Our culture is obsessed with time. It is our personal deficit crisis. We always think we’re saving time, and yet we feel like we never have enough of it. We suffer from an epidemic of what James Gleick, in his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, calls hurry sickness: “Our computers, our movies, our sex lives, our prayers—they all run faster now than ever before. And the more we fill our lives with time-saving devices and time-saving strategies, the more rushed we feel.”
Leslie Perlow, a professor at Harvard Business School, has given this feeling a name: “time famine.” And feeling like you’re experiencing time famine has very real consequences, from increased stress to diminished satisfaction with your life. On the flip side, there’s “time affluence,” the feeling of having enough time, or even surplus time. And though it may be hard to believe, it’s actually possible to achieve.
Some people are naturally time affluent. My mother, for instance. In fact, when it came to time, she was filthy rich. She moved through her days like a child does, living in the present, stopping, literally, to smell the roses. A trip through the farmers’ market might be an all-day affair with little thought of All The Things That Must Be Done.
Until her death in 2000, she and I had an unspoken deal: Hers would be the rhythm of a timeless world, a child’s rhythm; mine was the rhythm of the modern world. As it turns out, it’s my mother’s luxurious sense of time, rather than my own struggle against perpetual time famine, that’s apparently closer to the scientific reality of time. As physicist Paul Davies wrote in Scientific American, though most of us feel time is something that flows, always coming at us and then rushing behind us, that’s not actually what happens: “Physicists prefer to think of time as laid out in its entirety—a timescape, analogous to a landscape—with all past and future events located there together. It is a notion sometimes referred to as block time.” I love this because “block time” helps me see the big picture—there is literally both no time and all the time in the world.
Not surprisingly, when it comes to winning the war on time famine, we are our own worst enemies. To win the war, first we have to declare that we want to change. According to a 2008 Pew report, when asked what was important to them, 68 percent of Americans replied: having free time. It ranked even higher than children, which came in at 62 percent, and a successful career, at 59 percent. Yet the way many of us choose to live doesn’t reflect those priorities. As long as success is defined by who works the longest hours, who goes the longest without a vacation, who sleeps the least, who responds to an e-mail at midnight or five in the morning—in essence, who is suffering from the biggest time famine—we’re never going to be able to enjoy the benefits of time affluence.
We all have a relationship with technology. The question is: How healthy is that relationship going to be? Our attention is the fuel that drives our lives. Or as Viral Mehta, cofounder of ServiceSpace.org, put it, “the clay with which we mold our days.” No matter what people say about what they value, what matters is where they put their attention. When technology eats up our attention, it’s eating up our life. And when we accumulate projects on our to-do list, they eat up our attention, even if unconsciously and even if we never start them.
I did a major “life audit” when I turned 40, and I realized how many projects I had committed to in my head—like learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook. Most remained unfinished and many were not even begun. Yet these countless incomplete projects drained my energy and diffused my attention. As soon as the file was opened, each one took a little bit of me away. It was very liberating to realize that I could “complete” a project by simply dropping it—by eliminating it from my to-do list. Why carry around this unnecessary baggage? That’s how I completed learning German and becoming a good skier and learning to cook and a host of other projects that now no longer have a claim on my attention!
Huffington is the founder of the news website The Huffington Post. Excerpt reprinted from Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, which comes out March 25 (Harmony/Random House). Visit amazon.com.