Making the Most of Time

Last week, Wired magazine published an interview with author and artist Jenny Odell, on the topic of her new book, Saving Time. I read her book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy a few years ago, and I loved it immensely. It was so dense and thoughtful that I thought that I absolutely must read it again, but then I never did. It was hard reading, it turns out, although I’m hard put to explain why. I think it’s perhaps because, on purpose, the book doesn’t conform very well to what one might expect from a book with that title.

I have to say that I am a fan of self-help books that don’t present themselves that way. I read Happy City, about urban architecture, and it made me want to re-think how I spend time in my neighborhood and city, and changed how I interact with people, even though that obviously wasn’t its intent. And The Paradox of Choice made me, a lifetime self-doubter with a difficult time making decisions, feel a bit more clear about what was so hard, and changed my parenting.

So How to Do Nothing should definitely fall into that category. But if it did, of course, tell you what to do, then that would not be doing nothing, would it? Instead, it’s a beautiful set of reflections on the behaviors that the pressures of the world— and technology in particular— are trying to coerce, and how we might act in the world around them. Both as resistance and in the effort to find lives that are deeply meaningful.

The New York Times Book Review said about it that it was, “A complex, smart, and ambitious book that at first reads like a self-help manual, then blossoms into a wide-ranging political manifesto” and I think that’s beautiful and apt. 

One of the main takeaways that I took from the book was Odell’s interest in birding as a way to stay deeply connected to place. The whole point of the internet is that you can be anywhere, there is a kind of uprootedness that happens because your water cooler has gone virtual. It doesn’t matter anymore where you are, where anyone is, and the dazzling shiny things that take up your attention are around the globe, in every time zone. Right now, I am writing in the morning in California, but they are eating dinner in Lisbon, and sleeping in Beijing. If you really think about that, it’s incredibly disorienting even as the internet never, ever stops. Reading the way that Odell invited me to root back into my senses— noticing birds and trees, sounds and sights that are about place— my particular place on the planet— felt inspiring.

But of course, there is another aspect to place, and that is the time that it takes to notice them. So really, it wasn’t a big surprise to see that her next book is about time.

I can tell already that this is another book of meditations, research, reflections that bridge the space between a manual for living better, political resistance, and another way to look at what is already there. Not because it vacillates between these things, but because it does something of its own, deeply in the middle. Books on time management would tell you how to structure your time, with tips and pointers for prioritizing, and that would all feel very familiar. Books on resistance would urge forceful collective action. And books on mindfulness would tell you to pay more attention to the time that you do have. (I can personally attest that 5 minutes of meditation can feel 300,000 hours long). But look at how she talks about the thing that is not exactly any of these things:

So what’s your essential advice for how to see time differently?

Try to see outside the concept that time is money. And then, try to see outside the concept that you have your time and I have my time, and they have nothing to do with each other except on the market.

Can you break down the assumptions behind “time is money”? In your book, you call this fungible time, as opposed to nonfungible time, which I found to be a useful distinction. 

Fungible time is uniform, standardized, and interchangeable. It is the lingua franca now. It’s what we use to coordinate our activities. It’s the temporal order that we all live in. When you live in a society that speaks the language of fungible time, it’s very difficult to try to think about time as not being fungible. It’s not easily done away with. 

But when you do look into the history of time, you realize how culturally specific it is. It is the history of colonialism and industrialism. In Accounting for Slavery, Caitlin Rosenthal talks about the spreadsheets—the accounting books—used on plantations. This is one of the earliest examples of the concept of a man-hour, a labor hour. And that concept is inseparable from the question of why anyone was measuring labor hours in the first place.

What is nonfungible time?

I experience nonfungible time—which in reality, all time is—whenever I’m aware of how one moment is different from the next. This is the way time works in the body. The experience of illness or injury and then of healing is a good example, something I was reminded of when I had Covid recently. Or watching my friends’ children learn how to speak. I think anyone who gardens knows nonfungible time very well. There is a sense of timing, as in needing to do things at certain times, but you can’t brute-force things in a standardizable way. You have to remain attentive to what the plants are doing on any particular day.

I have a friend who is insistent that he wants more hours in the day. He thinks life would be pretty much perfect, if he could just have an additional two hours in the evening, after work, so he wouldn’t have to make difficult choices between personal time, hobbies, family time, and putting in more effort at work.

“What difference does it make?” I have asked. “The world keeps spinning, what do you care if it falls of chunks of 24, 26, or 50 hours?”

What I mean by this is that the demands on his time, every hour, will still be oversubscribed by a factor of three, or four, or five. The only difference is that he thinks it would be convenient if the need to sleep came around less often. If there were more hours in a day, there would be more things filling the day. What use would it be to have more of a thing?

Which is to say, it felt to me like he was complaining that he wasn’t in control of his time, but he could be, if only there were more of it. That doesn’t seem likely to me, but I was not very articulate about this. Still, I bet Jenny Odell is.

On a related note, the power went out for good chunks of our community last week. Absent of the ability to turn on lights, root through the refrigerator, recharge phones, pay for groceries, it’s amazing how long and boring the days suddenly seem. There is way more time in an evening by candlelight, easy to grow naturally sleepy much earlier when there is only a book to look at, or a puzzle to do.

It’s like, as soon as you turn out the power, fungible time turns off like the light switch. And you’re left with time to do as you please, because all of a sudden you don’t need to do anything productive.

This is an imperfect analogy, of course, because for the most part, people still had their phones (although some cell towers were out), but also because also for the most part, life was going on as normal all around — schools and businesses were in session, work had to go on, and the food was spoiling in the refrigerator. 

But it’s a little glimpse of another way to experience time itself. 

There’s a funny thing about time. I spent a lot of time getting clear on what Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity had to do with time, and after reading endless cartoon books about people traveling on trains and shining lights, I finally understood: time isn’t some universal constant. It makes so little difference in our world, outside of thought experiments about time travel and aging. But maybe, in this context, it matters a little bit: there really is no such thing as objective time. It all matters where you stand and what you’re looking at. 

The Greeks had two words for time, kairos and chronos. Chronos is clock time, probably what Odell would call fungible time. Kairos is heavenly time, God’s time. Most of the people who talk about these two words write about their difference in a very religious way, mostly Christian. But it just so happens that the most perfect essay on parenting that was ever written makes it clear that it isn’t about faith so much as connection, on noticing, on being present. 

I’m looking forward to reading Odell’s book, to the opportunity to spend some time thinking about how I can enjoy time the most I can.

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