The persistence of time
No word is more important to our daily existence than “time”. Yet we dance with it without making contact, understand it poorly, use it unwisely and often suffer under false assumptions that prevent us from making the best of our short stint on this blue planet. This article deals with common misconceptions about time and offers several models for getting more life into our years: Timebanking, Elasticity, the River, The Kittens’ Kittens and the Game.
The only currency
A fundamental tenet of my life philosophy is that time is the only true currency, the one objective measure of value. It is the only non-replenishable and truly scarce resource we have, yet we only acquire the wisdom to truly understand this in our later years when the sands of time run low.
“The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.”
Henry David Thoreau
Each of us has an approximate notion of our financial net worth and likely has our value system aligned. But money can come and go, and the laws of physics do not dictate its progress vector. For time, the laws of physics apply, as its quantum properties are too small to matter to a modern person.
The average human lives under 77 years, or about four thousand weeks. Let that sink in for a second – how much do you have left in your time account? Are you using it wisely?
Paradoxically, we all treat our one most finite resource irresponsibly, consistently underestimating its actual value. Imagine somebody you didn’t know came and asked you for 50 dollars. Would you give it to them? Now imagine they asked for half an hour of your time. Would you agree? We unconsciously make those “value” judgements about our time without understanding their true consequences.
Irrespective of how you answered the question above, the simple arithmetic probably suggested an unwise equivalence in our personal “time is money” equation. We’d spend an extra 5 minutes trying to get a few dollars off an online order. Still, then we’d happily spend hours of our weekend attending a “free” event that is not worth the money equivalent of our time.
“Although we try to control it in a million different ways, the only thing you can ever really do to time is enjoy it or waste it.”
This common contradiction is a crucial tenet of how we think about time vs how we act with our time. Sahil Bloom has summarised it quite well:
The Paradox of Time: We are aware of the incredible value of our time but constantly take disrespectful actions of that value. We know how important our time is, yet we ignore its passage and engage in low-value activities that pull us away from the things that really matter.
We make investment decisions daily: we invest our time, attention and energy every waking second. Some of it is conscious, most not. The question is, how do we become more intentional about this investment?
Time in the present is far more valuable than time in the future. We need to upgrade our operating procedures to ensure we’re not unconsciously acting like it’s the other way around. Below, I introduce a few frameworks I find helpful in thinking through this permanent challenge.
The future you is a myth
“The fool is always getting ready to live.”
Let’s face it: humans are terrible at mental time travelling to the future, so the “future you” is a complete myth. We’re awful at thinking ahead—like snacking on a cookie today while vowing to quit sugar tomorrow. Betting on some uncertain future reward is a gamble with bad odds, especially when it means sacrificing today’s joys.
This belief in a future self who’s magically better at making decisions and resisting temptations is just a mental trick. Mathematically, banking on this improbable future at the expense of the present is a losing bet.
Dan Ariely, a behavioural economist, hits the nail on the head: “The idea that we’ll transform into something we’re not currently is intriguing but highly unlikely.” Ariely reminds us to balance our future dreams with today’s happiness. Over-focusing on tomorrow closes our eyes to the vibrancy of the here and now, leading us in a perpetual chase after elusive goals while missing out on life’s current pleasures.
My favourite definition of time is what prevents everything from happening at once. The sand clock is a beautiful visualisation of timebanking. It works like this:
- Each week, you get 10,000 minutes to live your life (actually 10,080 minutes, but let’s round for simplicity). This is a very democratic resource – we are all equal, so saying we don’t have time really means we have different priorities.
- Sleeping 7 hours a night is 2,940 minutes or ~30% of your week.
- If you work 40 hours a week, that’s another 2,400 minutes or 24% gone.
- Therefore, we’re left with approximately 4,500 minutes to allocate to everything we call life.
Time is, by definition, zero-sum (I can do X or Y), and it expires. This is why the phrase “save time” is so misleading – it implies that time can somehow be stored somewhere and used later. It isn’t – we’re simply making an ongoing allocation choice each hour of our waking time. Recognising this limitation and inverting our thinking from clearing our schedule to make free time to proactively thinking about how to insert things into our time that matter is something that we could all get better at.
