How Should We Think About Time?

Spend it, waste it, enjoy it, take too much of it, gift it, cherish it, fritter it away… no matter what we do with our time, we never seem to have enough of it. And try as we might, we can only pack so much into 24 hours.

“Yesterday”, as the Beatles have immortalized for us in song is not merely the previous 24 hours, but a metaphor for the life we left behind as we were “growing old”. And tomorrow will be here before you know it. So, what can we do with our “time” if not “live the hours that make up the dog-day and fritter the hours in an offhand way”, as the band, Pink Floyd has enquired of us?

Time and its equivalences, circular as well as linear; Image: Murray Campbell on Unsplash

Time, though always linear has so many dimensions to it, if we only stop to think about it. It is linear and yet moves in a circular fashion, the seconds making the hours that make the day, after day after day. There is something circular and repetitive about it. Yet, quite paradoxically, at another level, we know time that has passed will never return. It is “lost forever”, as they say. This is time, on a chronological plane, the scarce commodity that keeps track of our lives for us.

Then, there is the economic measure of time, the one that helps divide our work and leisure lives. The time we spend earning our living, building our careers, saving for tomorrow and planning the future for the family. It is what takes up most of our lives, what gives our life direction and purpose. In the truly capitalist society, time is money and there is an opportunity cost. Benjamin Franklin invented the idea that “time is money” in a piece he wrote in 1748 called Advice to a Young Tradesman:

“Remember, that Time is Money. He that can earn Ten Shillings a Day by his Labour, and goes abroad, or sits idle one half of that Day, tho’ he spends but Sixpence during his Diversion or Idleness, ought not to reckon That the only Expence; he has really spent or rather thrown away Five Shillings besides.”

It is this idea that Max Weber refers to as “the spirit of capitalism” in his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and what he later calls modern capitalism, even while he accepts that Benjamin Franklin was driven by utilitarianism.

Yet, we never think of time as an asset class, and it is not something we invest in or hold dear. It is always the parameter by which other asset classes are measured and judged: we make time-bound investments, we earn time-bound salaries, we take on time-bound insurance policies, we announce time-bound corporate earnings. Still, we don’t think about time much, let alone respect it.

Think about how time is a measure of other aspects of our lives as well. As children we are taught the value of discipline, of learning to divide our time and mental concentration between our studies and extra-curricular activities, including sport. Somewhere down the line, all those hours, days, months and years go into shaping who we are and how we live. We take that learning and discipline into our adult years, dividing our time between work and leisure, work and family, work and home. They are not just ways of dividing our time, but different mental and physical spaces.

Life is a constant race against time; Image: Anna Dziubinska on Unsplash

In today’s fast-paced, technologically connected world, that line between work and leisure has blurred. Work time flows easily into leisure space and leisure time has entered the work space. Mostly, it’s the former, leaving us with even less time for things we’d like to do for our own development and our families. “So much to read, and so little time!” is a constant refrain with me, for example. And then I sometimes think to myself, should I really worry myself over this? What would happen if I read a few articles or a few pages less every day… would the heavens fall?! And then, I find that I am actually negotiating with myself, rationalizing and optimizing my use of time. I marvel at people who have a relaxed, laid-back attitude to life, because I know too well that I am not one of them.

Why should we always be in a race against time, always trying to catch up with activities, or with time itself as if there is no tomorrow? Is it because we know time is a finite resource and we really don’t have enough of it, in order to be able to accomplish our ideals? And if it is a resource, how is it that we don’t consider it a precious asset? We have invented all the ways to measure it, yet we do not yet know how to make it our own, how to enhance its value, how to share it with others.  

It is in this context that I remembered a wonderful concept that I came across. The concept of a timebank, that is being tried out in Switzerland, Japan and a few other countries. Britain too is considering it, as a way of improving elderly care, according to The Economist. The idea is to help elderly care and community service along by depositing your hours as you would your money in a bank, by taking care of someone’s needs. The recipient of your time and care gets to pay you back or pay it forward, helping someone else in turn. This chain reaction will hopefully inspire many to participate and strengthen the sense of community and also help to put one’s time to better use. What struck me as different about this is that it finally treats time as another important and precious asset, but not in a sense of any pecuniary value. And it needn’t be only for the elderly, but could be a part of the new digital age “shared economy” as well.

Foucault’s Pendulum at the Pantheon, Paris; Image: Rsk6400 CC by SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

The hospitality industry, for many years now, has promoted the idea of “time shares” where guests join as members of a “time-sharing club” and can opt to spend their “pre-purchased time” at the time and resort of their choosing, each year. The idea of trading time-shares is also gaining acceptance and offers a unique way of experiencing leisure: leisure = net time-shares.

Poets, philosophers, scientists and artists have all ruminated on the mysteries of time. From the Aristotelian and Newtonian conception of absolute time, to the Einsteinian view of relative time, we have progressed along the arc of how to think of time itself. As Stephen Hawking says in his A Brief History of Time, up to 1915, people believed in an absolute time. However, the discovery of the speed of light led to the theory of relativity and one had to abandon the idea of a unique absolute time. The four-dimensional concept of space-time came into being. Each observer carried his own clock and his own measure of time. “Time then became a personal concept, relative to the observer who measured it,” he says. In the book, Hawking also talks of how science actually has no concept of time as “past and present”.

However, the poet, TS Eliot, had this to say about time present and past in Four Quartets:

"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls in the echo of memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.
To what purpose
Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose leaves
I do not know.
Other echoes Inhabit the garden. Shall we follow?”


Go, said the bird, for the leaves were full of children,
Hidden, excitedly, containing laughter.
Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.”

The bird is a metaphor for time itself: it flies. The impermanence of time and its transient nature is all too familiar. What is unusual in Eliot’s interpretation of it is where time, past and present collapse; time present and “now” is what we know and experience with some certainty.

Salvador Dali, in his famous “Persistence of memory” painting depicts melting pocket watches as the “softening” aspect of our lives, the dreaming self and our unconscious leading us to newer experiences, as the old decays.

I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, Thinking, Fast and Slow recently and I remember thinking that all the experiments and studies cited in the book that deals with choices and decision making in our lives, present monetary risk and reward as choices, or at least choices that can be easily monetized. It led me to wonder, what if people were given a choice of adding 10 years to their lives or a million dollars. What do you think most people would choose?

If you were young and penniless, you would probably choose a million dollars. If you were old and relatively prosperous, you have every reason to want to live an additional 10 years. It seems to depend then, not so much on what we want, but on what we already have. And time is clearly not what we can have enough of, indefinitely. It is scarcer than money, yet we treat it with indifference if not disdain.

Jantar Mantar, one of the world’s oldest sun-dials in India; Image: Mrinal Srikanth CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

I also believe that the Western conception of time is quite different from the Eastern one. In the former, time is a value. In the Eastern conception, it is the context. In the former, one is likely to try to maximise it. In the latter, one accepts it as immutable. Besides, in the Indian Hindu conception one believes that there is another life after this one and that can be a chance to redeem yourself or not, depending on how you fared in your current life.     

As Einstein discovered, time also bends in space and is always itself slowing down. I like to think of time and life itself as a spiral staircase, circling upwards but drawing us higher in a linear fashion. Every turn is a chance to enhance and enrich our lives with new learning and experiences. And even as we are living longer and healthier lives today, it is when we fill our lives with meaning that we truly attain our ideals.

Hope you are able to make the most of your time in whatever you seek and do.

Enjoy this lovely animated GIF of Foucault’s Pendulum that I found on Wikimedia Commons! Creator: DemonDeLuxe Dominique Touissaint CC by SA 3.0

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