The Power of Time Perception Control the Speed of Time
How Do We Think About Time? One life—a little gleam of Time between two Eternities. ― Thomas Carlyle More Precious Than Gold What comes to mind when we think about time? Why is it so precious and why do we seek ways to ‘make the most of it’? Let us go back to ancient China in 4,000 BC where the first clocks were invented. In order to demonstrate the idea of time to students, Chinese priests would dangle a rope from the temple ceiling, using knots to represent the hours. They would light it with a flame from the bottom to indicate the passage of time. Many temples burnt down in those days. The priests were obviously not too happy about that. So a water bucket method was invented. Holes were punched in the bottom of a large bucket of water, with markings to represent the hours, and water would flow at a constant rate. The students would measure time by how fast the bucket drained. It was much safer than burning ropes, but more importantly, it taught the students that once time was gone, it could never be recovered. Of course no one uses water clocks anymore. But the fact that time will eventually run out remains ever true. Time is our most precious possession because, as with the burning rope or water clock, once it is consumed it cannot be replenished. You can always work more hours to earn more money but you cannot do anything to gain more time. Unlike money that can be saved in a bank, or gold that be hidden in a treasure box, time cannot be saved. We have no choice but to spend every moment of it—and every moment that is spent is a moment that is gone forever. So it seems entirely irrational that we are willing to spend our time making money, but are reluctant to spend our money enjoying our time. We look for the best bargains and think twice before spending money, but often fail to do the same with time. “Wasting” a couple of hours is not as bad as losing a couple of hundred dollars, even though time is far more precious than money. We have the tendency to spend time as if it costs us nothing and this is made worse when you consider that time has an additional “opportunity cost” attached to it. You can divide your money between various things, like clothes, a new car, or a fancy dinner, but when you spend time on a certain activity, you effectively give up the opportunity to spend it on other things. Any benefit that might have been derived, had you chosen to do anything else, would be lost forever. Time is also priceless because it is truly a miracle that we are here. The odds that we are alive at this moment in time are one in a billion zillion. Think about that. There was only one chance in all the history of this universe that you would have been able to exist, and here you are. If for any reason your father and mother, or any of your grandparents, did not meet at exactly the right time, and at exactly the right place, you would not be here. If any of your ancestors, having gone through wars, famines, and pestilences, did not survive, you would not be here. The odds are astronomically stacked against your existence, but you won the lottery of life. Only you do not know that you won and the prize value in the time given to you is kept hidden. You spend from that credit line without knowing the remaining balance. You realize that whatever you spend cannot be replenished and that lottery of life can only be won once, never twice. The Value of Time: Work and Leisure Inventions and technological achievements of the past 100 years were all made for the purpose of providing more leisure time. Cars and planes were invented to make shorten travel. The computer was developed to make work easier. Phones were devised to make communication faster. Years ago, people thought that in the future there would be nothing to do. The 19th century British economist John Maynard Keynes imagined that in 1930 “our grandchildren would work around three hours a day.” In his day, technology had already reduced working hours and so he believed the trend would continue. In fact, according to recent statistics, Americans work 12 hours less each week than they did 40 years ago, and it is even less in Europe. The main problem for social scientists to tackle seemed to be: what can people do with all that free time? It obviously cannot be placed in a “Time Bank” for future consumption, nor can it be passed on to our children. But free time did not turn out to be a problem after all. Nowadays, people are busier than ever. Time scarcity has increased, especially in the corporate world, and particularly among working parents. It turns out that the problem is less about how much free time we have and more about how we perceive that time. During the Industrial Revolution, when clocks were used to measure labor, the value of time was associated with money. And so the more valuable we perceived our time to be, the less eager we were to “waste it” on leisure, and the scarcer it seemed. In a recent study carried out at the University of Toronto, two groups of people were asked to listen to the same piece of music, “The Flower Duet” from the opera Lakme. Group A was asked to calculate their hourly wage before the song started, whereas Group B was not asked. The participants in Group A felt less happy, more impatient, and felt that listening to that music was a waste of time. Group B did not. The