Good Time Versus Bad Time
For something that gets so much of our attention, the concept of time is enormously confusing. We endeavour to manage it efficiently, yet we rarely succeed. We strive to conquer it, same result. If you go deep into modern physicists (which I don’t recommend), there seems to be growing support for the idea that it isn’t even real.
If you’re concerned about me getting all boring and diving deep into the weeds on that last one, I have great news: I don’t understand it, so I will not be going into specifics.
Many consider time to be the most critical resource. Entire industries exist to help us save it and use it better. But, for all their efforts, are we any better off? Even if we’re getting more done (which is questionable), is there even an end point to reach?
Why is this? As I see it, one significant factor is we treat all time equally. Fifteen minutes spent having a shower is equal to fifteen minutes going for a walk is equal to fifteen minutes spent working on our taxes. I would argue that these events are not equal. Perhaps on a stopwatch they may appear so, but in the ripples they leave behind, they all impact time differently.
It’s difficult to solve a problem we don’t understand, and when it comes to the problem of time, we super don’t understand it. So let’s try to untangle the mess that is time itself and see if we can come out the other side.
Time as a perception
It does feel as though we’ve got a bit of a hold on what time is. There are seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc. It can be tabulated in a spreadsheet or counted on fingers. It’s a pretty tangible thing. If I tell you I spent 14 minutes on a task, you have a more or less clear understanding of what I’m trying to communicate.
Now and then though, time throws us a bit of a curveball. We get deep into a task, and suddenly 3 hours pass when we’d swear it was 20 minutes. Then, we get a migraine, and 15 minutes feels like 3 hours. Time may appear to be a constant thing, but it doesn’t feel the same from moment to moment.
This conundrum backs up an increasingly common idea in physics circles that time is more of a perception than an irrefutable slice of reality. It’s perhaps a bit more fluid and less cut and dry than we commonly give it credit for.
I have a gecko. Rather, I should say my wife has a gecko. His name is Odin, and he was chosen in a moment of weakness. As far as low-maintenance pets go, geckos are pretty badass. They live in a relatively small space and only require a capful of dehydrated bug powder every day or so. They keep a low profile.
We learned early on that geckos may not check the mutual social reciprocity box all that well. They don’t wag their tails when they come home to see you. There is no cuddling. They may not realize you exist. I’m not yet fully convinced that they realize they exist.
The first thing that astounded me about geckos is the lack of movement. I wasn’t expecting a daily three-ring circus in his fake rainforest box. I did however expect to see him move. Maybe some climbing. A bit of walking. I definitely had “breathing” pre-dabbed on the bingo card.
Yet anybody who owns a gecko can attest this isn’t a given. They don’t move. We had a house sitter once stay in our home for three days, and she reported that her only goal for the entirety of her stay was to see evidence of Odin moving. Not catch him in the act, mind you. She just wanted proof that he had moved a solitary muscle in his body within three days. She failed spectacularly.
Indeed, for days at a time, this animal will sit there wholly immobile. Often upside down, which strikes me as uncomfortable, but then again, I have to assume the circulatory system of me and a gecko may differ. What I’m getting at here is that time cannot pass the same for Odin as it does for me. To me, fifteen minutes is fifteen minutes. I can’t tell you that Odin is experiencing those fifteen minutes in the same way because for a Gecko to survive, it must live under an entirely new set of rules.
Interface Theory of Perception
Dr. Donald Hoffman, a Department of Cognitive Sciences professor at the University of California, Irvine, puts forth a theory that natural selection has constructed everything we call “reality” (time included) to help us remain alive just long enough to procreate before we die. Think of natural selection like your best friend in university that just wanted to get you laid. Hoffman maintains that after running millions of mathematical simulations, his team can show that the likelihood that any being on earth is experiencing true reality is 0%.
In these simulations, Hoffman uses a computer program to model the evolution of a simplified virtual world and a simplified organism within that world. The virtual world includes objects and features the organism can perceive, such as shapes, colours, and textures.
Hoffman then applies evolutionary algorithms to the simulation to determine which organisms are more likely to survive and reproduce in the virtual environment. He finds that the organisms that have evolved to perceive the world in a way that maximizes their fitness are not necessarily the organisms that perceive the world accurately.
