“We kill time, time buries us,” wrote Machado de Assis, the Brazilian novelist, in 1881. It’s an ageless axiom, even if “time to kill” is rare these days. We fight time. We save time. We wring it out so as not to waste a drop of it. We watch time carefully, but still can’t say where it goes.
That’s why when California congresswoman Maxine Waters asserted her right to her limited allotment of minutes at a hearing this week, her plight resonated. In response to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s stalling on an answer to a question she asked, filling the air with compliments for her instead of answering her directly, Waters interrupted, saying, “Reclaiming my time” before returning to her question. She calmly repeated the phrase—standard procedural language—half a dozen times or more with unwavering authority. The scene inspired online adoration and even a stirring gospel tune.
Waters was referring to a rule of conduct within a particular context, but the internet didn’t know that, nor would it have cared. Her refrain-turned-meme instead seemed to speak to broader issues about the way other people and obligations infringe on the hours and days we have our disposal. We all want to reclaim our time.
“Time is really at the heart of our quality of life,” says Dawna Ballard, a communications professor at University of Texas at Austin and a scholar of chronemics, the study of time and communication. “Can you think of any measure of quality of life that’s not time-based?”
Ask someone, “Hey, how’s it going?” she says, and they’ll probably answer by referring to how busy they are, or the vacation that starts the next day, or the limbo they’re in waiting for a message to be returned. They might mention the angst of a traffic or subway delay, and if it’s Friday, they may thank God for it. How we’re experiencing time is how we are. Does it feel scarce or expansive, fast or slow? “Our time and our pace is so central to our very experience of being,” Ballard explains, but we so rarely stop to examine it.
The professor has dedicated her research to understanding time and the “pacers” (like deadlines or quarterly reports) that color our time, especially at work. She has also developed strategies people can use to make time’s role in their lives visible to them.
Edward Hall, the late American anthropologist and expert on nonverbal communication, called time an invisible language. We send messages through time constantly, and we assume life will unfold according to a certain tempo, he observed, but that language and those assumptions change across cultures. “Since the beginning, mankind has been submerged in a sea of time,” he wrote in his book The Dance of Life. “The sea is characterized by many diverse currents and countercurrents, fed by rivers from different lands.”
Since the industrial revolution, time and punctuality has acted as an adversarial and disciplining force, Ballard explains. And, as she told an Austin Creative Mornings crowd in 2015, we’ve absorbed the message that “your time-discipline is a measure of your virtue as a person.”
Clock time, Ballard points out, is not real. The clock, only created a few hundred years ago, is just a coordinating and organizing tool for human relationships. If we want to achieve something together, like share a meal or hold a meeting, synchronizing our watches helps us get that done.
Ignoring time is always an option; it just might come with consequences. Not wearing a watch might mean you do not get to attend class, or hold down a job where you’re not the boss. “There is no time without human communication, other than as duration,” Ballard tells Quartz, “but even then physicists debate what time is.”
When we falsely see time as this external entity (or what the Greeks called chronos), rather than something we create (kairos), the fear of not being punctual can easily put us into fight or flight mode, sweating and becoming nauseated, or aggressive, when we’re late for work or behind on a project. It’s not the wild animal that’s chasing us now, as it did our earliest ancestors, says Ballard. It’s the unforgiving clock.
Just becoming aware that this ferocious beast is our own creation can be liberating.
Among the conventions that behold us to time-related social constructs are what chronemics scholars call “pacers”: the fiscal year, the monthly sales report, market hours, or the daily deadline. We all have different time horizons giving structure to our lives, Ballard explains.
Pacers are not inherently negative. They set the rhythm of your life, and they can push you to get work done faster when necessary. Or they can also put a person at risk of burn-out.
Examining the pacers that you’ve become entrained to conform to is useful, Ballard says, because you need to decide whether they’re actually doing you a service. “We forget that we have choices,” she says. “Without the idea of choice, all these things become threats coming at us.”
Deadlines are a common pacer in professions of all types. We throw the word around a lot, but we ought to think about what it means, says Ballard. Most etymologists trace the first usage to around 1864, when a deadline marked the border around a military prison: Any prisoner found outside the line was shot dead.
