We all understand, rationally anyway, that time never stops, moves in only one direction, is owned by no one and is impossible to make more of. Yet who among us hasn’t wished to manage it better, squeeze more out of it or wrest it away from others and get it under our own control? In her newest book, “Saving Time,” Jenny Odell, a visual artist and the author of the best-selling “How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy,” argues that standard ways of thinking about time — particularly regarding work and what time is owed and to whom — can obscure potentially more humane and expansive, less self-centered notions of time, views that go beyond restrictive notions of efficiency or work-life balance. “I’m really trying to work against an instrumental view of time,” says Odell, who is 37, “where it’s either something that is going to help you or hurt you.”
A lot of your book is looking at the historical relationship between workers and bosses and who is in charge of whose time. But on a bit more of an individual, personal level, I think we’ve all had jobs at which we felt our employers believed they owned our time. I’m curious to know what you think we do actually owe our jobs, as far as time goes. It depends on the job. I’m thinking about the part of Emily Guendelsberger’s book where she talks about the phrase ‘‘time to lean, time to clean.’’ She was describing working at an ice-cream parlor and had a very different idea of what was owed than her boss did. ‘‘Time to lean, time to clean’’ is what a boss would say. It’s like, if you’re physically present, you should be creating work for yourself. That’s versus someone in her position who’s thinking, I signed up to do the tasks that need to be done in any particular moment. That’s a lot more finite than ‘‘time to lean, time to clean,’’ which is like, if you’re here, you must be performing the image of work at all times, including making up nonsensical tasks. There’s a distinction between signing up to do a job and signing up to have every second micromanaged.
This is not directly to do with work, but there’s also a type of person, whom you write about in the book — you call them “productivity bros” — who seems to want to micromanage time and thinks about it in terms of return on investment. You’re skeptical about whether any kind of time-management mind-set can lead to a more substantive relationship with time — and you even think it can distract people from bigger questions about what we do with our time. I also think that people who focus on time management in their lives often mistake planning for having purpose. But who’s to say that someone can’t or won’t find fulfillment by treating time as something he or she can get better returns on? You know, I remember meeting someone at a conference once. Within maybe 10 minutes of meeting, he showed me this terrifying — to him it was probably wonderful — spreadsheet of how he accounted for every hour of the day for the last couple of years. That’s probably not even as unusual as we might think, but there was a score at the end of the thing based on whether he had spent enough hours doing the different categories of things he wanted to be doing. I don’t know if he secretly feels punished by his own system or if he feels empowered by it. There’s not really any way for me to know. My skepticism is more about that rhetoric and way of thinking of time as being offered as a solution to someone who doesn’t have control of their time — that if they controlled their time in this gridlike way, they could succeed in life. I think that person has the potential to use that way of thinking very self-punitively.
I hate to ask something as lame as an “Are there two types of people in the world?” question, but alas, do you think there are just some people who need to view their time in an instrumental, efficiency-maximizing way and other people who dispositionally reject that and are looking for deeper ways to think about our time here on Earth? I think we all are potentially both of those people. I have been the spreadsheet person before. I wrote a book; I was on a schedule. It didn’t have a score attached to it, but I had a work log. If you’re trying to reach a goal, you might need to measure your time out. Also, in a broader sense — I don’t know if you’ve ever read “Sophie’s World”?
Yeah, by Jostein Gaarder. Right, so there’s a phrase in there: “In the rabbit’s fur.” When you’re in the rabbit’s fur, you don’t have a lot of perspective on things. It’s kind of like being in the weeds. Sometimes I’m in there, at other times I’m not, and I almost think of myself as two different people depending on where I am — which is why I thought of it when you said “two different types of people.” In the last couple of years, sometimes I’ll literally write a letter to myself if I know that I’m about to go in the rabbit’s fur. I’ll say, “Hey, I know that you’re in there, and I am here to remind you that things look different from where I am at right now, and they will look different again in the future when you’re back out of the rabbit’s fur.” I’ve come to accept that I am both of those people and I have to be both at different times.
It is amazing how we can change our experience of time by choosing to think about it differently. Let me give you my own example: Sometimes I’ll be sitting on a bench bored while my kids are at the playground, and time feels as if it’s crawling by. But if I stop and think, This is not my time, it’s their time, then the boredom melts away, and the time starts to feel precious. I wonder if you think that experience is related to the idea in your book that if we can adopt a less self-centered view of time, then the possibilities for how we experience time can get so much bigger and feel so much more full? I think so. An individualist understanding of time very quickly goes in the direction of meaningless to me. I remember there was a Reddit post of someone who was talking about trying to outsource everything in their life and making it superefficient. I think they were asking for advice on “What more should I do?” and someone in the comments was like, “You’re not going to have any meaning in your life pretty soon if you don’t watch out.” Because even if you get better at having your time be protected, that doesn’t answer the question of what you want to use your time for and what your values are. There’s also this irony where, in situations in the past, I felt like I needed to protect my time more so that I could do things that I wanted, and it obscured the fact that what I wanted was a sense of connection and meaning, and in order to get that I would have to do something that looked like giving my time away. Since you mentioned kids: A couple of weeks ago, I was hanging out with a friend who has a 3-year-old, and it took us half an hour to walk two blocks. There is a way in which, as you were saying, you could view that experience as potentially boring, but you could also see that the reason we were walking slowly is that kids are looking at stuff in a weird way! It’s a way I appreciate trying to imagine. For time spent like that, the whole question of “What are you getting out of this?” would be absurd.
This is connected to something I asked you earlier, but you said that the time-management, return-on-investment view of time goes in the direction of meaninglessness. I want to know more about why you think that. For me, there’s the question of why you do anything. That can lead into difficult territory like, What do you want your life to be? Ideally your answers to that question are what guide your decisions about how to spend your time. You would hope that you are spending less time on things that you don’t want to be doing so you can do things that you’ve decided are meaningful to you, and I think that there’s something about that culture of making everything more efficient that risks avoiding that question of why. A life of total efficiency and convenience? Well, why? What is left if you were to make everything superconvenient? It is helpful to make certain things more efficient, but that can tip over into becoming its own end, which moves the focus away from that larger question of why.
Do you have any advice for how people might answer that question for themselves? Like, what is the meaning of life?
Yep. The closest thing that I have to an answer is that I want to be in contact with things, people, contexts that make me feel alive. I have a specific definition of alive, which is I want to feel like I am being changed. Someone who’s completely habitual, is set in their ways of thinking and doing, that type of person is liable to see days in a calendar as being pieces of material that you use to achieve your goals. There’s all kinds of degrees between that and someone who’s so completely open to every moment that they’re dysfunctional or something, but I want to live closer to that second pole. I think about things that are enlivening to me, and they tend to be encounters, conversations — that “My Dinner With Andre” type of conversation where you and your conversation partner are changed by the end, you’ve covered new ground, you are both now somewhere else. But it’s also encounters with nonhuman life that is growing and changing, and realizing that I am also changing and evolving. To me those are the reminders that, yeah, I’m alive, today is not the same as yesterday, I will be different in the future, therefore I have a reason to live, which is to find out what that change is going to be.
That’s a pretty good on-the-spot answer for “tell me the meaning of life.” [Laughs.] Well, it’s what’s working for now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.
David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Emma Chamberlain about leaving YouTube, Walter Mosley about a dumber America and Cal Newport about a new way to work.