How our perception of time affects our ability to rest well
Hello and welcome to another edition of Letters from Ximena. In this month’s newsletter I talk about why so many of us feel so crunched for time, and what we can do about it.
Busy, busy, busy
I don’t know anyone who feels like they have enough time these days. Between childcare, job responsibilities, and basic self care (forget candles, I’m talking getting three square meals a day), oh, and the pandemic (again), nearly everyone in my orbit is feeling a time crunch — a constant pressure that they should be doing more, if only they had the time.
Many of us suffer from “hurry sickness,” the feeling that we are perpetually behind. Ours is a persistent urgency to keep moving rather than take a much-needed moment to ourselves. We’d like to pause, but who has the time?! — so we power through our exhaustion and hope for a quieter day tomorrow. The holiday seasons seems to only amp this pressure up.
For my new book about rest, I wanted to explore this further: Is it accurate to say that we don’t have enough time to rest? Is it possible that we do have the time, but aren’t using it well? And perhaps most importantly, whether the hours in the day add up in our favor or not, why does it feel like we don’t have any time at all? And is there anything we can do about it?
Where does the time go?
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey suggests that the average American aged 35–44 had 4 hours of leisure time a day in 2019. Technology has automated or streamlined previously complex tasks, like instantly communicating with the tap of a button, supposedly freeing up our time. Shortcuts like home delivery, on-demand rideshares, on-the-go pre-packaged foods, and other products promise to make our lives more efficient. (IMO, the jury is still out on whether these products deliver on their time-saving promises — some arguably make things worse.) Most research suggests that we have more “free” time at our disposal than we think. According to the “experts” our time is there for the taking — so why doesn’t it feel that way?
TBH I’m skeptical. Tracking leisure time is a notoriously difficult thing (who can honestly recount their day minute-by-minute?). On top of that, how you tag the data matters a lot here. (By way of example, early leisure researchers coded things like childcare and homecare as “leisure” — a pretty big stretch if you ask any parent today, and especially mothers. Surprise! None of the researchers were women.) There’s too much room for error and subjective interpretation — for the participant and the researcher — for me to fully believe results.
Even if you loosely accept these figures as directionally true, they can’t account for the full picture, since they don’t pay attention to feelings. On paper we may have time, but thanks to multitasking, always-available screen time, and always-on work cultures, many of us feel “time poor.” We feel perpetually under pressure, at battle with our responsibilities and to-do lists, in search of a simple way to turn our busy brains off.
In user research, there is a saying: “a fact is a fact, but perception is reality.” Even if we have more time than we think, the fact that we feel time-crunched makes it so. To find the time to rest, we need to understand why we feel so time-strapped to begin with. Advances in technology are part of the puzzle, but there is so much more.
Clock time vs. Subjective time
Imagine you’ve just narrowly missed a flight and have to wait for two hours till the next one. For most of us, those two hours are going to feel grueling. Even if you’re a member of a fancy airline club, delays can feel insufferably long. Now, imagine that you’ve followed airport guidelines and arrived at the airport two hours early for your scheduled flight, which is departing on time. Chances are that two-hour wait in the airport will feel pretty different, because you expected and were prepared to spend your time there. In both scenarios, we’re experiencing a two hour airport visit, yet the feeling is completely different. That’s the difference between clock time and subjective time.
Clock time is what’s on your watch. Subjective time is what time feels like. A unit of time, like an hour (clock time) can feel painfully slow or like it’s flown by quickly (subjective time), depending on the situation, our emotional state, and our attention, among other factors. For example, when we are multitasking, context-switching, or otherwise working in fits and starts, it might feel like time is compressing — quickening as we attempt to do more in the same unit of time.
On the other hand, we can also experience time dilation, where time expands — as when our flight is delayed. Studies show that we overestimate time spent doing things we don’t enjoy and have little control over — like waiting in lines or on hold — by as much as 25–100%. We may feel like we are spending up to twice as long waiting than we actually are! Sometimes we can even experience chronostasis, the feeling that time has stopped — as when we are bored by a situation, or even traumatized by it. This is the opposite of the feeling that “time flies when you’re having fun.”
Paying attention to our subjective experience of time can actually help us to feel a little less time crunched, and to navigate rest better. In line at the grocery store, instead of lamenting the time wasted (often, our default response), we can appreciate this as a small gift of time instead: Here we are, in the middle of our busy day, and suddenly we have a ten-minute excuse to take a beat! Sure, those ten minutes could be applied elsewhere, and yes, you probably wouldn’t have chosen a busy supermarket for your place of rest. But why not reframe the experience to our advantage? Better to turn this“newfound” time into a micro moment of rest than draw the experience out in frustration. This practice of reframing our subjective experience of time in support of our rest efforts is something I’m keen to explore further in the book.
Monkey minds, busy brains, and worry warts
One of the amazing things about being a human is that we can engage in what author Dean Buonomano calls “mental time travel” — we can remember the past as well as think about and plan the future. This is useful evolutionary behavior, but also … really annoying, particularly when it comes to rest. Our ability to engage in mental time travel enables us to make to-do lists (good) and worry about all the things we haven’t yet gotten to (bad). The same ability that increases our chances of survival (we know to plan to ration out food for the future, or plant more crops if needed) can get in the way of resting, since there is always more that can be done or planned for. When we’re in a swirl of to-do’s, action items, and addendums, it can be hard to feel like we can step back, pause, and rest.
