Chasing Time in the Age of Infinite Possibility

Allegra Villarreal
5 min readAug 22, 2023

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Chasing Time, Allegra Villarreal, Digital Illustration, 2023.

About two years ago, I fell down the productivity-hobbyist rabbit hole, consuming an endless stream of recommended YouTube videos about time management, self-optimization, and personal knowledge management. In fairness to myself, I was drowning at the time — overwhelmed in my attempts to raise two small children and maintain two demanding jobs in tandem. Trying to tidy up the endless debris that results when there are too many plates in the air and the inevitable happens. These videos promised that I could find the time somewhere in my day, like lint in the pocket, or a lucky penny on the road. I just needed the optimal systems of note-taking, calendaring, journaling, habit tracking, and reading. What I realize now is that I was trying to optimize decision-making, trying to claw back the endless hours spent in hypothetical scenarios or stuck in a research bog for the next right step.

If you’ve found yourself in this particular corner of the internet, you will likely know the concepts, names, and faces I’m obliquely referencing here (and, if you want to know more, I highly recommend Episode 3 of BBC 4’s The New Gurus). I am still passionately interested in these topics, and the thinkers who espouse them, but after reading Oliver Burkeman’s Time Management for Mortals, I was struck by the idea that the motives of productivists and procrastinators are, in fact, the same. They both deny the fact of time, of mortality, constantly attempting to “cheat” it or, put another way, “cheat death.” Are we all just putting off major decisions in the vain hope that we can manifest more deliberation time? More life?

“Decision-making” is perhaps the most mentally arduous and labor-intensive task we do as human beings. We even have a term for this particular type of weariness: “decision fatigue.” I remember well, after spending years in Europe perusing compact, three-aisle grocery stores, the overwhelm I felt entering a Walmart Supercenter for the first time. I nearly had a breakdown in the cereal aisle, deciding amongst dozens of types, sizes, and price points. I left that store exhausted.

And, today, as I make my way in the world with small children and a life of my own, in a world that is deeply suffering, the decision points stretch out before me, a constellation of potential or pitfall — not only for me, but for all of us. No longer is it a choice between Frosted Flakes or Special K. Decision points, like sliding doors, could lead to soaring success, nebulous spaces, or the dark matter of nihilism, depression, and ennui. It doesn’t help that the level of information we consume is at an all-time high: a decade ago, the last comprehensive study averaged our individual consumption at about 34 GBs daily (that’s the equivalent of reading or listening to 100,000 words every day). And it’s surely much more than this now with the pervasiveness of autoplay and endless scroll. Algorithmic feeds are rollercoasters with high points and low dips, an endless blur of alternative, parallel worlds. All the things we might have been. All the things we could be doing. All the things we are lucky to have escaped. In addition to the emotional toll this takes on us, we are also confronted by countless decision points built into the persuasive design of modern life.

It cannot be denied that an open-ended life spent imagining potential futures or second-guessing the past, is a particularly tortuous way of living. Robert E. Goddin, the philosopher and social theorist, explored this concept in On Settling, positing that “settling” — into a career, a relationship, an activity — is necessary to wrest back some of our mental and emotional capacity. “Fixity” — accepting some fixed points in our lives, allows us to make decisions about what is worth striving for in the future (in his treatise, “striving” and “settling” are not opposites but complementary). Are the decisions we make always the best we can come up with? No. But we make do. And in “making do” we pave the way for confidence, trust, and competence that can only come with time, patience, and settling on…a career, relationship, or activity.

There is beauty in the here and now, in life as we have it in this very moment, the life we have managed to forge thus far. But when time is understood primarily as a resource, so many of us inevitably suffer, seeking solace in the escapism of procrastination or the technicalities of optimal productivity. Our relationship with time makes decision-making that much harder.

These days, our time is extracted from our lives like oil from the earth, like the finite resource it is. Time slips away from us just as days slip into nights (through electricity), seasons into one another (through temperature control), and the boundaries between leisure-work-family-home (due to the ubiquity of internet-connected devices). Many of us feel lost as a result, longing for a time and place we cannot quite articulate. Longing for a way to mark the passing of time beyond calendars and to-do lists.

Because, as human beings, we also know in our bones: some things take the time they take. They cannot be “calendared” into our lives, things like rest, grief, caretaking, consensus-building, illness, and serendipity. Our world, for the most part, is not built to acknowledge this “polychronic” un-time-keeping (though there are cultures who regard times as dynamic, and flexible, it is certainly not the dominant viewpoint). Decision-making, then, does become a weighty proposition. What is worthy of our “time”? For many of us, we conclude that only money-making endeavors are worthwhile. We are encouraged to come to this conclusion. We are rewarded for coming to this conclusion. And, in my life, this inherited belief has thrown me off course many times. It is important to think deeply about the question of time and make decisions accordingly because the “plans” are mere “intentions” for the future. Given this reality, perhaps all our decisions are not really about finding the “right” things to do with our time, but about figuring out: what do we want our time to mean?

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Allegra Villarreal

Educator, writer, artist, introvert, mamá. GED recipient & Oxford alum; forever living life one semester at a time.