On Our Perception of Time

Last week, I was invited to Central St. Martin's University in London to give a talk about living without time, which is something I had experimented with while making Radio Headspace, in as much as I had spent a week avoiding time cues to see what it felt like. At that point, I was conducting social experiments on what made us happier and healthier- living without time cues, without social media, taking time out from the internet, reengaging with our inner child by remembering what it means to play. 

All of these experiments were investigations into socially accepted and rarely questioned features of modern life, but actually, I have since come to realise, all of them were experiments in our perception of time. Aside from the most obvious-living without time cues- living without social media was an experiment in how we experience a moment and whether the act of memory has now replaced the act of experience. Reengaging with our inner child was primarily an act in reengaging with creativity and imagination- both activities that cannot be rushed, that cannot be achieved by firing off a string of back and forth emails and clocking off at precisely 5pm. Living without the internet was an investigation into renewed focus, into remembering the art of slow conversation with comfortable pauses.

Writing that talk, and revisiting some of what I had been interested in when making Radio Headspace, has led me here: to an important discussion of Time, with a capital T. 

We view time in smaller and smaller increments. Not so long ago, the decade was a novel idea- the concept of framing ten years into a period during which something significant could actually happen. Now, thanks to digitized, globally accurate time, every single minute counts. Once upon a time, a clock wouldn't have been necessary when our predominant concerns were the seasons- when to plant, when to harvest, what was available when and how many hours of daylight we had to get things done- now there are clocks on everything, and the internet means daylight has no relevance here- we are always on, always up, always awake, always there. Minute to minute,second to second.

The huge irony in all of this is that during the industrial revolution, when the notion of the clock and working hours became central to the structure of our days, the entire point was to make our working life more efficient, in order to enjoy our leisure time more fully. Make machines to do the jobs for us so we can relax, take two full days a week plus expansive evenings to be, to exist, to think and ponder and converse and imagine.

Conversely, it set in motion the speeding up of time, our rapid decline toward busyness for busyness' sake, efficiency breeding efficiency breeding efficiency until everything was quicker, automatic, convenient, easy: we could suddenly do potentially thousands of things in one day, instead of spending a few days thinking creatively about one problem, with no interruptions, and no worries that we were 'not busy enough'.

One of the side effects of our new perception of time, of it's speeding up, is our short-term thinking. Start-ups come and go, goals are short term, solutions are required immediately. Looking at problems that don't affect us today, or tomorrow, that might not even affect us in twenty years- say, for example, climate change, or saving for when we're older- our outside of many of our timeframes now. And that is a scary thought. I'm all for enjoying the present moment, obviously, but I'd like to imagine that all of this busyness is at least for the benefit of a better world somewhere down the line, at least for somebody.

I want to reclaim time. I no longer want my time to be decided by a system, by the clock, by the day of the week. I want my time to be mine, not owed, not commoditized, not measured. I want time to be bigger, not smaller. I want seasons, not nanoseconds.

There is that super cheesy quote-that life is not measured by the number of breaths we take but the moments that take our breath away. It’s charming, but it’s not accurate. Life is measured by the number of breaths we take, the passing of our being and of our days, and we measure it in smaller and smaller and more and more accurate units, but life is experienced through those moments that take our breath away and they are not quantified by time or measurable with normal frameworks, and if they could only happen within a planned schedule, with a finite and set beginning and end, they’d be less special. So let's choose to have a different relationship with old man Time, to stop filling our days with plans and tasks and deadlines and be less afraid of leisure and freedom, which was what we were working towards in the first place.