Sunday, January 23, 2011

The floppiness of time

Is it only two weeks since I posted something about progress, and regaining some sort of control in my life?

It feels so much longer ago.

I get that a lot these days...thinking back to something that seems ages ago, and realising that it was only a matter of days.

So (before I get on with the point of this post) how's it going? Well, a cautious "so far so good". I do seem, by and large, to be getting on with things I choose to. I've certainly succeeded in limiting my online networking, as you can tell by the reduced frequency of posts and comments. Sometimes I don't even think about my blog for days on end. I do wonder, though, just how much of a good thing that is, because this is a great community to be part of.

But my thoughts two weeks ago seemed to have struck a chord, and many people are talking about how little time they have these days. Here we are, in the twenty-first century, all wired in and surrounded by labour-saving devices, and yet we seem to have less time than ever before.

These paradoxes (lack of time, and the mixed-up perception of time) prompted some thoughts about time itself. Here they are, utterly random and with no real structure...

Labour-saving devices aren't always labour-saving.

With all this technology around us, why do we seem to have so little time? Well, sometimes the technology is simply crap. We have dozens of computer systems at work. They can certainly speed up lots of tasks and convey vital information to where it needs to be, and keep track of things that would be laborious by hand. But we also have dozens of unconnected systems and invest huge amounts of time doing nothing more than keeping them fed, and passing information from one to another because they don't talk to each other gracefully.

And then, there are systems that are simply ill-conceived, that take more time to work than the work itself would have done. Grrr...

But sometimes you've just forgotten how it used to be.

Many years ago, in another life, bean-counting consultants were sniffing around my department on a mission to prove that we were an extravagant cost to the business.

Luckily, those were the days when there were still folks around who remembered life before computers, and were able to remind the bean counters of the armies of clerks who used to be needed to perform the most basic drudgery just to keep records straight. Now, a much slimmer and more expert workforce was delivering far superior customer service. If you only ever see the cost and effort of modern offices, you can easily forget the benefits that everyone now takes for granted. So a lot of systems have actually saved a lot of time, we just don't always recognise it.

Our expectations have changed, too. In the days when letters, reports, and essays had to be written out by hand, you spent all your time working out what you needed to say, and relatively little time actually saying it. Now, with all the glitzy tools available, you can easily spend ten times longer finding just the right font, tweaking the layout, adding graphics...

Then, there's the distractions of games and blogs and...focus!...where was I?

Do we really have less time than people elsewhen in history? In the rush of modern life, I ask myself how did they ever find the time to build the pyramids, or raise gothic cathedrals, all without the benefit of modern engineering? Well, I suggest that they worked long and hard and steadfastly. Bloody hard, in fact. The simple answer is that they didn't know what "free time" was.

So for us to complain about having no time these days is actually bunkum. We do have time, we just maybe don't always choose to use it wisely.

Then, of course, Parkinson's Law kicks in and soon finds new uses for all the time we manage to save.

Then we come to that other paradox...
why does a week never seem like a week?

Well, I think people like to think of time as some sort of absolute and unchanging flow. It's not.

No, I'm not going to go all Einstein on you with deep physics. This is simple psychology.

I've come to realise that, alongside the tick of the clock, the steady (ignoring relativity for now) objective time, there are several other kinds of time that are all in the mind.

First, there is our perceived time. How fast does time seem to pass as we experience it? That varies. You know how an hour of history class can drag on for a lifetime, while a fun-filled vacation passes all too quickly? I think we see the passage of time differently depending on how engaged we are with whatever's going on around us. There's no mystery. The more fun we're having, the faster we perceive time flying by. Ain't that a bitch!

But then there's our personal historical time. For me, this is affected by how many distinct memories we lay down between one moment and another. If you've been super-busy and done a lot of different things in a day, it will feel like a long day, no matter how quickly you perceived it passing at the time.

And here is the answer to that paradox, because these two times work independently of each other. So, if you are going through a fun and eventful day, it will seem to pass quickly (perceived time), but when you look back (historical time) the start of the day will seem a long time ago.

And, of course, the opposite is true. When your life is in a rut, time seems to drag. But all of a sudden you are wondering where the year has gone and it only feels like a blink of an eye.

And isn't that a sad thing to have happen to you? It's your life, after all. You only get one shot at it. So you owe it to yourself to be as engaged as you can be in your own life, before it's gone.


  1. Hi Elena, it got me thinking enough that my head hurts, so I thought I'd share the pain ;D

  2. I keep forgetting what day it is,) the fact I thought today was sunday is not a good sign. That'll be the working into the night or spending 5 hrs a day staring at a computer screen. It feels good to not live 9-5 though.just a thought;) -

  3. Forgetting what day it is is most definitely not a good sign, Hiccup, unless you're on vacation of course, in which case it is OK.


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