Time Independence

Time Independence: A Personal Decision

“…for the devil is come down unto you, having great wrath, because he knoweth that he hath but a short time.” (Revelation 12:12)

“But time is life itself, and life resides in the human heart. And the more people saved, the less they had.” (Michael Ende, Momo)

Despite our Time Anxiety: An Introduction

Much of the anxiety in our modern societies comes from the feeling that there is not enough time. We’ll schedule it, we’ll save it whenever we can, we’ll hurry – to no avail. Time still seems to be running out.

But what about the reality behind that perception? Truth is, hunter-gatherers were probably less busy than we are. But, as far as we can tell, their life expectancy was a lot lower than ours. Truth is also that we have more free time today than we had during the last two centuries, when industrial workers were relentlessly exploited. While our current 9-5 situation isn’t desirable for many reasons, it’s certainly better than working 70 hours a week in a textile factory.

Where does the feeling of time scarcity come from, then? My thesis is that it is nothing but a form of bad faith – and life would be a lot better if we just stopped living as we do, and simplified our relationship to time. In a context of applied escapology, let’s have a look at the roots of our understanding of time, and how to get rid of bad faith in order to become time independent.

There’s No Such Thing as Time

It seems to be a good writer’s tradition to begin essays on time quoting Saint Augustine describing the difficulties of defining what time really is. I’ll leave this to you and Google to find out, because from a bad faith perspective, it’s much more interesting to look at what time is not: A fixed and universal “thing”, for example, that governs our lives objectively. It’s more, after thousands of years of discussion, scientists slowly arrive at the conclusion that time might not exist at all.

In modern physics, time is generally understood as entangled with space. In Einstein’s theory of relativity, spacetime does not include the notion of a universal time component: The time component for events that are viewed by people in motion with respect to each other will be different, and as there’s no place in the universe that is completely stationary, measured time will differ a lot depending on where we are and how we are moving. While physicists are still searching for the perfect “world formula”, unifying the relativity theories with quantum physics, it’s pretty sure that time won’t be of fundamental importance for it.

Einstein brought the consequences of this to the point when he said, “People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.” Time could then be nothing but a tool for human beings, created by human beings. Similar ideas have been expressed for thousands of years, like in the 5th century BCE in Greece, when Antiphon the Sophist held that, “Time is not a reality, but a concept or a measure.”

Modern units of time measurement are more or less arbitrary. In our current standard, units of time are based on the second, defined as “the duration of 9,192,631,770 periods of the radiation corresponding to the transition between the two hyperfine levels of the ground state of the caesium 133 atom.” A day is divided into 24 hours, an hour into 60 minutes. A minute, you would expect, is made of 60 seconds, but that’s not always the case: As Mother Earth is slowing down, some minutes will have 61 seconds to make up for it. This happens currently approximately every 18 months, when so-called “leap seconds” are added to keep our Coordinated Universal Time close to mean solar time. One could say that Earth itself is not “precise enough” for our atomic clocks!

Biorhythm doesn’t help, either. Pulse or breathing will change many times a day, depending on our mood and activity levels. And then there’s the importance of what we’re doing at any given moment: Ten minutes drinking with friends generally will pass a lot faster than ten minutes waiting for a job interview.

There are also cultural differences. While Westerners are entangled in the perception of having to schedule events, running late and being stressed, traditional communities behave completely different. Austrian ethnologist Andreas Obrecht provides a typical example of the Mianmin in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. In this tribe, everybody works, sleeps, and relaxes just as they see fit – be it day or night. Both stress and boredom are unknown to them.

In contrast, in our own societies, even young children are already trained to worship the clock, be punctual, and have their agendas filled with school, sports, and entertainment program. Using the terms of Hans Blumenberg, they are taught to suppress their personal “life-time” in order to fit in with the imaginary flow of “world-time” measured by our watches. This results in a growing gap between how we experience time personally and how our environment forces us to perceive it.

Time as Control

As the gap between world-time and life-time widens, discontent rises. During the July Revolution of 1830, Parisians would smash the clocks in their city: They understood that time was used as a means of suppression and control. How much have times changed, if we compare their behavior to our own addiction to watches and electronic gadgets remembering us to “stay on time”.

Sure enough, humans have had a long tradition to get a grip on time, or what they perceived as it. In neolithic times, moon calendars would be used to prepare crop cultivation, and shadow clocks were built in Egypt as early as 3.500 BCE. The position of the sun was the main indicator of time for millenia to come, and only well into the Middle Ages, mechanical clocks were invented. Even then, there were no standard time zones, and every city would have its own local solar time.

But as complexity grew in the globalizing societies, leading to ever-increasing transport and communication among countries and continents, worldwide standardization of time became crucial to keep the system growing. It started when British train companies adopted Greenwich Mean Time as a standard for their timetables in the 19th century, in order to ease planning trips through the country. In 1884, Greenwich was adopted as the prime meridian, and global timezones could be established – a process that was only finished well into the 20th century.

As we see, local solar time and local calendars were abolished due to the necessities of economic development: Without linear standard time, no globalized growth economies. If you want to keep your machines running 24 hours a day, you need to make sure that all the workers know when to punch the clock. If you want to deliver goods and services “just in time”, you need to make sure you’re working time-coordinated.