This is usually when people begin to extol the virtues of meditation for quieting the mind. And yes, meditation can be a promising counter to this kind of mental chatter. But I worry that the emphasis on meditation has become myopic, not to mention oddly competitive in some circles, which defeats the purpose (not unlike the vibe in some weirdly competitive yoga classes) — who needs one more thing to worry about?! Personally, I struggle to get through more than a few minutes of meditation. (And yes, I’ve tried Headspace.) But I’m very bullish on finding meditative activities to help calm our often-worrying, time-traveling minds. By focusing exclusively on meditation as a salve for our busy brains, I think we’ve missed out on some equally valuable mind-calming practices, like drawing, pottery-making, and even doing puzzles — more on that in a future newsletter edition.
Circadian Rhythms & Chronobiology
Are you a night owl or a morning bird? These are “chronotypes” — typologies that describe our natural rhythm of energy and sleep needs throughout a given day. Each of us has a specific chronotype, influenced by both our environment and our age. (A lot of us are night owls as teens and early birds at sixty.)
Knowing your chronotype is a helpful tool for getting the rest you need because it means you can design your day in line with it, rather than fight against it. Usually the literature on chronotypes is directed at helping individuals find what I call their natural productivity cycle. For example: I know I am a morning bird so I try to do my most strategic, creative work in the morning, and leave administrative tasks for the afternoon slump. But I want to suggest that we use this information to also find what I call our natural rest cycle.
If you’ve ever found yourself re-reading the same sentence for ten minutes or taking too long to send a simple email, it may be that you’re trying (unsuccessfully) to push through your natural rest time. What would happen if we were able to identify that part of our cycle and honor it instead? Everyone’s dip will be a little bit different, although there are some major patterns that affect most of us (in general, 3–5pm is a real danger zone). If we know when our energy usually dips, rather than gulping down another cup of coffee and powering through, we can honor our chronotypes by resting (taking a power nap, taking a walk, or even taking a few deep breaths, depending on our schedules) instead. Tuning into our chronotype becomes a tool for resting if we know how to harness it.
Time of day affects everything from our moods, decision-making, performance, cognitive ability, and creativity. That afternoon slump when so many of us feel unmotivated and sluggish? Research from Dan Pink shows that everything from being patient to taking exams to brainstorming is much harder during this slump.
To get through it, the best approach, according to Pink, is to take carefully designed breaks. By syncing our type (early bird, night owl) with a specific task (driving, working, or for our purposes, resting), and time (morning, afternoon, or early evening), we can make the most out of any time of day.
Pink’s research shows that the most impactful breaks for replenishing our cup have these four qualities:
- Social > Solo
- Outside > Inside
- Movement > Stasis
- Frequent + Quick > Infrequent + Long
Having one of the above qualities makes a break better, but having all four is the jackpot version of taking breaks. This explains why many of our usual go-to “breaks” (scrolling on social media, catching up on work emails, watching TV) fail to make us feel more rested. A quick walk outside with a friend is much closer to the ideal break.
Time is a slippery thing. Our experience of it varies from moment to moment, person to person, and affects how we move through the world, as well as how we rest. Whether we believe we have an abundance of time or no time at all, if we can pay attention to our experience of it we can manage it just a little bit better, and even “make the time” for a moment of rest.
If you’re interested in this topic, here are three books I’m reading about time:
- Your Brain Is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time, Dean Buonomano. This one is a bit more technical, but if you’re ready to geek out on physics and the relationship between Einstein’s theory of relativity and how we perceive time, it’s worth a peek. I found Buonomano’s work on subjective time to be particularly informative.
- Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick. This is a perceptive read and a real throwback — it’s from 1999! A lot of it will feel outdated (there’s talk of VCR’s, microwaves, and palm pilots, oh my!). But the core concepts about how hard it is to measure perceptions of time, and how much technological and cultural shifts have created “more” time despite feeling otherwise — remain relevant despite the intervening decades.
- When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Daniel Pink. The most practical book in the bunch, Pink synthesizes a ton of research on the science of timing, and includes “time hacks” readers can try out at the end of each chapter. I found the science to be quite interesting, although the time hacks felt a bit out of reach for a busy parent like me, and perhaps a bit too familiar.
- 👂 Listen Like You Mean it in conversation: I chatted with chief wellbeing officer Jen Fisher at Deloitte about listening and wellbeing for the WorkWell podcast. Listen here.
- 🕵🏻♀️ The Rest Trials behind the scenes: In addition to reading a lot about rest, I’ve begun to experiment with rest trials, personal experiments in getting well-rested based on what I’m learning. Once a month, I share these experiments with a small group of folks who have opted in to test them out with me. If you’d like to give these rest experiments here, reply to this email to be included.
💌 As always, the best thing you can do for me is share this edition of the newsletter, or others you enjoy, with your friends and coworkers. Thanks for being here and for sharing the love. Happy holidays, friends! 💌