study showed that most people tend to avoid wasting time so as to maximize the money that they can generate. The additional free time that technology has allowed for is often not spent on enjoying life but rather on working more. And though people may be earning more money, they are not earning more time to spend it in. The higher the paycheck, the scarcer time seems, and the more rushed people become. Wasted Time? You have probably heard the saying that money cannot buy happiness. An interesting 2009 Gallup survey, conducted over a period of two years, which gathered 450,000 responses, concluded that people are happier and more satisfied with their lives as their annual income increases. However, when annual income exceeds 75,000 U.S. dollars, life-satisfaction continues to increase but happiness does not. There is an income threshold where money does not contribute to people’s emotional well-being.2 This implies that on average, spending time earning more than 75,000 U.S. dollars is not well-spent because it does not make us happier. A central question is therefore this: are we making the most of our limited time? For now, let us look a little bit further into the “value” of time and “wasted time” as it relates to the culture, country, and the pace of life in the city where we live. Time & Culture Our culture affects how we view time, the value we place on time, and how we spend it. Time is perceived differently by Eastern and Western cultures, between countries of the same culture, and even between cities within the same country. In Western culture, time is viewed as linear. Life is considered a “journey” and death is the “end of the road.” The past is behind us and the future is a path that stretches before us. Time is an arrow. There is a beginning and an end to everything. This is based on ideas derived from the Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), which says that the universe has a clear beginning and will have a clear end on Judgment Day. In those religions, humans are born once and die once. This linear view of time permeates many facets of Western culture. It explains why Westerners tend to be more focused on the future. It allows them to forecast future events, such as quarterly sales projections, through meticulous planning. You can be extremely confident that the train in Zurich will leave at exactly 10:07 a.m. and arrive at 11:04 a.m. People in these cultures aim to eliminate future unknowns to their best of their abilities. As a result of this linear view, time is considered very precious and limited. In the linear view, the value of time is equated with money. If you’ve ever had to deal with an American lawyer or doctor, you would quickly realize that time is money. Americans live in a profit-driven society where time is precious and needs to be utilized as quickly as it is passing. To achieve a decent status in U.S. society, you have to make money, which means you view your time in terms of your hourly wage. There is a linear mathematical relationship between time and money. Equating time and money is also why Americans do not generally tolerate idle time and instead look for ways to save time, such as increasing efficiencies in factory production. This view is also shared in Britain, Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Scandinavian countries, where time precision for the sake of reducing wasted time is immensely important. Time is extremely regulated for the Swiss, for instance, who made precision their national symbol. Their watches, optical instruments, transportation, and banking industries stand witness to that. Those countries are influenced by the Protestant work ethic, which associates success with working harder and longer hours. Examples of popular idioms are “The early bird catches the worm” and “Never put off to tomorrow what you can do today.” Contrast that with societies that existed in the Soviet Union, where success was achieved by those who made the most by working the least. In Southern European countries, like Italy, Spain, Greece, or the Arab world, success is often associated with privilege, birthright, and connection to authorities. Time is viewed as a rubbery flexible thing, and people are generally not very interested in punctuality or deadlines, and are instead more focused on the end result. A meeting, for instance, is not constrained by clocks but by the discussions themselves, and time can be stretched or manipulated until a reasonable conclusion is met. People from these cultures generally feel less rushed. For them, time runs at a slower pace. While Americans tend to think about time in 5-minute increments, people living in Mediterranean countries and the Middle East do so in 15-minute increments. Popular expressions are: “In Sha’ Allah,” which in the Arab world means “If God wills,” or the Italian proverb, “Since the house is on fire, let us warm ourselves,” or the Turkish proverb, “What flares up fast extinguishes soon.” People in Southern European and Middle Eastern countries tend to be more focused on the present, rather than the future, which is likely the reason why these countries are relatively less developed than their northern counterparts. It also explains why people living in Spain, France, and Greece on average save less money, with Italians being the worst savers, as compared to Britain, Netherlands, and