Hurry Sickness and Time Famine

In the summer of 2013, a blog post on The Huffington Post became an unexpected overnight sensation, with more than 7 million page views and nearly 1.2 million Facebook likes. It was entitled “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up,’ ” and was written by Rachel Macy Stafford, a special education teacher and mother of a six- year- old girl. Rachel’s life, as she writes, was “controlled by electronic notifications, ringtones, and jam- packed agendas.” But one day she painfully realized the impact she was having on her daughter — “a laid- back, carefree, stop- and- smell- the- roses type of child”: “I was a bully who pushed and pressured and hurried a small child who simply wanted to enjoy life.” The reason the post struck such a chord, beyond our guilt about the way we parent, was because so many recognized the damage we do when we constantly tell not just our children but ourselves to “hurry up.” Children are much more connected to the moment, and much less connected — yoked, actually — to the artificial constructs of time that we’ve imposed on ourselves (and for which we’ve appointed our devices as rigid enforcers). Rachel’s story was a reminder of just how much we can learn from our children when it comes to the importance of living in the moment.

It turns out that, not surprisingly, mastering the art of slowing down doesn’t happen quickly. Learning the wisdom of slowing down, of truly living, is itself a journey. But it is also a prescription for better health. A study led by Lijing L. Yan at Northwestern University found that young adults exhibiting time urgency and impatience had a higher risk of developing hypertension. And rushing can lead to packing on the pounds when we bring our obsession with speed to the table. As nutrition expert Kathleen M. Zelman says, “It takes approximately 20 minutes from the time you start eating for your brain to send out signals of fullness. Leisurely eating allows ample time to trigger the signal from your brain that you are full. And feeling full translates into eating less.” New studies have confirmed that eating more slowly leads to lower calorie consumption. Even sex is better when slow since stress from rushing inhibits production of dopamine, a chemical that affects libido.

Research published in the Harvard Business Review shows that speed adversely affects creativity and work: “When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed. . . . Complex cognitive processing takes time, and, without some reasonable time for that processing, creativity is almost impossible.”

Our culture is obsessed with time. It is our personal deficit crisis. We always think we’re saving time, and yet we feel like we never have enough of it.

In order to manage time — or what we delude ourselves into thinking of as managing time — we rigidly schedule ourselves, rushing from meeting to meeting, event to event, constantly trying to save a bit of time here, a bit there. We download apps for productivity and eagerly click on articles with time- saving life hacks. We try to shave a few seconds off our daily routine, in hopes that we can create enough space to schedule yet another meeting or appointment that will help us climb the ladder of success. Like airlines, we routinely overbook ourselves, fearful of any unused capacity, confident that we can fi t everything in. We fear that if we don’t cram as much as possible into our day, we might miss out on something fabulous, important, special, or career advancing. But there are no rollover minutes in life. We don’t get to keep all that time we “save.” It’s actually a very costly way to live.

We suffer from an epidemic of what James Gleick’s book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything calls “hurry sickness”: “Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers — they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time- saving devices and timesaving strategies, the more rushed we feel.”

Harvard professor Leslie Perlow has given this feeling a name: “time famine.” Feeling like you’re experiencing time famine has very real consequences, from increased stress to diminished satisfaction with your life. On the flip side, the feeling of having enough time, or even surplus time, is called “time affluence.” And though it may be hard to believe, it’s actually possible to achieve.

Some people are naturally time affl uent. My mother, for instance. In fact, when it came to time, she was filthy rich. She moved through her days like a child does, living in the present, stopping, literally, to smell the roses. A trip through the farmers’ market might be an all- day affair with little thought of All the Things That Must Be Done. I still often think of the advice she’d give my sister and me when we were faced with a hard decision: “Darling, let it marinate.” In other words, give yourself the time to think about and live with the consequences of the decision.

She was a towering example of the joys of slowing down. Until her death in 2000, she and I had an unspoken deal: Hers would be the rhythm of a timeless world, a child’s rhythm; mine was the rhythm of the modern world. While I had the sense every time I looked at my watch that it was later than I thought, she lived in a world where there were no impersonal encounters, and never a need to rush. She believed that rushing through life was a sure way to miss the gifts that come only when you give 100 percent of yourself to a task, a conversation, a dinner, a relationship, a moment. Which is why she despised multitasking.

As it turns out, it’s my mother’s luxurious sense of time, rather than my own struggle against perpetual time famine, that’s apparently closer to the scientific reality of time. As physicist Paul Davies wrote in Scientific American, though most of us feel time is something that fl ows — always coming at us and then rushing behind us — that’s not actually what happens: “physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety — a timescape, analogous to a landscape — with all past and future events located there together. It is a notion sometimes referred to as block time.” I love this because “block time” helps me see the big picture — there is literally both no time and all the time in the world.

