Finite games

All human activity is such an exercise (can one resist the word “ritual”?) in squaring the circle. We first produce the world by symbolic work and then take up residence in the world we have produced.

Alas, there is magic in our self deceptions.

(James Carey)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about time. Time as we know it was invented.

When clocks became widely used around the mid-1600s and into the Industrial Revolution, they changed the way we think about almost everything; work, play, rest, even the morality of time. It’s certainly changed the way the workplace operates.

“By the fourteenth century, the common understanding of what time was had changed; it became a grid against which work was measured, rather than the work itself being the measure.

Clock towers funded by local merchant guilds were erected throughout Europe. These same merchants placed human skulls on their desks as memento mori, to remind themselves that they should make quick use of their time.

Photo by David von Diemar

The proliferation of domestic clocks and pocket watches that coincided with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century allowed for a similar attitude toward time to spread among the middle class.

Time came to be widely seen as a finite property to be budgeted and spent, much like money. And these new time-telling devices allowed a worker’s time to be chopped up into uniform units that could be bought and sold.

Factories started to require workers to punch the time clock upon entering and leaving.

The change was moral as well as technological. One began to speak of spending time rather than just passing it, and also of wasting time, killing time, saving time, losing time, racing against time, and so forth.

Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an episodic style of working was increasingly treated as a social problem.

Methodist preachers exhorted “the husbandry of time”; time management became the essence of morality. The poor were blamed for spending their time recklessly, for being as irresponsible with their time as they were with their money.” (David Graeber)

Today most of us feel the effects of this race against the clock. We are busy, stressed, optimized, sleep-deprived and anxious. We are high achievers. Yet despite this, we hardly feel like we’re good enough, useful enough, meaningful enough.

People have never had more time than we have today. The same hours have always been there. And arguably people have always struggled with some of these things. So what is different?

Previously in history, lots of people’s problems were brought on or exacerbated by outside forces; wars, food shortages, plagues, high mortality rates and the like. Today, in the age of anxiety, the number one cause of death in the U.S. is heart disease.

We’ve always been good at being bad to one another. But I’m not sure we’ve ever been so good at being hard on ourselves.

We could probably blame this on lots of factors. Our culture of comparison and hard-driving ambition doesn’t reward people who choose contemplation and quiet.

It demands visibility, quick gains and a willingness to do what it takes to get to the top. The worst sin in the world today is to be an average person.

To really get to the top, what does that take, besides 10,000 hours? It means telling yourself a story, and doing everything in your life to reinforce that story.

Whatever I do in life isn’t good enough unless I’m the best. Unless I’m constantly moving upward, I’m nothing. Unless I’m the fittest, best-looking, thinnest, highest-earning person here I’ve failed. I’m in competition with everyone in this room.

That narrative changes the way we interact with other people. They’re not peers. They’re tools, or in the way.

We’re telling ourselves a story from a scarcity mindset we’ve created. It might be real, but it’s not what we think it is. We have limited time and energy because we say we do.

There’s not a magic 25th hour in the day. But no one is making you go to yoga class. If your life sucks because you’re over-scheduled, do something about it. Don’t go to that obligatory party with people you don’t even like. Do you really need to enroll your kids in six after-school activities?

We schedule things in our lives to improve ourselves, and for fun. But at some point those things just start to make us mad. They’re one more chore. So stop doing them.

That’s easier said than done, but saying you ‘have to do this or that,’ especially if it’s something you hate doing, is squaring the circle. Ninety percent of the time it’s not necessary, it’s just something you’ve always done.

We should rethink the way we use our time; at work, after work and every time in between. Time is the only thing we can never get back.

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