Germany, where people tend to be more focused on the future and are among the highest savers in Europe. However, this emphasis on the present is likely why people in Mediterranean cultures appear to enjoy life more, as it is happening now, e.g. the Italian La Dolce Vita (the sweet life), and generally prefer smaller, immediate gratifications over larger, long-term rewards. Now what about the Eastern view on time? In contrast to the West, time in the East is viewed as cyclical. The sun rises and sets, the seasons follow one another, generations follow generations, governments succeed each other, and this goes on forever. Time is more like a boomerang than an arrow. This idea originates in Eastern relireligions that believe in reincarnation, like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. People in cyclical cultures also tend to focus more on the past because they believe they can find links to the present. People’s actions in previous lives, known as karma, determines what type of existence they will have after rebirth. Unlike their West counterparts, Asians are generally not pressed to make quick decisions but instead prefer to contemplate and take their time. For them, time is not scarce; the same opportunities and risks come around again in another cycle, when they are wiser. As a result, they are less disciplined in planning their future and more lenient to go with the flow. Popular idioms are the Chinese proverb, “Wise men are never in a hurry” or the Japanese proverb, “A proposal without patience breaks its own heart.” The Chinese and Japanese, in addition to adopting this hesitant contemplation view of time, differentiate themselves from the rest of the Eastern countries through their keen sense of time. Punctuality is important to them. Chinese often arrive to meetings 15 minutes early, so as to finish on time and maximize efficiency. They appreciate the time that is contributed in a meeting, more than any other Asian countries. But they would still take their time for repeated deliberations before the deal is closed. The Japanese have a similar deep sense of passing time. This can be observed in how meticulously they are in dividing time. Japanese view time as segmented by tradition. These divisions do not follow Western ideas, where tasks are sequentially allocated to time slots for maximum efficiency, but are more concerned with how much time is given to proper courtesy and tradition. In social gatherings, Japanese have marked beginnings and endings that follow traditional phases. People are expected to conform to the heavily regulated society. This helps in defining where people stand in social and business situations. Exchanging business cards in the first two minutes of a meeting is a clear example that marks the beginning of a relationship. Students in Japanese schools are expected to formally request their teacher to start before the lesson begins. At the end of the class, they offer a ritualistic sign of gratitude. The same rituals apply in tea ceremonies, New Year and midsummer festivities, company picnics, sake-drinking sessions, martial arts sessions, and cherry blossom viewings. These activities are experienced by the Japanese in an unfolding manner. For them, time is segmented into slots defined by tradition, where it is important to do the “right thing at the right time.” The difference between how various cultures view time—as linear, flexible, or cyclic—affects the value people place on time and whether they are more focused on the past, present, or future. Depending on your culture, you either view time as a scarce or abundant. The Pace of Life The value of time not only changes with culture, but it also varies between cities of the same country. This is intricately related to the pace of life in any given city. In an interesting 1990 study, Robert Levine and his colleagues used four indicators to evaluate the pace of life in 36 American cities: the speed with which bank tellers made change, the talking speed of postal clerks, the walking speed of pedestrians, and the proportion of pedestrians wearing wristwatches. Levine found that the Northeastern United States were more fast-paced than the Western United States. Out of the 31 cities surveyed, the three fastest-paced cities were Boston, Buffalo, and New York.3 The three slowest-paced cities were Shreveport, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. They also found that people living in fast-paced cities tend to focus more on making every minute count, which creates more stress. That is why fast-paced cities have higher heart attack death rates and a higher proportion of cigarette smokers. In 1999, the same researchers carried out another study, which surveyed the largest cities in 31 countries, in an effort to determine what factors contribute to the pace of life. In each country they measured: the pedestrians’ walking speed in downtown areas on a clear summer day, the time it took postal workers to complete a standard request for stamps, and they noted the accuracy of the clocks across 15 banks. The results showed that the quick pace of life in cities like Tokyo, London, and Paris causes people to feel rushed and under constant pressure. The United States, Canada, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea fall into the middle group. Slightly below that are the ex-Soviet bloc countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, and Romania. The slowest pace of life was found in the relatively non-industrialized countries from Africa (Kenya), Asia (Indonesia), the Middle East (Jordan and Syria), and Latin America (El Salvador, Brazil, and Mexico). Interestingly, the three slowest countries of all were widely associated with a relaxed pace of life. In Brazil, the stereotype of amanha or “tomorrow” means that, whenever it is possible, people will try to put off today’s business until tomorrow. In Indonesia, the hour on a clock is often addressed as jam kerat meaning “rubber time.” And the slowest of all was Mexico, the characteristic land of la mañana, meaning tomorrow. 