Based on this simulation and others like it, Hoffman argues that our perceptions are unlikely to represent reality’s true nature accurately. He suggests that our perceptions are instead shaped by the selective pressures of evolution to help us survive and reproduce.
30 days (the only 30 days) in the many shoes of a house fly
You may notice different frame rates when you want to take a video on your phone. For example, regular video may be shot at 24-60 frames per second, while slow motion video might be 240 frames per second. You can think of these like a flip book animation, whereby each second of time is comprised of 60 images or 240 images.
Research out of Edinburgh showed that different animals are taking in different levels of information, resulting in a different experience of time passing. This can explain why a fly–who might only live for a month–doesn’t have to learn the skill of avoiding a swat from a human. Instead, they might be taking in more information (like setting our phone to 240 frames per second), so they may experience life in something we’d call “slow motion.” They avoid your swat because it unfolds very slowly for them.
So you want more time. Why?
So once we establish that time isn’t real (at least in how we define it), we can start to play a little bit. Most people want more time. How much would you give to create a 25th or 26th hour in the day? We read books and listen to podcasts on the best ways to juice reality of all its sweet, succulent time. The endless pursuit of using our time as best we can has become something of a hobby for many (ironically, one that takes up a good amount of time).
However, there seems to be far less attention paid to what we’d do with this time if we could create it. We say we’d invest it in ourselves, perhaps take a course, or develop a hobby. The more likely scenario, however, is we’d probably do more of the same. We’d cram in another hour of work, getting 60 minutes further down the infinite stack of papers. Maybe we’d add another show to watch at night, getting 60 minutes further down the infinite stack of shows.
We spend a great deal of energy on the impossible question of how to create more time but comparatively very little on the completely reasonable question of how to use the time we’ve got.
More time means nothing if you spend it on obligations you don’t enjoy. We all say we want more time, but we might be better served to ask for better experiences in the time we already have.
Tasks that create time… sorta
“You walk how much?” My friend was grilling me on my “fitness routine,” which technically amounts to little more than 3 (very slow) daily walks. I’m married with 2 kids, so my need to be cut and beautiful has lessened somewhat. So slow walks it is. Maintenance mode, baby.
My friend seemed visibly put off when I outlined that my routine essentially amounts to a poor tradeoff. “But if you just did a run, you could pretty much be done with your activity in 30 minutes instead of 90. You’re leaving 60 minutes on the table every day.”
My friend was not incorrect. On the spreadsheet of life, they certainly have 60 minutes that I do not. Over a year, they have a 365-hour advantage over me to do whatever they want, and that’s not insignificant. Can you imagine what you could accomplish if you gave it 365 focused hours of attention?
Then there’s the calorie burn, assuming we care about such a thing. From a pure fitness perspective, if I were to run for 30 minutes, I could burn somewhere in the neighbourhood of 375 calories. My 90 minutes of walking, meanwhile, burns about 600 calories. It’s more than a 30-minute run, but there are some noticeable diminishing returns. I could probably match my walking calorie burn if I ran another 15-20 minutes. My friend was correct; I’m leaving minutes on the table.
Am I, though? We’ve already established time is maybe more silly putty than steel. Is it possible my wasted 60 minutes aren’t all that wasted? Dare I even suggest it creates me time? Such a statement may get me a citation from the physics police, but if the argument is that it creates better time, we might be cooking.
My walks are the quietest time of my whole day, and I fucking lovequiet. It allows me a safe space to watch my monkey mind go off without needing to corral it. I can wander creatively and find new inspirations or solutions. I never return from a walk in a worse place than when I left, making it a high-reward investment of time. In short, the walks are easy access to a flow state where I can be present-ish in my mind. It’s an intensely satisfying state, so when put up against a 30-minute run, I see the added 60 minutes as a benefit more than a cost.
What’s more is the impact on the rest of the day. I’m more focused in my work, more patient with my kids and spouse, and I sleep better. Yes, I have 365 fewer hours in my year for certain tasks, but what of the other 8,400? I would argue my 365-hour investment makes the remaining 8,400 more enjoyable.
