Back before modern technology, people laboriously washed clothes by hand and got places no faster than their horses could carry them. Things objectively took more time then, yet modern life is what makes it feel like time is a precious resource. Why is it that, when we objectively have more leisure time than ever before, we’re under such pressure from the clock? History and science offer a three-part answer: awareness, insecurity, and progress.
The advent of capitalism and the rise of hourly wage labor is the first culprit. If your boss is constantly watching the clock, you’ll learn to watch it too. And the more acutely aware of the time you are, the faster it seems to go. But the insecurity of workers in the modern economy isn’t helping either. Not only do we watch the clock because we have to show up to our next meeting on time, but we also watch the clock because, thanks to the threat of a human or robot replacement, we need to constantly monitor our productivity.
There’s a Red Queen-like quality to this clock watching, business psychologist Tony Crabbe has pointed out. Like the character remarks to Alice in Through the Looking Glass: “It takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.”
“Research does show that if you increase people’s time awareness — by placing a big clock in front of them, for example — they do more stuff,” Crabbe explains, but “when we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place — send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done — we just become busier.”
The last element in this trifecta of franticness seems to be a fundamental philosophical shift in how humans view the world. Traditionally, our religious forebearers thought of the world as made in God’s image, and therefore basically as good as it was going to get. All people needed to do was live as best they could in God’s image. These days, of course, we’re instead obsessed with progress. And because the world is never perfect, there is always more to do.
You’re unlikely to trade your washing machine for a scouring board or your Tesla for a horse and buggy, so is there anything you can do about your feeling of endless time pressure? The first step might simply be to gain a little awareness of what the feeling stems from. Meticulous time-use surveys show Americans have more leisure time not only than our distant ancestors, but than we ourselves did a few decades back. We are not objectively all that busy.
What we are is anxious — anxious about time, anxious about status, anxious about making our mark on the world. Which means the best way to reduce time pressure isn’t generally to change your schedule. It’s to chill out and savor the present. Which, of course, is easier said than done.
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