All We've Ever Got Is Time
Exploring the concept of time in the Informational Age & how to better spend it.
Having grown up poor, I’d understood the value of time early on. “When you don’t have money, sell your time.” my mum used to say. As an adult, I spend most of my time working. Admittedly, work gives me more joy than it should; you may even call me a workaholic. I work when I have nothing. I work when I have more than enough.
And yet, despite common belief, having the time for work, paid and unpaid, is a privilege. Furthermore, the ability to make decisions on what job you do and when to do it is also a privilege. I was fortunate enough to know what I wanted to do for a living at a relatively young age. I spent my time in high school (stubbornly) practising my craft — design; instead of the homework I should have been doing.
As my career progressed, I received the “Wow! You’re so fast!” compliment on a monthly basis; not productive, but fast— a byproduct of being in a creative field. “Being fast” opened doors for me, so I wore it like an old veteran wearing his war medals. I was proud of my ability to squeeze time into my work, and by an extent, of my work ethics. Eventually, I ran into a brick wall. The quality of my work stunted and yet I could not figure out why. How naive of me to have thought my one and only tactic would continue to be effective forever.
At some point, someone had suggested meditation in passing, but my brain had me convinced meditation wasn’t for me. At this point, I’d exhausted other options, so I decided to give it a go. I was sceptical, but I kept at it, 5 minutes every here and there. Shortly after, to my surprise, meditation became a daily activity. It’s been almost a year since then. I wouldn’t say it has cured my anxiety or my ADHD, but I’m significantly calmer. As a result, I make better decisions. Most notably, I am happier. The quality of my work progressed gradually and then, suddenly. These days, I take my time to do everything, sometimes just to do nothing at all.
Having become a designer during the Informational Era has been interesting, to say the least. And in this era, everyone wants fast results. The oversaturation of information and the speed of technology has made us mentally exhausted. Designers are busier than ever (But are we productive? — a question for another day). However, the thing with design — or any other creative work; is that it takes time, lots of it. Creative work needs to rest, and so do the creator(s) of said work. Speaking more generally, ideas need to be incubated, validated, reviewed, over and over and over. Thus, great creative works come from time and efforts — which time I thought I didn’t have.
My family is not poor anymore. In fact, my parents are actually kinda wealth off at this point. But every member of our family still works their ass off, including my “retired” mother — poverty has an effect on you like that. On the other hand, my parents’ sacrifice has given me what I needed: time; and the lessons that come with it. Better yet, my parents taught me how to make time. I practised and practised, with every minute I got between schoolwork. “Faster. Faster. FASTER!” the demon in my head screamed, staring at the clock down to the seconds. But work is endless, and humans are not machines. I am not a machine. At the end of work, there’s only me, tired, depressed. “What’s the point of spending all of my time working if I don’t find any joy in it?” I wondered.
As it turned out, working “fast” was not only starting to hinder the quality of my work, but also generated so much anxiety in me, which would, in turn, affect my work. What a vicious cycle! When I have time, I can rest, I can explore, and I can have fun. I can be conscious of my creative inputs. When I have too much on my plate, and not enough time in my day, I feel overwhelmed, leading to declining results, along with my physical and mental well-being. On the hand, making time is work — low-value work, namely planning or administrative; leading to more stress. And of course, practice takes time, too, lots of it. Over and over, I’ve lost my battle with time.
“The idea that we can grow our economies forever and ensure everyone a full-time job is a myth. [...] We have to deliberately choose to work less and therefore buy less.”
— Benjamin Hunnicutt, Historian, University of Iowa
Time is one of the most abstract and yet, most tangible concept human beings have come up with. We live in years, months, days, hours, minutes, seconds. Sometimes, it comes down to the milliseconds. More interestingly, the privilege of time can also manifest in different forms: fast internet, short commutes, education and its debt (or the lack thereof), access, and connection. Having time also means more free time for leisure activities, the arts, vacations, and access to good healthcare.
