Modern Living: It’s about time

There is no doubt that we are lacking time. Even our youngest students are cutting down their sleeping time to the viable minimum [Ny Mag]. The market of personal productivity tools is a booming Web 2.0 business. Self-help and self-organization books are ranked top 10 best selling books for a couple of years straight now [Amazon]. The burnout syndrome, a form of depression that occurs when people feel persistently unable to fulfill all demands that life is putting on them, has become one of the most diagnosed psychological illnesses.

Paradoxically on the other hand, we are increasingly procrastinating. There are more people playing computer games for a longer time than ever before [PC Gamer]. Despite all prophets predicting the death of television, it has never been as popular as today [LA Times]. People spend hours repeatedly checking their Facebook wall and all the links and videos that other people share with them. So it seems like there should be enough time after all. What is going on here?

First, I think that there are two main reasons contributing to all kinds of procrastination. Procrastination is giving us short-term incentives and almost instant gratifications, being it of social, entertaining or achieving kind. From an evolutionary point of view, our brain is geared towards short-term successes rather than going the extra mile for the long-term perspective. The other main reason might be related to fear. It seems favorable to postpone a stressful situation for a little time, when the situation might give you negative feedback or the impression that you need to apply even more in order to succeed.

Second, the information overload of our contemporary societies is eating up a lot of time. News is being broadcasted almost instantaneous on many different channels, and you are supposed to stay informed. This also holds true for our fields of expertise. Tech people for instance have to read a whole bunch of tech blogs and articles, economy people have to check every bits of news about macro and micro economical developments, scientists have to check all new publications of their fields (and the publication rate is steadily increasing), and so on. Then there are your social feeds, hobbies and brands that you love, such as a favorite musicians, authors, directors, actors etc.; although it’s a blessing that all this information is available on the internet for us, it also takes a lot of time to digest all of it. And yet we often get the feeling that we’re under-informed.

Third, there are many more things to do compared to earlier times (I am mostly referring to the first and second world here), and all these things are competing for your attention. Both the digital revolution and the rural exodus are contributing to that fact. As a consequence, you always feel like you’re missing out on something. This particularly holds true for your professional life. Now that we finally have the freedom to actually do everything (I know, I know, I am oversimplifying here), we are scared that the grass might be greener on the other side. We tend to think that we are making a mistake by sticking to a certain profession. There is also a number of studies concluding that an increased number of choices actually makes people more desperate than preselecting choices for them [TED].

Fourth, it seems like we are trying to pack increasingly more duties, responsibilities and training into young people, while we are not leveraging the fact that people get older and older. By stretching the load to higher ages, we could disburden the young and middle-aged people, involve the elder people and at the same time cope with the problem of paying their benefits. I think that in general, the phenomenon of delayed gratification is a trend in our cultures that might seem rational on first sight but overall is not beneficial to the individuals’ mental well-being.

Fifth – and I think this one of the most important reasons, at least in your professional life –, since the beginning of the globalization and the free markets, we, as people, are increasingly competing with each other all around the world. So by simple game theory, it follows that if my competitor is working harder and longer, I should also boost my workload, unless I am okay with missing out on a job, a patent, an invention, etc.; this trend will clearly continue, assuming, of course, that political systems won’t change in a substantial way. And this trend obviously is independent of technological advances.

I neither want to propose any solutions nor condemn any of the observed phenomena – I am struggling myself on a day-by-day basis with the feeling of not having enough time.

To give you my two cents, I think it helps to assume that you only have one life. I do not claim that you only have one life and I do not want to digress into a discussion on whether religion, atheism or agnosticism makes sense or not – I just want to stress that assuming that you only have one life really helps you to make the right decisions. And if you are lucky enough to have the opportunity to do different things, don’t do something that you don’t like. You should try stuff to see whether you like it, but if you don’t, do not stick to it for whatever reason. It also shows you that indefinite delayed gratification is not a good strategy to follow. I will write another blog post on that topic.

To my mind, our nowadays societies are still fixed to anachronistic patterns of educating people, putting people to work and retiring older people. I am fairly sure that this will gradually but in the end substantially change within the next decades. I will cover this in another blog post.

As for the issue of information overload, I am very confident that technology will find a solution to that problem within the next years. I will write another blog post on that topic.

Finally, I don’t think that there is any viable solution to the problem of global competition. There are interesting concepts like basic income guarantee and so on, but even they don’t change the general pattern of being better off by doing more than your competitor. And I think that in general, liberal democratic systems have been proven to be quite motivating and fruitful for moving forward.

Speaking of time, do we all perceive time at the same rate? And if so, is this perceived rate of time an inherently human thing or do we just learn to synchronize our perception of time with our peers while we’re growing up?

And as a follow-up question: is this question rather a philosophical or a neurobiological one?

Leave a Reply