But it’s more than that. In both nation state and growth economy, time becomes important to measure, compare and control human beings and their usability for the system: Which student learns faster? Which worker accomplishes more in a given span of time? The ultimate consequence of this is Franklin’s claim that “time is money”: If you manage to maintain growth at a certain rate, your money of today indeed will be worth more tomorrow, if you invest it right.

What we should remember, though, is that this notion of our economy is not natural. You cannot have permanent growth based on limited resources: At 5% growth, GNP would double every 14 years. How long can you continue like that, when all you’ve got is one tiny little planet?

As our clocks have changed from sundials to ticking mechanical devices to silent radio-controlled gadgets, the logic of “measuring time” became an apparently fixed and absolutely valid order for us – even though nothing of this really exists. In our perception, our social universe became one with the natural, as we created a kind of coordinate system of bad faith covering the whole planet, allowing its control and the organization of the world system.

The Art of Decision-Making

We were raised in time anxiety, and our resulting discomfort has led to several strategies to deal with it. The only way to escape the situation temporarily seems to be an ephemeral opt-out called vacations: Our fortnight of holidays are the only days in the year where it’s socially acceptable to let time pass in idleness. That said, consumerism should always continue, as it helps maintaining the system.

Outside of vacations, the annihilation of time has become the biggest thinkable crime. When the same concept of time we invented is worshipped as our Goddess, idleness and unproductivity become the only cardinal sins left on Earth. So much for talking about a God delusion: If you’re idle, you don’t honor the Goddess. If you don’t honor her, you’re not competetive. If you’re not competetive, you’ll get bad ratings. If you get bad ratings, you’ll lose your job, you’ll drop out of the system, and you’ll spend the rest of your life as a deadbeat in a run-down trailer park in Ohio.

This tragedy of having to make “good use” of time is not limited to work, of course: Apart from having a career, we should have a great family. Cook something healthy and work out every day. Keep up with politics and gossip and the latest movies, but also leave time to meditate and brush up our Mandarin.

The most popular solution for anxiety seems to be “time management”: Set a reminder for everything you’ve got to do, always carry a calendar and a watch, write down every thought and appointment. But all time management strategies are nothing but superficial treats of the symptoms, ignoring the underlying root of the problem: The true reason for maintaining bad faith is that we’re afraid of making the decision to do less.

We are living in a world with more options than ever before. Many of them are free, others are not, being offered to us by people who want our money. We’ll often opt for the latter ones, because they are marketed. They are advertised as an “easy way out”, like taking the blue pill in Matrix. But while retail therapy may calm our anxiety for a moment, its long-term consequences are devastating: The more we spend, the more we need to earn, the more time we have to use for paid work, the less control we have of our lives. Also, the more stuff we buy or plan to buy, the more mediocre options we add to our lives. What happens here could be described as a vicious circle of child-learned time dependence that leads to harmful spending habits, resulting in real financial trouble that reinforces bad faith concerning time dependence. Instead of making our own decisions, we’ll just accept what we are fed by the marketers.

The Remedy

Conscious personal decision-making and reducing options is crucial if we want to change things and become time independent. As German philosopher Odo Marquard writes, “Even if you want to change just a few things, you have to leave most things untouched, or even the few things will fail that are indeed changeable.” But instead of engaging in change, we are waiting for more information to make our decisions. We desire to be completely informed and we’re longing for perfect conditions. Consider this: Fidel Castro didn’t have perfect conditions when he went to Cuba to make his revolution. He didn’t have enough allies, he didn’t have enough money to get a good boat, he didn’t manage to arrive at the island without losing the majority of his men. Yet, two years after Fidel’s landing, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista had to abandon his New Year’s Day party and get on a plane to leave the country to the revolutionaries.

As Sartre noted, “man is free within a situation, not within a vacuum space”. We’ll never have full control about the externalities of life, and not even about our own mind and body, but we have to work with what we’ve got. We have to unlearn the desire to buy solutions, and learn that, more often than not, it’s up to ourselves to create them, starting with a decision on the direction to take. The good news is that our intuition helps us in decision-making. While this needs some training, over the years of surviving on this planet, we get pretty good at just doing the right thing, even though we might not have conclusive data to back up our decision.

Beware, though, that no choice is still a choice, and often not the best one. It can entangle us in living a life of boredom, overwhelmed by all the options we have. “There’s no reality except in action”, Sartre says. Instead of inspiring action, marketers want us to stay passive and indecisive, in order to make us buy into their claims of selling the cure to our ennui.

Once we decide against them, we are free to create a life for ourselves and become time independent. Our modern concept of time cannot be changed easily on a macro level. What can be changed is our personal relation to it. We consciously reduce our options. We just stop buying what the system wants to sell us, in both ideology and products. We live frugally, giving ourselves permission to work less. We’ll have more time than ever, and suddenly we are free to use it for productive endeavors that matter and for idle pleasures alike. This decision may not be an easy one, like the ones advertised by our teachers or the corporate marketers. But it will be the only one allowing us to make bad faith in time perception vanish, just like time itself might vanish during the next revolution in quantum physics research.


