it into print. Then – sometime around 2005 or so – there came a mania for blogs, and these self-same chumps were ordered to write blog posts for no extra money on top of their other jobs. Oh, how we resented it! Free labor, and to what end? Then came social media and the daily shout of content it required, some of which came from the hard-working hacks, and the odious need to build out our “personal brand” by investing time in gaining followers on Twitter and a network on LinkedIn and prolific sharing of our gratis words and thoughts and research out on trade networks and . . . well, you all know what I’m talking about, because you all do it.
See what happened there? We had a full-time job researching and writing and were suddenly forced to devote hours and hours to a world that didn’t exist before the Internet: let’s call it the virtual world, or 2nd Life. But the original job — let’s call it our 1st Life — did not go away. It continued to make demands on our time. So now we have two lives, two realms, two states of being, and both demand our attention. There is overlap and some efficiency in multitasking and so on, yes, but the fact remains: we live in two worlds, most of us, and they both want our time.
I spent some time – not enough, I’m sure, but who has the time? – looking for studies and learned diatribes on this two-worlds hypothesis and could find nothing. Perhaps in the universe of gaming, I thought? There are people we know who devote their lives, say, to World of Warcraft, and neglect their real 1st Life. Why do they do this? It goes deep. They have a virtual presence that has all the non-physical needs we all have in life, as described in Maslow’s Hierarchy: a need for status, acceptance, fulfillment, starting with the most basic animal compulsions to belong . . . or, let’s say, to exist. They have a 2nd self that has these needs and a 1st self, which also has them. As much work as we used to put into our 1st Life, we must put into our 2nd Life. And our 1st Life remains, pulling for attention.
Over the past 15 years or so, we were a culture that had a full life and were gradually (and simultaneously) forced to build a virtual identity, virtual friends, make virtual discoveries, earn virtual money, virtual status, virtual feelings of virtual inclusion. All while still doing what we used to do: what used to seem like something for which we lacked the time. Or else – like a journalist in 2015 who writes only for print – we’re only half a man.
What do you think? Toss me a comment below or a tweet at @martykihn. But only if you have the time.