The two types of activities
Some activities fill us up while others empty our tanks. This is why I’m not wholly on board with the time management movement. The focus appears to be on trimming as much away as possible, leaving you with raw time.
But what are we losing when we trim away? Are we optimizing potentially fulfilling activities, leaving us with fewer of them? And to make room for what? More Netflix? More work? We all have things we need to trim from our lives, but perhaps at the same time, there are certain things that we should slow down and do more carefully. They may “take time” to do, but if they make the other moments of the day richer, then isn’t that the better outcome?
Allow me to rip on a service I enjoy: Blinkist. The concept of Blinkist is very sound. Books are taken and diluted down to their main takeaways. These takeaways are then presented as audio you can stream, cutting the time required to finish a book in record time. For a specific type of reader, this can be an invaluable service. For example, if you need to rip through 10 business books before you can start a project, this could be a very clever way to do that.
But what of the rest of us? What about people who read to learn but also because they merely enjoy the act of reading itself? Perhaps in this specific case, the cost of efficiency is losing those moments where you find inspiration, excitement, and explore creatively.
Further, what about learning? If you’re training for a 5km run, but you’ve never done that before, it would be foolish to start hammering out 5km runs every day until the race. The rest is just as important as the active training. The time between runs matters just as much as the time moving. I believe the same can be said for learning. You can firehose the contents of a book directly into your face, but then you miss out on those moments when you’re not reading and your subconscious is playing around with the ideas in the background. Go for a walk and think about a single chapter or idea. It’s in those moments that sometimes a book gives you a valuable moment of inspiration.
What is the point of reading 10x books in a year if you lose out on the experience of reading them? Sure, you’ll be bombarded with information at a far faster rate, but in this day and age, is getting bombarded with information all that difficult? We have the entirety of human knowledge at your fingertips. How’s that going for ya? Do you feel powerful, or does it feel like you’re barely able to keep up?
So how many “Blinkists” are we introducing into our lives? How many times per day do we dilute a task that has some valuable but unrecognizable quality to it? So you went on a walk, answered emails, and listened to a podcast at 2x speed all at once. Did you enjoy the walk? Did you allow your mind to settle down for a moment? Did you miss the best part of the podcast when you had to stop for a moment to adjust the tone of your email? Did you return refreshed at all?
There’s just not enough hours in the day
Most of us go from the moment we wake up until we crash into bed. “There’s just not enough hours in the day” is a common refrain from most of us at one time or another.
One argument against this claim is that there’s plenty of time; we’re just not good at using it. One blunt (yet practical) statement I’ve heard over the years is, “show me the screen time app on your phone, and I’ll show you exactly how much time there is in a day.” Now that’s a bit presumptuous. I don’t know you, so that’s a heavy statement to lob out there. Fair is fair, so let’s look at mine—big deep breath. Here we go.
Yesterday I was on screens for 9 hours and 3 minutes. I picked up my phone 74 times and received 139 notifications. A widely cited study suggested that for every distraction you run into in your day, the overall cost of getting back on track is approximately 23 minutes and 15 seconds. Of course, this number is pretty fluffy and subject to a lot of variables. Still, the main takeaway is probably accurate: single disruptions can tank your productivity, and we drastically underestimate the damage they can do.
Suffice it to say, picking your phone up 74 times and having your distraction grabbed 139 times throughout a day is probably a super, superbig obstacle to getting deep work done. Not even work, but deep anything. My biggest chunk of social media usage is around 7-9 pm. Am I going to sit here and tell you that I couldn’t have been doing anything more valuable than Twitter and Instagram during that time? I will not. Can I even tell you I emerged from that dystopian swamp as a better person? Also no.
I read about a horrific school shooting that won’t move the needle of human behaviour at all, a terrible murder that frankly lived in my head for probably 30 straight minutes, a whole bunch of people preparing for the ensuing robot-led apocalypse, and some financial influencer who implied that if my income is less than $150,000 my wife might not leave me, but she probably should. So, all in all, it wasn’t a great time.
What if I’d spent that time journaling? Walking? I know people like to say they go on social media at a time when their brain is fried, and they need something passive and mindless, but can we honestly say something like meditation wouldn’t be a better ointment for that? Being passive and mindless is the entire point.
