Why Less Time Makes for Better Living

Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Time

Time is the most commonly used noun in the English language.

In our daily lives we try to manage our time or hope to use our time wisely. We grow frustrated with ourselves when we waste time and try to fill time when we have nothing planned or to do.

When experiencing a wonderful moment, we wish we could make time stand still and for a brief period we can. But then that time, like all time, passes. And in the most true of all clichés, as we watch our children grow, we are left to wonder, where did time go?

In his new book, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation, Alan Burdick takes us on a journey into, around and through time. What I have found most fascinating are its passages on our perceptions of time — exploring such questions as “How long is now?” and “Do children experience time differently than adults?”

The book is organized by units of time: the hours, the days, the present. In exploring each, he walks us through their origin and science. At a recent book event, I asked Alan if he had ever learned about the ultimate personal measure of time — a lifetime.

For most of human history, people did not even know their own age and certainly did not have any definitive idea about how long they might expect to live. So as they moved from day to day and from year to year, you wonder how did they consider the value of their time in total?

There are still cultures today that do not measure time at all. They don’t count minutes or hours or days with the same intention as we do and they certainly do not count the years in their lives.

Untethered to the ticking clock, they simply live to the beat of their own circadian rhythms. If just reading that makes you feel less stress — imagine living that way.

It may come as no surprise then that a commonality shared by cultures that disproportionately have more people live past 100 is their loose relationship to time.

In the show Rent, the song Seasons of Love opens with this question about time:

525,600 minutes, 525,600 moments so dear.
525,600 minutes, how do you measure a year?

It makes the case that time is a very clumsy unit for measuring life, when compared to say, love.

But what does it say about us when time is the most commonly used noun in our language but love doesn’t even crack the top 100 nouns or verbs?

For better or worse, time has become the de facto organizing principle and currency of our lives. And while most of us may wish we had more time for this or that, you wonder if less focus on time wouldn’t make for a better life.

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