Even without knowledge of that history, uttering or thinking about “deadlines” means that your work is “tied to something with ‘death’ in the title,” Ballard says. The language we use alters the way we feel about time, introducing gloom to our experience of that pre-deadline period.
She asks her students to find metaphors that are less violent and more relatable. They make idiosyncratic choices, she says, but one option she likes is “finish line,” because it sounds triumphant.
More generally, she advises, instead of focusing on deadlines, “focus on your priorities and pacing around that date,” she writes to Quartz in an email. She suggests:“I am working on this fantastic [deliverable x] and devoting a lot of my time to it until after August 15th.”
Not only does this strip away what she calls the victimhood around the time we dedicate to work, it also gives you a chance to evaluate whether “fantastic” rings true. What is the quality of the time you’re creating?
It isn’t only in cartoons that clocks talk. In the English language, they are always speaking, Ballard points out. We literally say that a clock ‘says’ we have to go. “We ask, ‘What does your watch say?’ ‘What does your calendar say?”
Being time-literate means recognizing that timekeeping devices can’t speak, and if they do, it’s because we’ve programmed them to. Again, they’re just passive tools.
Still, since clocks and calendars have become taskmasters anyway, you can make their dictation work for you. Ballard tells her students and others to put meditative time and self-care appointments on their calendar. “Time is so real to us, that, magically, putting it on their schedule, they do it.”
Surprisingly, Ballard is a harsh critic of the “work-life balance” movement, or at least its terminology and the agenda she sees in the way the concept is used. For employers, for example, she says promising that balance is “a sneaky way for companies to pretend they’re showing regard or giving people ownership over their time, but it’s the exact opposite.”
Organizations sell policies to employees as tools for creating a work-life balance, but they leave it to the individuals to figure out how to do it. Studies have shown that people don’t use the family leave or the paid vacations, and managers know that our beliefs about time and its value will keep us giving ours to work. It’s the proof of our devotion.
Time is a currency in all relationships, says Ballard, and if you look at how an employer treats time, you’ll learn a lot about how much they value their people. Companies that are sincere about well-being will ensure their workers get the downtime they need, whether it requires insisting on vacation day minimums or, as in one anecdote Ballard recalls, locking the parking lot after 5 p.m. so employees had to leave or they’d be marooned at the office. In France, the government has stepped in to protect workers: Since January 1, 2017, French companies with more than 50 employees have been required by law to give employees the right to disconnect and not receive email after hours.
Most organizations make work-life balance a charade, however. “Tech companies are the worst actors in my opinion, and it drives me crazy,” says Ballard. “They’ll say ‘We’ll go and wait for your plumber, so you don’t have to be there. Here’s a gym. Here’s childcare.’” These generous perks may be handy on occasion, but they exist to get more hours out of the staff. If companies wrote out their policies in time-related terms—we’re going to feed you so you’ll work more hours— people wouldn’t want the extras.
Another problem with the figurative work-life balance, Ballard told her audience in Austin, is that it presupposes that work and life can be separated into two entities and placed on an imaginary scale, when that’s not the way it is. The expectation is that you’re always available and can work from anywhere.
In the signature of her email messages, Ballard has attached a quote from Miles Davis: “Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.”
Seeing the truth in that statement can permanently change the way you plan (or don’t plan) your days, and alter the texture of your personal relationships. In her class on chronemics, for instance, Ballard asks students to send handwritten letters to a friend they text or tweet with all the time, and one other person they’re rarely in touch with. See how it changes your relationship and what you choose to share, she suggests. You might decide letters should be part of your regular means of communicating.
At work, too, small changes can open up time and brighten your days in unexpected ways. Maybe you’re senior enough that you can tell your employer that you’re unavailable at a certain hour because that’s when you pick up your kids from school. Making that move will invite others to consider their options.
It could also be that you let unpaid labor around the office (or home) fall away, or rethink your approach to addictive technology like Slack and email.
“I’m not saying that you’re going to be brand-new to your company and you walk in and say, ‘Hey, these are my rules around time,’ ” says Ballard, “but I am saying that you’d be surprised at how certain decisions and certain interaction patterns can make a difference at any level.”