This article was first published in New Escapologist, “The Bad Faith Issue”. The issue features Tom Mellors on Anarchy and Escapology in the Great Depression; a guide to epic travel with kids; Reggie Chamberlain-King on Sartre and Flaubert; and much, much more. If you are interested, you should get your copy here. Photo CC-BY-NC-SA by Breno Peck.

Comments 11

  1. Kane August 25, 2010

    Fabian Hi

    A lovely piece that really highlights the insidious affect of time as it is embedded in modern culture. Breaking free of that mindset can be so hard, not least because the world around one is still running, literally, to the ticking clock.

    Having managed to apply the brakes on the world around me for long enough to jump off and reclaim my life I have come to the conclusion that to successfully negate the influence of time and the pressures it brings one’s efforts are best directed at managing the boundaries between oneself and the frantic world.

    Rather like being a walled town and managing who and what comes through the gates.

    Once again a lovely piece.

    Regards K.

    • Fabian August 25, 2010

      Kane, “managing the boundaries” sounds like some very good advice. Actually, I think that’s true not only concerning time independence, but also many other parts of life (consumerism, information intake, circle of friends, traditions etc.).
      Glad to hear you enjoyed the article, and that you already managed to “apply the breaks”!!

  2. Srinivas Rao August 25, 2010

    Fabian,

    Really interesting ideas here. Echkart Tolle talks about the idea of time as a function of ego. In fact once we can let go of our dependence on time it opens up the world to is in amazing ways. One thing that I realize is the true curse of the 9 to 5 culture is that we have too much time. I don’t think that anybody acutally does 8 hours of work in a day. In fact, forcing people to work in a structure limits their productivity. Some people see my lifestyle: surfing everyday for 3-4 hours and they assume that I’m just a lazy bum. Yet, I manage to run two personal sites and work as the editor for Flighster. It all comes down to putting limits on the time I use and having priorities. The strange thing is in the first few months of this surfing everyday lifestlyle I used to stress that I was missing something important and I’d have some urgent email to attend to. It turns out nothing was all that urgent. To top it off, when I have said “to hell with time and structure” I’ve done some of my best work in my life. Great post.

    • Fabian August 25, 2010

      Srinivas, the problem you mention gets to the point that people feel they have to stay as long as their colleagues and bosses, and only fill up time with useless stuff. Instead of relaxing, working on personal projects, or doing hobbies they love, they just “lose time” and leave the office ever more stressed…

      You are surely confirming something I experienced, too: Limiting time for any tasks at hand is very, very helpful. Many successful writers only “worked” three or four hours a day, and took the rest for other things. (I don’t know if there are many writing surfers, but that’s surely a perfect combination! :)) I think that’s very helpful for both health and inspiration!

  3. Richard @ Lifestyle Design Unleashed August 26, 2010

    I think there are a number of factors when it comes to time independence.

    Firstly they say that time is money and while this may be over-simplifying matters a little I believe there is some truth in it. Many people work in busy jobs where the companies responsible are constantly trying to increase profits by making the same work crew get more done, or a smaller work crew get the same done. Wages are generally one of the largest overheads for a business so it makes sense to try and control this cost but in the world of the plc and always looking for signs of increased profits for investors companies are forcing hundreds of thousands of people to try and get more done in less time. This creates a lack of time. It creates an overtime culture. It leads to “shit rolling down hill” as everyone tries to delegate as much as possible to the next person down the chain. It leads to stress and pressure and sickness.

    I also think that an interesting point for consideration is that of “good time” and “bad time”. “Bad time” is things you *have* to do (or *should* do) while “good time” is things you *want* to do.

    Being short of time really suggests you’ve got more bad time than good time in your schedule than you’d like.

    • Fabian August 26, 2010

      Richard, thanks for dropping by!
      Sure, “time is money” is true in our society – because we want it to be like that. It’s our own decision, that’s what I wanted to point out. But – as I see it – it’s also our own decision to end that, or at least change the relationship to some level we’re more comfortable with.

      As for good time and bad time, I will have to think a little about it before saying too much. At first sight, I’m not sure if it’s helpful to call all “have to” tasks “bad”, because they aren’t, necessary. I have to wash the dishes, but I can do it meditating or talking to my wife. It doesn’t have to be bad…
      That said, time perception surely changes depending on the tasks we do, and if we cram too many undesirable tasks into our days, we probably end up feeling stressed indeed. The solution? A four hour work (or “bad time”) day could be a good start, what do you think?

  4. Tammy August 27, 2010

    Since moving to SF recently, I’m having a lot more conversations about this kinda thing! Dimensions, singularities, time travel . . . Its absolutely fascinating, but at the same time wants to make my head explode! The same sort of feeling I get watching Hiro in Heroes. I just don’t think we were meant to understand it!

    • Fabian August 27, 2010

      While writing this article I felt the same several times. It’s definitely a crazy and mind-boggling topic, but, as you say, that’s also what makes it so fascinating… it is the place where philosophy and physics, rationalism and mysticism merge, and I think that’s why it captivates us so easily. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Tammy, I really appreciate it! :)

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