Sadly, I am living proof that time affluence is not an inherited trait. But if you’re not born time affl uent, there are things you can do to turn your time famine into a feast. Studies have shown that, as Keith O’Brien wrote in The Boston Globe, “Small acts, simple emotions such as awe, and even counterintuitive measures like spending time doing tasks for someone else — essentially giving time away,” can make us feel more time affl uent. “It’s not just that people felt less impatient,” said Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford business professor and coauthor of a study on people’s perception of time, “but . . . they reported higher levels of subjective well-being. . . . They actually felt better in their lives.”

Just as money can’t buy happiness, neither can it buy time affluence. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, the more money you have, the more likely you are to suffer from time famine. The study concluded that “those at the top of the income spectrum are among the most likely to be time-poor.”

Not surprisingly, when it comes to winning the war on time famine, we are our own worst enemies. To win the war, first we have to declare that we want to change. According to a 2008 Pew report, when asked what was important to them, 68 percent of Americans replied “having free time.” It ranked even higher than having children, which came in at 62 percent, and a successful career, at 59 percent. Yet the way many of us choose to live doesn’t reflect those priorities. As long as success is defined by who works the longest hours, who goes the longest without a vacation, who sleeps the least, who responds to an email at midnight or five in the morning — in essence, who is suffering from the biggest time famine — we’re never going to be able to enjoy the benefits of time affluence.

And while time affl uence isn’t inherited, it’s clear that we’re doing a pretty good job of passing our self- destructive relationship with time on to our children. Not getting enough sleep definitely puts you on the road to time famine. Vatsal Thakkar, a psychiatry professor at the NYU School of Medicine, has suggested that many cases of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in children are, in fact, sleep disorders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an astounding 11 percent of school- age children have received a diagnosis of ADHD. Sleep- deprived children, writes Thakkar, “become hyperactive and unfocused.” In one study he cites, a sleep disorder was found in every single one of thirty- four children diagnosed with ADHD. Sleep, he notes, is especially crucial for children, who need the deep, slow- wave type of sleep called “delta sleep.” Compared to a hundred years ago, today’s children get a full hour less of sleep per night. And the answer is not as simple as choosing an earlier bedtime. It’s about changing how we overschedule our children’s days so that they can begin their nights sooner.

We protect our children in unprecedented ways — from car seats, to packing their lunches in containers made with BPA- free plastic, to shopping for organic food. But we apply less care and vigilance to our children’s time diets, even though the benefits of time affluence outweigh all those trips to soccer and violin practice. In William Faulkner’s book The Sound and the Fury, Quentin Compson’s father gives him a watch. “I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.”

So what can we do to fight back against “hurry sickness”? You can walk — don’t run — to join the slow movement. As Carl Honoré, the author of In Praise of Slowness, put it: “Speed can be fun, productive and powerful, and we would be poorer without it. What the world needs, and what the slow movement offers, is a middle path, a recipe for marrying la dolce vita with the dynamism of the information age. The secret is balance: instead of doing everything faster, do everything at the right speed. Sometimes fast. Sometimes slow. Sometimes in between.”

For Honoré, the turning point that led him to become one of the godfathers of the burgeoning slow movement happened nearly ten years ago. He was at the airport in Rome, waiting for his flight home and talking to his editor on his cell phone. Like far too many of us, he says, at the time he was wired and harried, a “Scrooge with a stopwatch, obsessed with saving every last scrap of time, a minute here, a few seconds there.”

While in line and on the phone, to make his time even more “productive,” he started skimming a newspaper when a headline caught his eye: “The One- Minute Bedtime Story.” The article was about a volume in which classic children’s books are condensed down to sixty seconds. Eureka, he thought to himself. As the father of a two- year- old son, he saw the book as a great bedtime time- saver. He started making a mental note to order the book as soon as he got home. Suddenly, he caught himself wondering: “Have I gone completely insane?”

The Slow Food movement was launched in Italy in 1989 with a manifesto to push back against the spread of fast food, focusing on local food, sustainability, and eating as a social act of connection. (Italians have other great traditions to draw from in preventing burnout: the riposo, the period of rest in the afternoon; and the evening stroll, the passeggiata, a time to disconnect from the pressures of the day.)

And now the slow movement has widened to include slow travel, slow living, slow sex, slow parenting, slow science, slow gardening, slow cities, and, now, slow thinking. “Slow Thinking is intuitive, woolly and creative,” wrote Carl Honoré. “It is what we do when the pressure is off, and there is time to let ideas simmer on the back burner. It yields rich, nuanced insights and sometimes surprising breakthroughs. . . . The future will belong to those who can innovate — and innovation comes from knowing when to slow down.”

We are not going to eliminate watches, appointments, and deadlines, although it’s worth remembering that the word “deadline” has its American origin in Civil War prison camps; instead of a physical perimeter, there would often be an imaginary line — the deadline — that the prisoners were not to cross. Our current use of the word isn’t too far from its origin. Today we often use deadlines — real and imaginary — to imprison ourselves.

Gaining a sense of time affluence can help lead us to both greater well- being and deeper wisdom — not a bad thing to put on top of our ever- expanding to- do lists. But to do that we’ll have to address the relationship between our sense of time and technology. Our digital devices both re- fl ect and amplify our hurry sickness. We use technology to save time (or so we think), but we also impose our distorted sense of time on our technology and use of social media.

