Time. We’re all desperate for more of it. There just never seems enough. In today’s world, time has become the most valuable commodity.
We even apologise for asking for people’s time.
“I’m so sorry, could I just steal a few minutes of your time?”
We don’t just borrow people’s time, we steal it. It seems that we have now all become so important that asking for someone’s time is now theft.
But when did we all get so busy that we didn’t have time for human interaction?
Time is money
As trite as it sounds, time is money. We work x amount of hours to receive x amount of money. Or we cost our time out by the hour: the cleaner who costs £20 an hour or the consultant that is charged out at extortionate rates. Time sheeting is common practice in the corporate world, which in some places means accounting for every eight minutes of your day. Although what we are actually selling is our labour power, not the time itself, we end up inscribing time with an economic value which often clouds our perception of it.
The apps we live by also hold us tightly to time so that we run like clockwork, from the minute our alarm goes off to the 8-minute walk to the station, the 37-minute metro ride, the 11am coffee break… We go through this cycle of events and routines, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day.
Time as constructed
We often talk about that feeling of being on the hamster wheel but time, like money, is a human construction. We invented it. It doesn’t actually exist; it’s not tangible. Although time may seem universal and innate, each day has no more and no less than 24 hours, time is abstract and constructed. Emile Durkheim argues a realm of time does not exist beyond what we feel and perceive it to be (Durkheim, 1968: 440–441).
When we say that time is running away from us, we perceive it as something concrete. If it runs away from us, we need to chase it, but if it doesn’t actually exist in a physical form, how can we ever catch up? And time has a funny way of speeding up the more we try to do. The more we run, the further away moves the finish line. We will never cross it.
We conceptualise time in the mind in terms of space, often represented as the Mental Time Line (MTL), and how we do that differs from culture to culture.
Cultural perceptions of time
In western cultures, we tend to hold the past on the left and the future on the right, mirroring the direction in which we read. Western calendars echo this order, with the days progressing from left to right. In cultures where they read from right to left, such as Arabic, Farsi, Urdu and Israeli-Hebrew speakers, their MTLs unfold from right to left and there is evidence to suggest that they organise and perceive time in the same way.
For a Westerner, having the future to the left and the past to the right may feel like going backwards but Mandarin Chinese even see the future as below and the past above, making next week “down one week” and “last week” “up one week”. Language provides the tools with which we give shape to our realities and express our experience of the world, and with regards to time, it has a major impact on how we perceive the spatial unfolding of life.
But if time is so malleable and fluid, why do we feel so encaged by the minutes and the hours of our day?
London-bound and time-bound
I notice the fixation with time very keenly in London. Everything runs tightly to time: the tubes are every three minutes, the restaurants turn tables to get more people through the door. There is a sense of needing to maximise time and squeeze the most out of everything. You can feel the city palpitate with an energy of work and purpose, a need to get to somewhere or do something: it is a city on a constant mission. But one that is ravenous for more time.
I was meeting a friend and my app was telling me I was 31 minutes away. “That’s weird”, he tells me, “mine says 29”. What had gone wrong?
What a queue says about a culture
Similarly, a queue is often the sign that something has gone wrong; there has been a breakdown in the system. The system is Henry Ford’s Supply Chain, which reinvented how work was conducted so as “to place the tools and the men in the sequence of the operation so that each component part shall travel the least possible distance while in the process of finishing.” Just think Starbucks. This was seen as revolutionary and has been adopted as the best way of minimising input and maximising output since it was invented in the 192Os. Only now, after almost a decade, are we seeing perceptions of efficiency begin to be challenged by new “Agile” systems of work embraced by start up cultures.
Go to Mexico, however, and a queue isn’t bad news — its conversation time. Its get-to-know-your-neighbour time, learn-something-new time. For an outsider, the Mexican perception of time can seem infuriating. Ahorita technically means “now” but it doesn’t mean “now” in the same way that an English-speaker might mean “now”. Ahorita can mean anything from this very minute, to 2 hours, 2 days or next week. But it frees you from being bound to time.
I once found myself on a deserted metro platform looking for anything that told me when the next train was due; a flashy electronic board, an old printed schedule taped to the wall, a person, anything. I eventually found a guard who told me ahorita. But when? Ahorita. Nothing more specific? Ahorita. I later asked someone if I was missing something and it turns out I was. If there is a schedule, the train can be late. But without a schedule, it’s never late. What can you really say to that? You have to admire the logic.
Language has a big impact on how we experience time . Brits and Americans live very much in the future, often ferociously planning things and looking ahead to the next holiday, career move, dinner plan etc. We also frequently speak using the future tense. We say, “I am going to the shops”, even if we are already out the door, whereas in Spanish, you would say, “I go to the shops”. Spaniards have a wonderful ability to enjoy life and to live in the now, not just because of their language but their attitude. There is a joke that their answer to everything is “mañana”, tomorrow, and while this has unfairly fuelled cultural stereotypes of laziness it has recently been predicted that Spaniards will have the longest life expectancy in the world by 2040, so who is laughing now? Scientists are scrambling to work out how could this possibly? They smoke twice as much as the Brits! Could it be the vegetables? The oil? The sun? How about their ability to enjoy life and live in the now?
Living in the now is the premise of mindfulness, a modern variant on guided meditation that has lately seen a huge uptake in countries such as England. It encourages finding minutes of stillness in your day to just be and has been heralded by some of the greatest minds of today to improve concentration, decision-making skills and efficiency. Although the idea that to keep up with a fast-paced life you must slow down feels like a frustrating, cryptic clash of mixed messages, it really is effective. Besides from the fact it is relaxing or calming, by forcing you to stop for a minute, it breaks the illusion that time is forever running away from you and shows you that it is all simply in the mind.
Be still, yet still moving
This sentiment beautifully summed up by the Japanese Master, Do Hyun Cho:
Stillness is what creates love,
Movement is what creates life,
To be still,
Yet still moving –
That is everything!