While time management is beyond the scope of this article, for those interested, I recommend my friend Nir Eyal’s timeboxing technique, which I have found to be very effective in ensuring we spend our time aligned with what is valuable to us.
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days.”
Having dealt with the objective realities (i.e., physics-constrained) properties of time, we can now focus on the most essential aspect of time – its elasticity.
We’ve all felt it – time seems to speed up and slow down, depending on what we do and who we’re with. Objectively speaking, of course, that’s not true – astronomical time at sea level is, for practical purposes, the same for everyone. And yet, the concept of flow has shown that there is a second, subjective perception of time that is all too important.
Our consciousness and attention direction allow for a magic trick that can stretch and compress time in our subjective reality, allowing time to flow differently. Therefore, the ability to get “more time” can be achieved by putting more years into our lives and more life into our years by compressing and expanding time.
Enter Chronos and Kairos, the two words the Ancient Greeks had for time, representing the two sides of a period. While Chronos is consistent and predictable, Kairos describes the moments in life with elevated importance relative to most. These are the moments where we have an increased awareness of being and a tighter connection with the universe.
A minute in Kairos’ time is not the same as in Chronos’s time:
Chronos is clocks, deadlines, watches, calendars, agendas, planners, schedules, beepers. Kairos is the moment of indeterminate time in which everything happens.
The critical thing about Kairos is that it is purely subjective. An identical situation is Chronos for most, but Kairos for some. This mental model is about finding and being intentional about the Kairos moment.
So, how do we increase our Kairos-to-Chronos ratio? We do so by diverting attention to the present moment.
One way is to do “deep work” – a very engaging hobby or a gratifying activity where the process of achieving means more than the achievement itself.
Another approach is to do hard things – the friction of doing something hard tends to slow time down. 2 minutes is a very long time if you hold a handstand, and nothing if you scroll on Instagram.
Finally, what is vital to slow time down is having new experiences – some get more out of a week than many out of a year’s worth of Chronos.
“Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”
At the core of this mental model is that we only get to do every single thing once, as by the time we do it again, we’ve changed, and the world has changed with us. You only get one 4th birthday for your kid, one 60th for your dad, and only one first visit to Paris with your partner when you’re 30.
You must, therefore, seize the moment when you have it and actively resist moving your attention to the next one, which is a perfectly natural human trait. It may sound trite, but after all, getting is nicer than having, so once we’re in a special Kairos moment, our mind naturally drifts towards anticipating the next. The River model suggests pausing and holding on for a little longer in the present.
As far as our loved ones go, which is the critical measuring stick, it’s later than you think. This is perhaps the most poignant consequence of the River model for any parent. Tim Urban explains this better than anyone in his seminal article The Tail End. He looks at time through the prism of personal relationships, emphasising that for the most important people around us (a far more significant proportion than we think), we are in the last 10% of the time we’ll spend together once we are older than 18.
This is because a significant portion of time with loved ones is concentrated in early life, which puts considerable weight on the importance of living close to loved ones and making an explicit, calendarised commitment to spending time with them regularly. We are often more loyal to our digital devices than those we love. Let that sink in.
The conclusion is that if you follow the River mental model, you’ll prioritise the special moments with loved ones intentionally, make them count, and then let them go. This is harder than it seems, especially with family.
The kittens’ kittens
Perhaps you’ve heard the phrase, “the days are long, but the years are short”. This mental model illustrates the absurdity of trying to have a to-do list and continuously striving to become more “productive” in ticking items off this list for a given time unit of measurement.
At the core of this concept is the fallacy of thinking that we can ever be in control. While it’s true that the efficient task rabbit manages to compress time, i.e., doing something in a minute that someone will do in a day, this simply means that their list of duties will simply refill at a higher rate. This is Parkinson’s law, best illustrated by the old banking maxim: “If you want something done, give it to a busy person”.
The critical insight of this mental model is to realise that there is no “there” there – we can never be fully optimised and finally get on with what we deem essential things in life, which is why productivity and self-help bookshelves are such a robust industry. Oliver Burkeman captured this perfectly in this quote:
John Maynard Keynes saw the truth at the bottom of all this, which is that our fixation on what he called “purposiveness”—on using time well for future purposes, or on “personal productivity,” he might have said, had he been writing today—is ultimately motivated by the desire not to die. “The ‘purposive’ man,” Keynes wrote, “is always trying to secure spurious and delusive immortality for his actions by pushing his interests in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor in truth the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forever to the end of cat-dom.
Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
The Kittens productivity trap sacrifices leisure time, which is the only thing we’ll wish we had more of one day, in exchange for investing in a to-be-determined future state, which is neither existent nor desirable. We should become comfortable with the idea that some projects and aspirations will remain uncompleted and that this is a natural part of life’s imperfection.
Perhaps the best allegory here is the laundry list model, which indicates the cyclical nature of the to-do items in our lives. Looking at a pile of laundry may give us a sense of an incomplete task until we realise that all laundry exists in a cycle. You have clothes that are clean in the closet. You have clothes that are on your body. You have dirty clothes on the floor; you have dirty clothes in the wash basket. It’s a cycle, and it’s ok for any item to be in any stage of that cycle.
This false binary (complete-incomplete) places a lot of unnecessary pressure on us, especially the productive OCD types, which leads to more harm than good as it is definitionally impossible to get everything done.
What if we viewed more of our life as existing in a cycle? Something that flows constantly, like the River model above. You will always have some things that are done, some that are soon to be done, and some that are never to be done. That flow is constant.
One thing that resonates with me personally is Author Oliver Burkeman’s advice on treating your “to-read pile” like a river rather than a bucket. In other words, it flows past rather than building up. The build-up is what causes stress and anxiety, whereas the river flows with or without our influence. Embracing this model encourages us to think about the areas where we place unnecessary pressure on ourselves to have everything ” completed “. Let the bucket be.
The concept of finite and infinite games is one of the true unlocks of thinking about time and how we spend it. It can also be linked to the time we spend in Chronos vs the time we spend in Kairos. The lens of playing a finite game explains much of human behaviour associated with material wealth.
A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.
James P. Carse, Finite and Infinite Games: A Vision of Life as Play and Possibility
We are all simply finite players in the infinite game of life, and the game doesn’t matter if we’re in it. The game simply goes on and changes constantly. So, playing just for the sake of playing it is probably how we can best define being in the flow.
Adopting a mindset of abundance, or infinity, means that we live our lives in a way that benefits others -whether through our work, or care, or knowledge passed on. This is why I emphasise the concept of connection – we are who we are because of the reflections of others upon us that shaped us through our journey.
Author James Carse makes a great allegory between gardening and life:
Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a gardener’s existence but only a phase of it. As any gardener knows, the vitality of a garden does not end with a harvest. It simply takes another form. Gardens do not “die” in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.
A playful attitude to life is what we truly mean by putting more life into our years – preparing to be surprised by the future, embracing uncertainty and being vulnerable. Contrast this with an outcome-oriented approach, which treats life as a series of milestones. A great practical approach to maintaining this playful attitude at times of stress is to practise cosmic insignificance therapy.
It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.”
From “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
At the core of the frameworks above is embracing the notion that our time is finite, and it’s a zero-sum game – every yes is a no to something else. As a result, the quest for increased productivity and infinite checklists is a form of avoiding implementing our values in our calendar with the recognition that we are finite beings.
My biggest personal challenge has been to recognise that the present is not something I work through to get to my hypothetical destination but rather where I am joyfully failing to get around to everything I deem essential. The wisdom of JOMO (the Joy of Missing Out) is a gift I’m yet to receive, but I am slowly getting used to the truth that we are free when no one can buy our time.
The chief prevention against getting old is to remain astonished.
- When I was 10, I couldn’t wait for time to speed up to have my freedom.
- When I was 20, I couldn’t wait to see how my life would turn out – where would I be, who would I be with?
- When I was 30, I wanted more time to start all the things I wanted to explore and smell all the roadside flowers.
- When I was 40, I wanted time to speed up so that my kids would grow up to appreciate all I did for them and see how they approach life.
- When I was 50, I wanted time to slow down, as it seemed to be speeding away in the distance. I learned the joy of giving and realised that true freedom is when nobody can buy your time.
- When I was 60, I realised I only had one life, and the only dimension of time that mattered was who I spent it with
- When I was 70, I realised that I had more time than I could ever dream of, and I learned how to slow it down and enjoy the tiny things
- When I was 80, I was grateful for all my time and every different moment in the here and now.