The pandemic has also shone a light on how subjective our time perception is, how we’d previously spending it, and how we “made” more of it. In the previous “normal”, mothers could work by hiring nannies or using daycare centres. Under lockdown, parents juggled work, house chores, and homeschooling; putting pressure on working parents, especially mothers. On the other side of the coin, we sometimes have so much time on our hands, not sure what to do with it.
For those who have unfortunately lost their jobs, especially those who have no safety net and support from their government or their communities, time becomes a luxury and a stressor. As of my writing of this piece, 2 million people are expected to lose their jobs in Australia, and a total of 25 million jobs worldwide would be lost according to the International Labour Organization (ILO). I, again, count my blessings.
September 1936 photo of a factory worker. Library of Congress / The Atlantic.
Before the world was occupied with the horrific daily news of COVID-19 and of police brutality, the concept of 4-day work week had made a buzz. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, even pushed it further, stating 4-day workweek could be the strategy that helps her country back on track. New Zealand has also led one of the most successful efforts in handling the COVID-19 outbreak. Overall, several trials have indicated productivity increase while achieving a healthier lifestyle for those who were involved in the four-day workweek experimentation.
Diving into history, the roots of the seven-day week, which is entirely arbitrary, can be traced back about 4,000 years, to Babylon. The Babylonians believed there were seven planets in the solar system, and so they planned their days around it. Such concept also appeared in some Jewish communities. The seven-day week structure was firmly integrated into the Western calendar about 250 years before Christ was born. The idea of “weekend” is thought to only have occurred in 1879.
Not until 1908 was the five-day workweek implemented, mainly to accommodate Jewish and Christian religious customs. The Great Depression then baked the two-day weekend into the economy, because “shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment”. Fast forward to 1965, a Senate subcommittee predicted Americans would work 14-hour weeks by the year 2000, which, of course, didn’t happen. Travelling to the East, five-day workweek still doesn’t exist in many countries. In Vietnam, for example, workers used to work from Monday and Tuesday, taking Wednesday off and worked Thursday to Saturday. Sometime in the late 90s and early 2000s, the Monday to Friday (or Saturday, depending on the employers) schedule was implemented, so it is more aligned with the West.
It’s not revolutionary to rethink our workweek and to revisit how we see ourselves in work. There’s definitely something not right about how we’ve spent time, and by extent, spending our money on, i.e. the consumerism culture. Shorter workweek and the promise of more free time is now the “forgotten American dream”. The current structure of the so-called “normal” hasn’t been working for a while. And many more people are waking up to this reality.
“Time is the most valuable coin in your life. You and you alone will determine how that coin will be spent. Be careful that you do not let other people spend it for you.”
— Carl Sandburg
There’s one lesson on time my mum never explicitly told me but has taught me nevertheless: Love is, in fact, “best spelled TIME”. How you spend time and where you direct your energy to contribute to a physical manifestation of love, what and who you care most about in this world. The time spent with love is never wasted or lost. Practising your craft is love. Doing nothing with your partner is love. Listening to a friend rant about their days is love.
However, my mum’s first lesson about time — “If you don’t have money, sell your time.”; it does not apply to my relationship with time anymore. I’m now investing my time instead. At a personal level, merely observing and improving where time and energy is spent can transform your life. Start by experimenting with your schedule to see how you work best, e.g. when is the best time for you to finish high-value tasks in a shorter amount of time. Thomas Oppong recommended starting with your daily routine.
On the other hand, the most common scheduling mistake is not including breaks. Breaks and pleasurable activities (in moderation of course) is not a waste of time but fuel for more productivity and well-being in the long term. Meditation, leisure activities, and a slower lifestyle have been proven to reduce stress, leading to a healthier and more satisfying way of life. The goal is to balance bound and “freely chosen activities”.
Systematically, the conversations about working conditions and arrangements will continue being on everyone’s minds as a direct result of the pandemic. But only the future will tell if any structural changes may occur.
Time is the only resource we have equally, despite the thickness of our wallets, or where we come from. So what are you doing with your time?
“Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. We have only today. Let us begin.”
― Mother Theresa