4 The researchers also found that the pace of life was slower in hotter cities than cooler ones. This may be due to the fact that in cold cities, natural selection favors people who are more industrious and who keep moving to stay warm. Heat, on the other hand, tends to make people lazier in warmer climates. This could be one of the reasons why northern countries tend to be more economically developed then southern ones. If we look back at our evolutionary history, we find that, until very recently, time precision was never a critical prerequisite for human survival. In the past, in order to survive, humans needed only to estimate the proper times for eating, sleeping, and working. Nowadays, time is considerably more critical. Aldous Huxley once observed, To us, the moment 8:17 A.M. means something—something very imimportant, if it happens to be the starting time of our daily train. To our ancestors, such an odd eccentric instant was without significance—did not even exist. In inventing the train, Watt and Stevenson were part inventors of time. As we saw earlier, when time is viewed as money, hours are measured financially, and people are concerned with how to use time more profitably. As economies grow, time seems scarcer and therefore becomes more valuable. Cities with a higher cost of living raise the price on time. Parisians are more prudent with their time than Mexicans. Pedestrians in Tokyo walk faster than those in Jakarta. In such fast-tempo cities, people earn more money to spend, but do not earn more time to spend it in, making time even more precious. Not having enough time becomes an excuse for not engaging in leisurely experiences, like a relaxing vacation, a quiet dinner, or a concert or theatre performance. As Erich Fromm put it, “Modern man thinks he loses something—time—when he does not do things quickly. Yet he does not know what to do with the time he gains—except kill it.” Feeling as though one is constantly rushed makes people impatient and impulsive, and affects mental health. In one piece of research from Google, it was found that more than a fifth of internet users will abandon an online video if it takes longer than five seconds to load. The pressure of time can also lead to stress, causing negative health effects such as heart disease, hypertension, headaches, and stomach pain. It can cause chronic anger, depression, bitterness, poor sleep quality, and even a sense of hopelessness. The overall effect of feeling like one has less time is that they are less happy and less satisfied. So what can we do about that? How can we control our perceived speed of time and slow it down to be able to do all the things we want to do? Slowing time physically is beyond our control. Having a 25-hour day would be great but is not yet possible—although the duration of a day on Earth is getting longer due to our moon’s gravity, which acts like a brake and slows down the Earth’s spin. As a result, the days are extending by about 1.7 milliseconds each century! But at that rate, you will have to wait 140 million years for one day to finally be 25 hours long! I doubt anyone will be there to see that day, let alone make any use of that extra one hour! (And you might have guessed right, it was far worse for the dinosaurs when the Earth was spinning faster, as they had to fit a full day of work in just 23 hours!) So, in order to maximize our sense of time, we need to look at how we “experience” time. Drawing on the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience will help us to understand why time seems to pass at different speeds in different situations. We have all experienced moments in life where time “dragged” or “flew.” In situations of extreme fear, you might have experienced moments where time froze. Or you may feel time is speeding up as you grow older. To control the perceived speed of time, we need to understand the factors that create this effect in our minds. Culture and the pace of life are some external factors that influence how limited or abundant time seems. These views can be modified by adjusting the emphasis we put on the past, present, and future and whether our view of time is linear, flexible, or cyclic. But what about the internal factors that affect our time experience? As we go through the book, I will propose a variety of practical tips that will help slow down the pace of time, regardless of which culture or city you live in. With that knowledge, my hope is that you will be able to craft the longest year of your life. Let us first start with some basics. Our “sense” of time: what is it and how do our brains think about the present, past, and future?
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