Rebecca Wallersteiner takes a look at ‘On time: Finding your pace in a world addicted to fast’, by writer Catherine Blyth, looking at why time has sped up and why there is never enough.
He who best discerns the worth of time is most distressed whenever time is lost. – Dante, from his Divine Comedy, (c. 1320)
“We have more time than ever: each one of us can expect 1000 months on this planet if we’re lucky. So why do we feel time-poor?” asks Catherine Blyth in her enjoyable new book published by Harper Collins. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca warned about the ‘shortness of time.’ We are on borrowed time. We only have so much energy – so it is important for us to spend it really wisely. Yet in practice we often squander more. Our world is addicted to fast and we have become its slave. Instead of grasping the liberating potential of technology, many of us are locked into a doomed race to outpace hurry. Blyth draws on the latest thinking in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy with interesting stories from Leonardo Da Vinci to Usain Bolt, Aristotle to Anna Wintour, and Kant to Keith Richards to explore how to manage and make the most of our precious time.
“Hurry up! Is this your catchphrase. It used to be mine. I lived like a criminal, always on the run, but perpetually running late. For the life I never got around to living, there was never enough time. Each day I climbed onto an accelerating treadmill, and each evening my to-do list grew longer, just like Pinocchio’s nose. It was as if all my good intentions were lies whose only productive property was to create more of themselves. Looking around, I saw that my problem was not unique to me,” declares Catherine Blyth.
For most of her life she has been researching time poverty. As a small child her father drove her to kindergarten. It was her first experience of rush hour and feeling out of place. The other children all seem to know each other, as they had attended the same nursery, wore the same hairstyle and had been forming gangs since the age of three. Blyth felt that she was late, not by ten minutes but by a year. This out-of-step feeling lingered throughout her childhood into adult life.
Many of the author’s friends, although outwardly successful were really trapped in busy loneliness. Life seemed to be passing in a blur of images glimpsed from their runaway train. Friends complained to her that struggling to keep up they felt inadequate, because living in a pressure cooker had come to seem normal. At first Blyth believed this was a generational issue, but then realized that the problem was universal.
‘Our world is on fast-forward – bursting with miraculous new ways to be speedy, spontaneous, melting the boundaries of time and space. We are barnacled by gadgets that let us contact anyone, instantly, in any time zone, without stirring from our chair,’ observes Blyth. Although countless gadgets promise to save time, a lack of it is epidemic.
Researching into the subject, Blyth discovered that “those who best discern time’s worth are generally those who have brushed the crust of mortality – the survivors, the bereaved, those staring down the barrel of a terminal diagnosis.’ Like Virgil, (in Dante’s Divine Comedy), who is dragged away from terrifying Purgatory by Dante, those living on borrowed time suddenly become aware of how precious time is.
Shortly before he went mad Friedrich Nietzsche observed: ‘One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.’ His ruminations no doubt strike a chord with stressed-out NHS hospital staff who never have enough hours in the day. Recently images of medical teams pulling together, working tirelessly, round-the-clock to care for victims injured in last week’s carnage in London flashed around the world. Although everyone on the ward strives to do their best for patients, they rarely get a break, are understaffed, highly pressured and rarely leave work on time owing to the demands of the job. ‘On the rare occasions that we leave work on time we slink out, guilty as adulterers’ writes Blyth.
In her book she explains how our sense of time shapes our life and how little it takes to improve its quality – or ruin it. She explores the premise that time poverty, like every other variety of poverty, is a form of powerlessness. We treat time as a commodity: to spend, save, waste, lose or kill, but it is not a concrete thing – it is a dimension of experience and all we have to be alive in. She challenges the misconception that being time poor can somehow lead to wealth, pointing out that only the wealthy are silly enough to brag about it, mistaking it for a mark of success.
Witty, funny and practical, ‘On Time’ is a timely, scholarly handbook for navigating an increasingly manic, complex world. With cutting-edge neuroscience and fascinating facts it reveals simple tools for gaining freedom from pressure. Blyth encourages us to ask ourselves about why time has become so complicated and how it could be simpler. She warns that our brains are always playing games with time. To be aware of these tricks enables us to reset the pace. There are plenty of useful, simple tips for mastering time including starting complicated tasks earlier, quarantining distractions, introducing ten-minute buffers into our schedule and generating alternative outcomes to test our choices and many other ideas.
Catherine Blyth is the author of several best-selling previous books including ‘The Art of Conversation’ and ‘The Art of Marriage’ which explored the mysteries and dynamic of this timeless institution.
On Time: Finding your Pace in a World Addicted to Fast by Catherine Blyth, published in hardback by Harper Collins, on June 1st 2017, priced at £16.99.
The Oldie magazines. She also works for the NHS and is the Hippocratic Post's roving reporter.