So I did have more time yesterday. Looking at a single cross-section of the entire day, I can identify without any effort whatsoever nearly 2 hours I pitched directly into the bin. I bet I could do this every day of the last month. The time is there, I’m just not spending it all that well, and I wonder if it’s not unreasonable to ask if you are either.
Do we want time to crawl by?
The great conundrum with good time versus bad time is that if you ask what people want, they’ll often say they want long lives with lots of time. Given that time is a perception, the simple solution is to suffer. Aiming for menial experiences outside our comfort zones that offer little enjoyment is the surest path to a long experience. The accountant that hates math has a very long life.
In contrast, moments of abundant love and meaning pass by in a blink. It seems if you are among the lucky few who live their lives with all the greatest things, it will be full of days that whip on by. Not to speak for you or anything, but this is probably the path we should all be striving for, and yet if we succeed, it’ll be over before it even seems to begin. And so we arrive at the big question: would that be bad?
Identifying good time and bad time to create a time budget
Just as we might create a financial budget to ensure that we are on track with our financial goals, we can create a time budget to ensure that we spend our time on our values. If we can get beyond the idea that all tasks come from one giant pile that must be conquered, we can instead view tasks as falling into different categories. Some tasks should be rushed through and optimized, while others should be sipped like wine because they pair well with the rest of life.
Identifying which tasks create time and which ones drain the well is not much different than creating a financial budget. But, like most things, the essential ingredient is careful attention.
- Begin by identifying priorities. What do you spend the majority of your time on? Those are your priorities. This can get uncomfortable. Don’t hit me. Maybe you say your priority is your family, yet you’ve missed every family outing, and you typically see your kids for a handful of minutes each day. It can be difficult to hear, but while your family may be your top value, it isn’t your top priority. This would be a case where your time expenditure and values don’t match, and you get to decide whether that’s a problem.
- Track your time. We are terrible narrators. We have stories about everything, including how much time we spend on things or how much time a task should take. So get scientific with it and write down how you spend your time. Don’t worry; it won’t take more than a few days to see where your time is going and what your blind spots are.
- Analyze your time to see if the priorities (where you spend your time) align with your values (what you want to spend your time on). Again, if they don’t, you aren’t a terrible person, nor do you necessarily require an overhaul. Sometimes in life our priorities cannot align with our values. Want to be a career professional? Just had a baby? Well, you may not get everything you want on this one, champ. If you need a reminder, it’ll probably scream in your ear multiple times every day for the next few years. It might even pee on you. Just kidding. It’ll definitely pee on you.
- Adjust where you can. Career versus baby is a battle for the ages with no clear winners (except for the diaper companies). There will be much more reasonable tradeoffs, though. Social media, for example, is easy for me to target and eliminate in exchange for more time to read or write. Often you need to be made aware of the one or two stupid time sinks you participate in each day to make a change.
- Get fierce with your budget. Just as a financial budget can subtly remind you that this week’s grocery shop needs to be conservative, a time budget can help you say no to those tasks you probably shouldn’t give your time to. Protect the activities that fill your cup and bully the ones that leave you a dried-out husk of a human.
We tend to treat the time in our life like a cold, godless science. It exists with high-contrast corners and is what it is. Through this lens, we feel as though we can harness it, bend it, and duplicate it for our own gain.
However, treating time more like a nebulous occupant of the social sciences might open our eyes to new ways to deal with it. It might even offer some insight into why our current treadmill-to-nowhere isn’t working all that well. The harder we grip time, the less we appear to have.
One possible solution to this problem is recognizing that not all time is equal. For example, fifteen minutes of walking can enrich the next twelve hours of your day, whereas five minutes of Instagram can derail you for weeks.
We tend to spend all our energy on attaining time but less energy using it on things that deeply matter to us. We can turn this habit around somewhat by enacting a quick time budget to see where our time is going and where it isn’t.
Our goal seems to be to live a long, fruitful life while ignoring that technically a fruitful life will probably feel relatively short. This persistent attachment to things can become painful as the more enjoyable our lives become, the faster they appear to slip away.
So go for a walk (or three), read for the simple fun of reading, or do whatever weird-ass thing brings you joy. Who knows, you might even accidentally get more done in the process.