Tuesday, January 03, 2012



Time. We have only so much of it. 24 hours per day, per person, in fact, regardless of who we are in life. I’ve been humbled by the thought that the greatest people throughout history, regardless of who they were or what they’ve done, had only the same amount of time each day within which to accomplish all it is that they’ve managed to complete. Think about that: the greatest artists, poets, scientists, theologians and leaders throughout human history were each given no more time within each day to manage, as a gift of sorts, than am I.

This is a sobering thought, and also one replete with promise, for it implies that what I need is not more time (that being a hopelessly futile quest) but rather a more efficient, purposeful, focused intent. 

We live in an age when our tools of productivity are at their pinnacle, and yet our propensity to whittle away the moments on incessant distractions are also at their peak. The technology of the computer both multiplies our man hours of work and also offers instant escape into the nether world of the Internet or some entertaining diversion, limited only by our employers’ server firewall. The much-promised increase in worker efficiency brought about by the computer is at times very disputable.

In the age when the clerical office worker was known as a typewriter, could take dictation via shorthand and knew the ins and outs of the finer art of business correspondence, the knowledge worker could specialize and focus on the task of the business at hand. Contrast that with the present-day multitasking employee who must manage to not only perform their primary function for which they are employed, but must somehow also manage to create business correspondence with a skill not based on formal clerical training but rather on a software application that has been fashioned to mimic the skill of a trained secretary. The results can often be startling in their lack of refinement.

My wife was lamenting to me about this very thing, concerning so-called trained professionals who know virtually nothing about how to format a business letter intended for a client. Intervention is often required, by persons such as her who gained their experience not through dabbling with a word processing program - a do-it-yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps apprenticeship - but by good, old fashioned clerical instruction.

Correspondence itself is another confusing miasma within the business environment. There are such mountains of useless data within the typical electronic inbox that some businesses have taken to enacting moratoriums on email, instead forcing workers to physically leave the four gray walls of their cubes and engage in face-to-face communication with their peers down the hall. It’s that ages-old problem of time, and how best to manage it.

There are by now entire industries dedicated to improving one’s time-management skills, so much in fact that the term “time-management” has itself entered the lexicon of the business environment as another in a seemingly endless barrage of buzzwords that cycle through periodically in the form of philosophical management fads. We’ve got to “get things done,” we are told (which itself has become the acronym G.T.D.). Or, alternatively, “getter done.”

I recall the lyric to the Pink Floyd song that goes “kicking around on a piece of ground in your hometown, fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way; the sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older, shorter of breath and one day closer to death.” The song, in fact, was named “Time,” and reminds me of the fact that my work schedule is structured around what is known as a “compressed work week,” meaning that I put in longer hours each work day in exchange for a contiguous block of time off on the other half of the week within which to do those other things that I like to do besides punching a clock. This is the virtue of the modern work schedule, it brought about enough free time in one’s life so as to permit more creative endeavors to be pursued. No longer did one require the benefit of a wealthy benefactor in order to succeed in some creative outlet, as in the day when people slaved six or seven days a week to merely survive. The modern work schedule brought about hobbies and other pastimes to the masses.

Recently, however, the economy seems to have permanently changed, as our culture has evolved into what economists call a post-industrial climate. More and more people are engaged in longer work hours at multiple low-paying jobs with fewer benefits, leaving one such as I with the impression that we have passed the apex of western culture and are now in some long, interminable downward slide into a new serfdom of sorts, where there are the extremely rich and the extremely poor, with little or no middle class between.

And yet, there is that time, ever-present, ever ticking its way into the unknowable future at its ever-steady pace, gifted to all, rich and poor alike, at a rate of 24 hours per solar day per person, with which we are left to deal with the challenge of how best to spend our finite resource of time as best we can. We can spend our minutes and hours in frantic gesticulation and frenzy, or we can spend it in quiet contemplation and prayer, the outcome depending on the wisdom of our choosing; yet time marches on, inexorably.

There is also this thing called biological time that interests me. It differs from chronological time in that it remains purely subjective, the duration and pace of the ever-unfolding present determined by the quality of our experiential condition. In some euphoric states time seems to fly by, while in misery and suffering it barely passes at all, just crawling by while the minutes barely tick and tock. Contrast this with relativistic time, which Einstein informed us depends upon our inertial frame of reference and our absolute velocity of motion as measured against the universal speed limit of light itself. We blast off the planet in some rocket ship, in these typical thought experiments, at a sizable percentage of the speed of light and return, decades later, having hardly aged a bit, while back on earth events have transpired at their normal pace and we find ourselves in a different age, out of sorts, out of time it would seem, yet with more time than most remaining.

The deepest mystery of time seems to me that it appears to be flowing in only one direction, from the past, through the present, into the future, and we seem unable to slow or halt or even alter its inexorable flow. Is this a figment of our physical bodies, and in some mystical afterlife called eternity we would find all events in history happening simultaneously? Or is the seeming linear flow of time a result of the ever-expanding universe?

It’s probably best not to dwell too deeply on these things. Or, alternatively, perhaps we don’t spend enough of our precious moments in this sort of deep contemplative thought. All I know is that, right now, the evening is drawing to a close, I’m getting tired, and running out of time.

(Posted via iPad2)


Blogger Duffy Moon said...

Apropros of not much: my son was listening to the book-on-CD of "Cheaper by the Dozen" (not the Steve Martin nonsense) about the motion-study, time management guru Frank Gilbreth. He (my son) rushed out of his room to inform me that "...he went to work for the Remington Typewriter Company!!!"

Also apropos of nothing - I just finished reading "The Longitude Prize". Written mostly for young readers, it's the fascinating (to me) story of how time - and a perfected timekeeping device - came to solve the problem of setting longitude on ocean voyages. Worth a read, if you're of a mind.

9:47 AM  

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