Bodil Jönsson is a professor at Lund University in Sweden. Her international bestselling book ‘Ten Thoughts About Time’, first published in 1999, helped to start the discussion on how our perception of time was linked to the growing spectre of stress in modern life. Twenty years on, she feels we still have much to learn about our relationship with the clock.
How has the concept of time and our relationship with it changed?
When I was a child, people did not experience a lack of time in the way we do today. They were focused on their lives and earning their living. Even if there was an overwhelming amount of hard work to be done, they did not suffer from any abstract feelings of time stress. Their struggles were concrete, their ambitions were modest, and their perception of time was tied to their experience of life.
Back then, you were expected to accept your place in the family, at the office, and in society – plotting your own course through life was unthinkable. Nowadays, however, everyone expects to define their own boundaries and choose their own path. Our ambitions have become loftier, and the concepts of individual free will and the right – or even duty – to shape one’s own life have overpowered earlier social conventions. As a result we have lost the security of having a path to follow and our sense of time no longer has a fixed anchor.
What does that mean for the way we perceive time?
Here I think it is important to talk about rhythm. In some ways, the concept of ‘rhythm’ is, in fact, even more important than that of ‘time’. Previously, our physical strength set the limits, which meant that regular pauses were necessary, building a rhythm into our days. Cultural and religious practices, fixed working and meal hours, and even seasonal foods added a broader social framework. Days and nights, as well as the weeks, months, seasons, and years, revolved around fixed points to such an extent that this ‘rhythm’ enabled most individuals to keep track of time. For most of us, that is no longer the case. Today our rhythms vary wildly and are often erratic, if they exist at all. This means our concept of time is much more fluid and we are more susceptible to time pressure of our own making.
One of the most common beliefs of our contemporary world is that time is a commodity and that it is a scarce product. Neither is true.
Why do we seem to feel more time pressure today?
One of the most common beliefs of our contemporary world is that time is a commodity and that it is a scarce product. Neither is true. Medically speaking, elderly people are much ‘younger’ today than earlier generations were at the same age – “70 is the new 50”. In addition, the average lifespan is now much longer and continues to increase with each medical advance. At the same time, technology and gadgets enable us to perform ever greater deeds, realise previously unthinkable wishes, and implement the most incredible plans.
All comparisons with previous generations make it clear that humans today could not be considered short of time. On the contrary: objectively, we have ample time to live our long and rich lives. The problem is that we focus on the wrong things. We focus on having control; control of not only the static things in life but also the dynamic and changeable parts. This desire for control is the most important driver behind man’s creation and focus on the concept of time. But in our quest for control, we have betrayed ourselves by separating time from life and managing the two of them as independent of each other. When identifying different time factors and optimising each of them separately, we risk overlooking how they are woven into the context of our lives.
This can cause us to ignore the most valuable things in life: the search for love, friendship and empathy, the pursuit of knowledge, and curiosity with all its wonders and dreams. The control that was so desperately wanted has transformed itself into its opposite: disorder and sometimes even anxiety. That is, however, too hard for us to admit. Instead, we describe our confusion with the more neutral and widely spread term: ‘stress’.
But stress is not a new phenomenon – or is it?
When ‘Ten Thoughts About Time’ came out, it was one of the first books that broke the idea of ‘stress’ down in such a way that it could be discussed within families, among friends, in the workplace, and in society. Ideas about reasons, symptoms, and possible remedies could be shared. Indeed, many of the concepts I discussed in ‘Ten Thoughts About Time’ – ‘setup time’, for instance – even found their way into the everyday vocabulary of Sweden.
Now, 20 years later, many still feel short of time. But they are no longer surprised by their perceived lack of time and stressed lifestyle. Instead, time hunting has evolved into a highly mundane phenomenon that we call ‘finding a work-life balance’. Unfortunately, many people get caught in the yarn of burnout conditions when failing to navigate between, on the one hand, the wish to manage everything not only all the way to infinity but also beyond, and on the other to accept one’s existing limitations in both abilities and energy.
We need to stop blaming ‘time’ for our own and others people’s shortcomings.
How can we take back control of our time?
First and foremost, we need to stop blaming ‘time’ for our own and others people’s shortcomings. Time simply does its ‘job’, day after day. There is no point in wishing for days with extra hours, weeks with extra days, or a life with more time. Instead, realise that it is up to us to rediscover how to live our lives based on a different understanding of time. This can be done through learning and replacing our focus on the stresses of life with an open-minded and welcoming attitude. Of course, learning to think in a new way is not a quick fix – but it can be done and the rewards are surely worth the effort.