Time Management (is a modern fantasy)

As we begin Advent, we bring you a special edition of our Time Management series. Anthropologist Kevin Birth draws on his extensive research on concepts of time in different cultures to challenge our modern concepts of time management and point us to other possible ways of experiencing time. We hope that his description of “kairotic time” helps you find a meaningful way of experiencing time, especially as we enter the Advent season with its liturgical timekeeping that points us to God’s presence. 

Kevin is the author of three books about time, including Time Blind: Problems in Perceiving Other Temporalities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016); Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); and Any Time is Trinidad Time: Temporal Consciousness and Social Meanings in Trinidad (University Press of Florida, 1999). He has also presented extensively on the topic, including appearances at the United States Naval Observatory and the Frick Collection in New York, and on Talk of the Nation  (National Public Radio).

You can read earlier posts by Kevin here, and you can also explore ESN posts on his book Objects of Time: How Things Shape Temporality.



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Time Management (is a modern fantasy)

I imagine that many who read this will rebel against this. It goes against the grain of how we have been taught to think ever since we learned to read clocks before we ever learned to read words. Going against one’s culture can sometimes be hard; it can also sometimes be liberating.

When we look at human behavior across different cultures and over different periods, we must come to the conclusion that clocks are a very recent invention, and that time management based on clocks is an even more recent development. Basically, clocks and time management are inventions of a small minority of the world’s population that have somehow become widespread. In comparison to the majority of our species, past and present, time management is a weird idea.

I remember years ago when I did fieldwork in Trinidad, a former British colony that is extremely influenced by American culture, I asked people what they thought the words “time management” and “budgeting time” meant. In response to “time management” I got puzzled looks. With regard “budgeting time,” one person said, “Oh, that’s when the government releases its budget.”

In many cultures, and throughout much of the history of the Church, the relationship of activity to time is what time scholars would call kairotic, after the Greek word “kairos.” This is a word found in the New Testament and offers a subtle contrast between time as viewed as a duration and time as viewed as consisting of meaningful moments. Kairos is the latter form—it is often translated as “the appointed time,” such as in Titus 1:3. To be kairotic means to do things at the right time.

The Western monastic tradition is a good example. Its emphasis was on a daily discipline of doing things at the right time. During the medieval period, this was dependent on seasonal variations in the length of the daylight hours, and consequently, the right time would differ according to the time of year.

This is also the attitude towards time found in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8—when it is written there is a time for everything, the emphasis is on doing things at the right time, not the amount of time spent, or on ceaseless toil. In effect, it teaches managing one’s activities, not one’s time.

In contrast, time management is thought of a skill that needs to be acquired to increase one’s productivity. Part of this skill is to imagine time as consisting of containers to be filled (like the boxes on a calendar planner). The idea is that by planning and managing how one fills the boxes, one will somehow achieve more.

Unfortunately, these time containers sometimes make us slaves to our schedules, as if the time spent on a project compensates for its lack of completion.

There is an old adage that puzzles many—a stitch in time saves nine. If there is a tear in a piece of clothing, stitching it up at the right moment saves having to do more work later. In fact, the extent to which this adage puzzles people indicates how far we are from understanding what Ecclesiastes means by “a time for everything.”

What in fact happens with time management is that it manages away time for some basic things. For instance, I remember a day-long job interview process in which the poor candidate was given coffee and water bottles during the day, but no time was allotted in the schedule for going to the bathroom. I felt very sorry for the candidate.

In fact, the Bible does not encourage us to fill every moment with a task in order to improve productivity. We are told to rest on the Sabbath, and to do things at the right moment.

Thinking specifically about rest (which is not normally what folks think about when they invoke time management), rest at the right moment is critical. Contrary to the Bible’s encouragement for us to rest, too often we decide that sleep can and should be sacrificed in order to get things done.

Recently, the Nobel Prize for medicine has been awarded to those who study circadian rhythms. There has been a growing literature on this for some time, and the evidence is clear—for humans, rest is critical to productivity. Studies of chronic sleep restriction—getting too little sleep every night—demonstrate that those who are sleep deprived suffer problems with memory and cognitive function. If one is engaged in scholarship, compromising one’s ability to think and remember is counterproductive. Sometimes to get more done, a common challenge for scholars, one needs to make sure one gets sufficient rest.

Because of the way our bodies work, to get sufficient rest requires some commitment to daily discipline—going to bed at the same hour, and rising at the same hour. The sorts of things monastic communities have done for centuries. Unfortunately, in our time warped age of viewing value in terms of time spent in “productive” activities, we can lose sight of what our bodies and brains demand. We churn our daily routines and we cut back on our sleep. Then we feel like we are not getting enough done and eventually suffer burn out.

If one works while tired, it takes more time to get things done.

Time is a cultural creation, and the clock time so critical for time management is not typical of humans. It is weird and strange, and we only feel that it is not because we have been so strongly indoctrinated into clock time since we were small. Don’t manage your time; manage your priorities, and make one of the top priorities taking care of yourself.

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Kevin Birth

Kevin Birth is a professor of anthropology at Queens College of the City University of New York. He studies cultural concepts of time in relationship to cognition, and has conducted ethnographic research in Trinidad and on the current leap second controversy. His publications and presentations cover a wide ranging array of topics including chronobiology and globalization, comparative calendars, timekeeping in Roman Britain, culture and memory, cognitive neuroscience, early modern clocks, and ideas about roosters in the Middle Ages. He is the author of three books: Any Time is Trinidad Time (University Press of Florida), Bacchanalian Sentiments (Duke University Press), and most recently Objects of Time (Palgrave Macmillan).

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