There are countless examples of how social media have been a force for good. They can accelerate raising awareness about issues and leading people to action. From Tahrir Square to Tripoli to Tehran to Tucson, social media have made it easier to organize, share information, and protest injustice. During natural disasters, they have served as a lifeline to vital information, and as Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen put it in their book The New Digital Age, they “strengthen the bonds of culture, language and perspective” between diaspora communities and their home countries. Whether it’s CollegeHumor teaming up with Malaria No More and raising over $750,000 to fight malaria, or tens of thousands of people contributing videos to the “It Gets Better” campaign to prevent LGBT suicides, or people rallying to raise money through GoFundMe for Glen James, a homeless Boston man who returned a lost backpack with $40,000 in it, social media have made it easier to harness our collective power for good.

But going viral has gone viral, and is taken to be a big sign of success independently of the value of the thing going viral. It doesn’t matter, is often the assumption, as long as it’s viral. And social! Indeed, in the media world the fetishization of social media has reached idol- worshipping proportions. Media conference agendas are filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify coverage. But you rarely hear anyone discussing the value of the story that they want so badly to go viral.

Our media culture is locked in the Perpetual Now, constantly chasing ephemeral scoops that last only seconds and that most often don’t matter or have any impact in the first place, even for the brief moments that they’re “exclusive.” Michael Calderone, HuffPost’s senior media reporter, writes, “Nothing is too inconsequential to be made consequential.” The ersatz urgent has overtaken the truly important.

“We are in great haste,” wrote Thoreau in 1854, “to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” Today, we are in great haste to celebrate something going viral, but seem completely unconcerned whether the thing that went viral added one iota of anything good or worthwhile — including just simple amusement — to our lives. We treat virality as a good in and of itself, moving forward for the sake of moving.

“Hey,” someone might ask, “where are you going?”

“I don’t know — but I’m moving really fast!” Not a very effective way to end up in a better place.

Of course, our team at HuffPost is as aggressive as any media outlet in using social media. But maybe because we’ve been doing “social” well for a while, I hope we’re better able and more willing to see it for what it is — a tool, not a magical feat.

How many times is the discussion of a topic justified by the fact that it’s “trending on Twitter”? Is it really meaningful that “sentiment on Twitter is breaking 80 to 1 against such and such”? Is something important because it has three thousand “likes” on Facebook?

In fact, trending on Twitter may not mean much of anything at all, except an indication of what’s dominating the conversation at that particular moment. (There were 24.1 million tweets during the 2013 Super Bowl, for example, and 10,901 tweets per second during Adele’s Record of the Year win at the Grammys.) But as Twitter’s Rachael Horwitz wrote to me, “Twitter’s algorithm favors novelty over popularity.”

The bottom line is that you can use Twitter to talk obsessively about Miley Cyrus twerking at the Video Music Awards (there were an astounding 306,000 tweets per minute). Or you can use Twitter as sites such as Kickstarter and DonorsChoose do: to make a difference by leveraging the power of social media to crowdfund creative projects, or to help teachers fund urgent classroom needs.

As we adopt new and better ways to help people communicate, it is important to ask what is being communicated. And what’s the opportunity cost of what is not being communicated while we’re locked in the perpetual present chasing whatever is trending?

Social media are a means, not an end. Going viral isn’t “mission accomplished.”

Fetishizing “social” has become a major distraction. And we love to be distracted. I believe our job in the media is to use the social tools at our disposal to tell the stories that matter — as well as the stories that entertain — and to keep reminding ourselves that the tools are not the story. When we become too obsessed with our closed, circular Twitter or Facebook ecosystem, we can easily forget that poverty is on the rise, or that downward mobility is trending upward, or that millions of people in the United States and even more so in Europe and around the world have fallen into chronic unemployment. And that 400 million children around the world are living in extreme poverty. On the other side of the spectrum, too often we ignore the great instances of compassion, ingenuity, and innovation shown by people who are changing lives and communities by trying to address these problems.

Our times demand a better response. These new social tools can help us bear witness more powerfully — or they can help us be distracted more obsessively

We all have a relationship with technology. The question is this: How healthy is that relationship going to be? It’s an important question, because it affects how healthy and how wise we ourselves will be.

Our attention is the fuel that drives our lives. Or as Viral Mehta, cofounder of ServiceSpace, put it, “the clay with which we mold our days.” No matter what people say about what they value, what matters is where they put their attention. When technology eats up our attention, it’s eating up our life. And when we accumulate projects on our to- do list, they eat up our attention, even if unconsciously, and even if we never start them.

I did a major “life audit” when I turned forty, and I realized how many projects I had committed to in my head — such as learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook. Most remained unfinished, and many were not even started. Yet these countless incomplete projects drained my energy and diffused my attention. As soon as the file was opened, each one took a little bit of me away. It was very liberating to realize that I could “complete” a project by simply dropping it — by eliminating it from my to- do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage? That’s how I completed learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook and a host of other projects that now no longer have a claim on my attention.

Excerpt from Thrive pp. 143–155