We’ve all, at one point or another, caught ourselves wishing we had more hours in a day. Jenny Odell, however, would like us to think differently.
Trained as an artist, Odell became well-known as a writer when her bestselling book How To Do Nothing challenged what she named the “attention economy.” In her new book, Saving Time, Odell shifts from attention to time. Inside, she examines how our modern conceptions of time came to be, and the ways in which they shaped our ideas about work and productivity. In an age when many of us battle burnout at work, feel stymied by stress, and question what our time on the clock really means, Odell suggests how we might imagine it anew.
This is not a self-help book: Odell doesn’t offer strategies to manage our hours or pragmatic advice for ways to rethink our minutes. But she does offer a different understanding of time than a standardized clock—one that can help us find a more meaningful relationship with our time.
Odell recently spoke with Quartz about how time became money, the difference between time and timing, and how joining our time can liberate our calendar. You can read more about the lessons of Saving Time in Quartz today. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Time to save
You push back on the notion that we all just have the same 24 hours in a day, writing instead that not everyone has the same control over their time. Why do you see hours differently?
I recently gave a talk where I had slides. When I was talking about the notion of 24 hours a day, my slide was just a grid—like seven by 24, or something like that. When I went on to talk about all of these ways in which that concept doesn’t really make sense, I actually warped the grid and Photoshop, like, I tried to make it look like it was like, kind of being squished or had some, like, weird gravity fields in it.
That’s how I think of it when I try to think beyond the concept that an hour is an hour. What does that person have access to [in their time]? Are they waiting for someone? Are they rushing for someone? There’s this pretty clear hierarchy that maps to whose time is considered the most disposable. And to me, when you say valuing time, there are obviously things like wages or salaries, but then there’s other things like whose time is considered most important.
As you talk about the history of how we monetized time, you introduce readers to time studies and Taylorism, a 20th-century movement timing workers to increase efficiency. You ask a striking question about power dynamics in management: Who is the timer, and who is being timed? What do we learn about work when we ask that question?
That question usually illuminates some kind of power relationship where someone has bought someone else’s time. Or someone just has total control over someone else’s time—they didn’t even buy it. It was interesting to me to see that in timing work, like Taylorism, but also in spreadsheets that were used on plantations.
I think that question shows who is on whose clock. And why is that clock constructed that way? Why is one group expected to work faster and faster and more and more intensely still, even now, today? I think it takes it out of the realm of [time as] this neutral thing.
In the book, you critique the idea of time as “standardized containers that can potentially be filled with work.” What are the alternatives?
I definitely want to push back on the idea that comes with that sense of uniformity, which is the super hyper-individualistic feeling that comes with that notion of time. It’s like a quote from a journalist that I have in one of the chapters, where she says, “Do you need a therapist, or do you need a union?”
I would hope that someone would move away from the idea that if you don’t feel like you have control over your time, that’s sort of on you, and you need to be using your time units more efficiently. Instead, look around and see, Who can I join up with where we’re thinking about our time [together]? And how can we shape that? I want someone to move beyond the boundaries of the individualist way of thinking.
Then how else can we think about sharing our time collectively, especially in our work?
A really obvious example of this is during the pandemic how many women had to leave their jobs or, at the very least, take on a lot of childcare duties in their isolated homes. Childcare is ordinarily collective: You drop your kid off at school. [But] a mom who I interview is like, I think I should get six other mothers together, and one of them makes dinner for everyone else one night of the week—that[’s] a larger structure.
I think if you move beyond [thinking about ourselves as] individuals with individual time units, you start to be able to see more the possibilities of people acting in a coordinated way together that liberates time.
If time isn’t money, then what might it become? You just might find an answer in the sprouting of moss, the trade of beans, or the onset of kangaroo-apple season in Australia. For more on the lessons of Saving Time, read the profile of Odell and her book.
More stories for making meaning of time
💰 How time became money—and what it should be instead
🌸 Japan’s 72 seasons can liberate us from our obsession with productivity
🧘🏼♀️ The secret to a meaningful life is simpler than you think
🚧 How to set healthy boundaries at work
💡 Is mattering the key to well-being at work?
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Send questions, comments, and stories of time-tackling to email@example.com. This edition of The Memo was written by Gabriela Riccardi and edited by Anna Oakes.