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Why Time Is More Precious Than Ever

By Martin Kihn | December 28, 2016 | 7 Comments

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.

Comments are closed


  • You said “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 the data you seek is available, it’s just not presented as you described it. Case in point: The percentage of U.S. workers in 2015 who Gallup considered engaged in their jobs averaged 32%. The majority (50.8%) of employees were “not engaged,” while another 17.2% were “actively disengaged.”

    Regarding your ‘two-worlds’ hypothesis, maybe you should consider how much time and effort that all these employees (silent majority) invest in creating a facade that they care (when they couldn’t care less) about the mind-numbing busy-work they perform for a paycheck.

    My point: it’s true, virtual engagement can’t fill the apparent void that many people feel in their ’empty life’ today. But available free-time isn’t really the decisive factor in rectifying this situation. Also, what happens when cognitive computing creates a ‘learning machine’ that questions why it’s being asked to do work that lacks a meaningful purpose? Do we teach it to fake it’s acceptance and contentment?

    • Ed Schwartz says:

      Nice blog. Made me think about working smart not hard and the value of disconnecting instead of living a virtual existence 24/7.

  • David Burt says:

    Hey Marty, interesting article and enjoyable read.

    My experience has been that most “busyness” is purely self-imposed and/or a function of our own ego in one way or another. You’re concept of the 2nd life is an example of that and an interesting one given all the implications.

    The first part of the article made me think of an essay by Tim Krieder that you may enjoy called “Lazy: A Manifesto”. You can find it on youtube if you’re so inclined.

    Thanks for sharing, Marty! Happy Holidays!

  • Dave Dowling says:

    “What loss, your grace, is to man most irrecoverable?” – The Tudors, 2010

  • Karen Zeigler says:

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more that people are using virtual engagement to fill voids. Simon Sinek recently put out a video about how technology affects the dopamine levels in the brain in the same way that drugs and alcohol do. Whether it’s drugs, alcohol, or technology people turn to such dopamine inducing substances to numb their anxiety. As you mention anxiety is inherent in life – both work and home. The truth of the matter is, the anxiety is the root cause of the lost time. Technology is just a symptom or a means to an end. When we become anxious we move out of the present moment and the work or life we desire to be living and into our heads and then ultimately onto the technology or other addiction that will numb the anxiety. It is this leaving the present moment that can account for all the time lost. Think how easily it is to spend hours on social media or shopping online. When we practice mindfulness then we learn the techniques for getting out of our head and back into the moment. And it is in the moment that we learn how truly precious time is.

    Karen Zeigler
    Future Gartner Team Member

  • Eric Knipp says:

    Great comment David. A colleague likes to say “If you think caring is hard, try pretending to care.”

  • Tim Friebel says:

    Great post, as always. “Virtual feelings of virtual inclusion” … I’ll have to use this!

    Drew a parallel to a short piece I just wrote on companies practicing journey science actually giving time back to their customers by having less painful and time-consuming journeys. Whether or not those customers use the extra time to promote their virtual feelings remains to be seen.