Liberation from the clock

Laura Vanderkam writes in Fast Company about a three-minute habit that changed her life: keeping track of how she spends her time during her waking hours, with a spreadsheet. Much of her piece is directed towards mitigating parental guilt – that Vanderkam might not be spending too much time with her children, or when she is, that she’s not doing anything else with her life. In this case, keeping track of one’s time to remind oneself that one is still leading a productive life has worked out well. But although Vanderkam says it’s the best investment she’s ever made, she only just stops short of explicitly advocating that everyone else do the same. That’s where the problems would arise.

(A caveat before I proceed: “do more” is not the same as “don’t be lazy”, and I expect my readers to know the difference.)

The average adult attention span of the 21st century has (ironically) received much attention for being perceptibly lower than before. And we deserve all the tools at our disposal to remind ourselves beyond our goldfish-like memory that we’re not fucking up as much as we think we are. But that’s not all time-tracking is used for, and in the wrong hands it could be an instrument of capitalism. For one, the attention span goes hand in hand with another defining feature of our ‘accelerationist’ period: productivity, and the need to optimise for it in all walks of life.

Neither good work nor a good life should be the product of such optimisation because improving productivity ad infinitum can be deleterious to what it means to be human. For example, Vanderkam mentions a lot of numbers from her spreadsheet:

Working 40 hours a week, and sleeping about 52 (my rough average), leaves 76 hours for other things. I saw that I did have time to scale up my own personal interests. I joined a choir. I nudged up my running frequency from four times a week to seven.

Beyond assuaging personal concerns (esp. of the upper class), many of us would make the mistake of assuming these numbers mean anything. They don’t. Tracking time allows us to notice more clearly those hours in which we’re not doing anything, and we yearn to fill those hours up with something. In the process, we lose all sense of the importance of time that is free of this utilitarian calculus because it is being constantly deprecated and devalued.

The more we track time, the more we open it to being commoditised. It’s not healthy for our sense of goodness and contentment to arise from the acknowledgment that we’re not putting all available hours to good use. And when time becomes commoditised, we also leave the door open for others to define what forms this ‘good’ can and can’t take, and for self-determination to take the backseat.

Many of us, like Vanderkam, are prone to remembering the number of flights we’ve missed over the number of times we caught them just fine. But we shouldn’t remember the good times over the bad ones only because we think they were better spent. If we do, it’s inevitable that we’ll also start misguidedly accumulating regrets. As Vanderkam writes,

Indeed, knowing exactly where my hours go has helped me, in some moments, feel like I can slow time’s ceaseless ticking.

She’s not comfortable with the fact the time never takes a break – but why should it? We shouldn’t accuse time for not letting us do all the things we’d like to in 24 hours while we remain in denial of the purpose of our mechanical routines. We must ask ourselves: why do we have to do so many things in a day?

We’ve let gainful time encroach so far into our lives that having free time seems offensive. Gainful time is not just the time spent creating financial value, it’s also about spending time to accrue other forms of value – especially social. Tracking time to increase productivity guided by capitalist ideals engenders its own variety of shaming (time-shaming?). It’s become more fashionable to say you’re doing 1,000 things every day. (This also closely parallels the tendency to expect everyone to have an opinion on everything.) When you say you did nothing yesterday, you’re seen like – and you feel like – a failure. Your self-determination is non-existent.

Getting free time is particularly difficult for those for whom it’s not simply a matter of finding it, particularly wage labourers. Two examples from recent memory illustrate this area of concern well.

First: labour rights movements of the 20th century focused on being more paid for overtime thanks to the neoliberal view that working more = more money = better life. Workers were also entitled to ‘free time’ in that it was a time to perform unpaid labour, but in time, many of these tasks have also come to be recognised as lying outside of the demesne of ‘free time’. A common example is that of women who perform household activities. As a result, the fight for a ‘right to free time’ that further excludes “household labor, personal care, and caregiving” has been growing.

Miya Tokumitsu, a contributing editor at Jacobin, wrote an excellent article for the magazine in October 2017 on this theme. Excerpt:

Free time, as IG Metall argues, is essential for basic dignity; to care for ourselves and our communities, we need time away from generating profit for employers. Just as importantly, we need it to realize our human potential. Our ability to think independently, experience romance, nurture friendships, and pursue our own curiosities and passions requires time that is ours, time that belongs neither to the boss nor the market. At its core, the campaign for fewer working hours is about liberation, both individually and collectively.

… it would be a mistake to assume its battle is a particularly European one. Time and again, the American labor movement has taken up the struggle to reduce the workweek and expand workers’ freedom. It has recognized the potency of a demand that not only imagines a world where people have more control over their lives, but one that builds the bonds of solidarity by uniting the interests of workers and the unemployed, highly skilled and less skilled, foreign-born and native. (emphases mine)

Second, in 2015, a European court ruled that time spent commuting to work is to be counted as time spent at work if the workers in question don’t have a “habituated” location to call their workplace. If somebody drives from Gurgaon to Delhi to work and wouldn’t otherwise undertake this gruelling commute, this policy makes perfect sense, and should in fact be extended to workers who do have a fixed workplace. The ruling was in line with the EU’s ‘working time directive‘, which aims to keep workers from labouring for more than 48 hours a week on average. The court said in its ruling:

… the workers are at the employer’s disposal for the time of the journeys. During those journeys, the workers act on the instructions of the employer, who may change the order of the customers or cancel or add an appointment. During the necessary travelling time – which generally cannot be shortened – the workers are therefore not able to use their time freely and pursue their own interests. (emphasis mine)

So, by all means, convert free time into ‘useful’ time but be mindful of whom that usefulness is serving – you or something else. To make better use of time, we ought to examine the numerous demands made of us, many of which we assume as individual responsibilities without question, and shed those we find harmful. In tracking time, we must not lose sight of the context in which it serves a humane purpose because it is also tied to class politics.

Entrepreneurs watching how they’re spending their time to singlehandedly get a startup off the ground might be doing the right thing but they are all also typically members of the upper class. For them, being less efficient has few, if any, long-term material and social and political consequences.