What If Instead of Trying to Manage Your Time, You Set It Free?

“In her newest book, “Saving Time,” Jenny Odell, a visual artist and the author of the best-selling “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” argues that standard ways of thinking about time — particularly regarding work and what time is owed and to whom — can obscure potentially more humane and expansive, less self-centered notions of time, views that go beyond restrictive notions of efficiency or work-life balance. “I’m really trying to work against an instrumental view of time,” says Odell, who is 37, “where it’s either something that is going to help you or hurt you.” [..]

[Marchese] It is amazing how we can change our experience of time by choosing to think about it differently. Let me give you my own example: Sometimes I’ll be sitting on a bench bored while my kids are at the playground, and time feels as if it’s crawling by. But if I stop and think, This is not my time, it’s their time, then the boredom melts away, and the time starts to feel precious. I wonder if you think that experience is related to the idea in your book that if we can adopt a less self-centered view of time, then the possibilities for how we experience time can get so much bigger and feel so much more full?

[Odell] I think so. An individualist understanding of time very quickly goes in the direction of meaningless to me. I remember there was a Reddit post of someone who was talking about trying to outsource everything in their life and making it superefficient. I think they were asking for advice on “What more should I do?” and someone in the comments was like, “You’re not going to have any meaning in your life pretty soon if you don’t watch out.” Because even if you get better at having your time be protected, that doesn’t answer the question of what you want to use your time for and what your values are. There’s also this irony where, in situations in the past, I felt like I needed to protect my time more so that I could do things that I wanted, and it obscured the fact that what I wanted was a sense of connection and meaning, and in order to get that I would have to do something that looked like giving my time away. Since you mentioned kids: A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend who has a 3-year-old, and it took us half an hour to walk two blocks. There is a way in which, as you were saying, you could view that experience as potentially boring, but you could also see that the reason we were walking slowly is that kids are looking at stuff in a weird way! It’s a way I appreciate trying to imagine. For time spent like that, the whole question of “What are you getting out of this?” would be absurd.

[Marchese] This is connected to something I asked you earlier, but you said that the time-management, return-on-investment view of time goes in the direction of meaninglessness. I want to know more about why you think that.

[Odell] For me, there’s the question of why you do anything. That can lead into difficult territory like, What do you want your life to be? Ideally your answers to that question are what guide your decisions about how to spend your time. You would hope that you are spending less time on things that you don’t want to be doing so you can do things that you’ve decided are meaningful to you, and I think that there’s something about that culture of making everything more efficient that risks avoiding that question of why. A life of total efficiency and convenience? Well, why? What is left if you were to make everything superconvenient? It is helpful to make certain things more efficient, but that can tip over into becoming its own end, which moves the focus away from that larger question of why. [..]

The closest thing that I have to an answer is that I want to be in contact with things, people, contexts that make me feel alive. I have a specific definition of alive, which is I want to feel like I am being changed. Someone who’s completely habitual, is set in their ways of thinking and doing, that type of person is liable to see days in a calendar as being pieces of material that you use to achieve your goals. There’s all kinds of degrees between that and someone who’s so completely open to every moment that they’re dysfunctional or something, but I want to live closer to that second pole. I think about things that are enlivening to me, and they tend to be encounters, conversations — that “My Dinner With Andre” type of conversation where you and your conversation partner are changed by the end, you’ve covered new ground, you are both now somewhere else. But it’s also encounters with nonhuman life that is growing and changing, and realizing that I am also changing and evolving. To me those are the reminders that, yeah, I’m alive, today is not the same as yesterday, I will be different in the future, therefore I have a reason to live, which is to find out what that change is going to be.”

Full article, D Marchese, New York Times Magazine, 2023.5.14