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Why you never have enough time, a history

AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Squeezing ever more tasks into our time is a relatively modern pursuit.
  • Andrew Taggart
By Andrew Taggart

Founder, Askole

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

There’s just not enough time. You’re busy, hurried, harassed by What’s Next and by What Else. As you struggle to keep up, you vacillate between subscribing to more life hacking and throwing your hands up when faced with what you ironically call “the futility of life.” The nervous laughter you expend when you hear such a grand expression come out of your mouth does little to alleviate the burden you so achingly carry.

Sometimes you dream of getting off this treadmill of tasks, but you fear that, if you did, you’d be passed by and summarily forgotten.

Welcome to our “time famine.”

Time is, in our modern society, a scarcity, a “precious resource,” and the unspoken enemy that must be subdued. But this was not always so. At other moments in history, time was abundant. So what changed? How did time turn against us?

How time “sped up”

Those of us living in developed countries generally work less than our predecessors living in the 1850s, and yet we feel not just that we have less time but also that the pace of life keeps speeding up. The cause of this disconnect—which sociologist Judy Wajcman calls the “time-pressure paradox”—has been a subject of debate among historians and sociologists.

Some have argued that technological advances alone have caused the pace of social life to speed up. Yet this can’t be the sole cause of our time famine, since many “labor-saving” machines were meant to also save us time. We no longer spend long hours washing our clothes by hand, for instance, and hyperloop promises to make the commute between Los Angeles and San Francisco feel, in the future, like a short subway trip.

“It’s capitalism, stupid!,” someone else might be heard exclaiming. The late historian E.P. Thompson argued that industrial capitalism required a new breed of workers—industrial workers—who were increasingly subjected to “time-discipline,” the social control of time through precise measurement and ruthless management. This shift in how we work is an obvious contributor to our current time famine. Whereas before industrialization, workers were freer to work according to more natural, even seasonal rhythms, thereafter they were submitted to the brutal demands of standardized clock time and capitalists’ expectations about ever-higher levels of productivity. Contemporary knowledge workers inherited this time-discipline, albeit now in a digitized form.

But even though the rise of scheduled work may contribute to time famine, it still falls short of completely explaining it. Industrialization created not only a demand for scheduling, but also prosperity. The Great Enrichment, a period beginning in 1800, saw citizens in developed nations become 130 times richer than they were before 1800. This new prosperity for many created an unprecedented opportunity for “free time.”

Time-saving technologies and prosperity, rather than making us time poor, should make us feel as if time is on our side. But they haven’t.

The reason, asserted German sociologist Hartmut Rosa, is “social acceleration.” In Rosa’s view, we can only understand the speedup of modern culture once we see how technological innovations, social changes, and the pace of life all affect and reinforce one another. He writes, “Examining the causal relations between the three spheres of social acceleration reveals a surprising feedback loop: technological acceleration, which is frequently connected to the introduction of new technologies (like the steam engine, the railway, the automobile, the telegraph, the computer, the Internet) almost inevitably brings about a whole range of changes in social practices, communication structures, and corresponding forms of life. For example, the Internet has not only increased the speed of communicative exchange and the virtualization of economic and productive processes; it has also established new occupational, economic, and communicative structures, opening up new patterns of social interaction and even new forms of social identity.”

I would add a fourth element to this model: the changing pace of knowledge work brought on by the threat of precarity. Security—in jobs, welfare, retirement, and on just about every frontier—has become increasingly rare as work turns into a task-by-task arrangement. The precarious employee fears losing her job and is often responsible for tasks that were once distributed among more employees, while the precarious freelancer, anxious about an uncertain future, is often completing one gig while searching for the next ones. Financial insecurity begets endless, anxious activity and, in turn, an acute sense of time famine.

These explanations, ranging from the less to the more complete, all touch on something important about our time famine. But they still fail to explain a deeper shift in thinking that led to the modern experience of the ever-fleeting, ever-antagonistic nature of time.

Two very different ways of being human

In 1845, Marx wrote that “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

One way to read this is as a crystallization of a world-changing historical transition that occurred in the eighteenth century: human beings left behind the idea that their highest purpose was to contemplate the world (called the “Image of God” doctrine) and instead embraced the groundbreaking idea that the world needs to be changed (called the “Agent Theory”).

The philosopher Edward Craig describes this transition in his book, The Mind of God and the Works of Man. From the seventeenth century until the end of the eighteenth century, he writes, “the philosophical motto or slogan [was] that man was made in the image of God.” From this standpoint, human beings were spectators. They contemplated their “godlike relationship with reality,” seeking to approximate themselves to the “mind of God.” The ultimate aim of human life, then, was to apprehend God and God’s creation and so to find a home within it—not to change this creation by acting upon it.

But then, quite stunningly, history changed course, and “a new picture of man and man’s relation to reality” emerged. After 1780, philosophers often described a world where a human being is “no longer a spectator, but a being that actively creates, or shapes, its own world.” According to this “Agent Theory,” human beings are agents, “creators of our own environment.” In our hands, the world thus becomes “the work of man’s mind.”

Our metaphysical stance toward the world thus shifted from one in which we are spectators—contemplating the world that was made in God’s image—to one in which we are agents, assiduously trying to make the world into our own.

For the contemplator, time is eternity: the full presence of being, a blessing beyond words. For the agent, time is fleeting, no more than a moment extinguished by another act in view of a believed-to-be-better future. That’s because with agency comes an unacknowledged burden. We will never have enough time, because the world, ever beckoning us to take further actions, will never be complete. So long as we are only agents, time will never be on our side.

Abiding Peace

 At a time when the Agent Theory—the idea that our duty is to change the world according to our demands rather than to contemplate its gifts—has so thoroughly taken over, it’s not surprising to learn that silent retreats, promising deceleration, have become increasingly popular in recent years. For example, to avoid burnout in South Korea, “the most overworked nation in Asia,” some South Koreans are willing to live in monastic cells no more than 53 square feet for a week. They relinquish their cell phones, wear blue uniforms, receive food through an open slot, and agree to being locked into their cell (while also being notified of how they can unlock the door if need be).

But while this type of exercise may give people a glimpse into contemplative stillness, alone it is not enough. Nor, on its own, is the Slow Movement, which urges us to slow down the pace of everyday life. As soon as one returns to our “acceleration society” and its rhythms, so do the regular, frenetic patterns expressive of the Agent Theory. And riding the schizophrenic seesaw between being an agent throughout most of the year and being contemplatively still or going more slowly in brief, intermittent intervals is no way to live. It is a picture of painful incoherence.

After countless philosophical conversations over the years with individuals working in Silicon Valley, on Wall Street, and beyond, those for whom “time famine” is their default mode of being, I’ve come to believe that what must be discovered instead—and this is no easy thing—is the contemplative stillness that exists beneath any pace of life, whether fast, fluctuating, or slow, that sense of abiding peace that T.S. Eliot once so beautifully called “the still point of the turning world.” How to find that abiding peace, that ground of Life, really is the question.

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