Our Relationship with Time

The navigation app showed me an alternative route that was 4 minutes faster. I impulsively touched the suggested route and avoided the exit for the slower route. Seconds after my fast-thinking mind’s decision, my slow-thinking mind started working. What did I really save by taking the four-minute faster route? The exasperation of sitting in a slow moving traffic? Both alternatives had no bottlenecks en route. I was headed home. There was hardly anything I had to gain in those four minutes. At the same time, I would be crossing two toll gates on the faster route.

This is a pattern I have been forced to reflect on, in recent times. We seem to be in a state of rambunctious hurry, putting all our efforts into every minute of our lives, presumably getting the best out of every second, minute, hour, day. The first time I thought about this was after reading Derek Sivers’ biking experience. Every morning, Sivers would go on a biking trail totaling fifteen miles in a round trip. He would go full-steam, race up and down, all in about 43 minutes. One day, Sivers tried something different. He decided to do the same trail, but go super chill this time. He pedaled the bike at about fifty percent of his usual effort, which still gave him a considerable amount of speed, but also permitted him to appreciate the tranquility around him, observe the nature, relax a little, smile a lot. And when he was done, he looked at the time: to his surprise (and ours), it had taken him 45 minutes, just two minutes more than his usual time. His discovery that day: he could “go the same distance, in about the same time, but one way leaves me exhausted, and the other way, rejuvenated”. Sivers had achieved 96% of the result he normally achieved, without all the unnecessary stress that usually went into it. 

Not one to leave any room for skepticism, I tried it myself and found Sivers’ discovery to be true in the case of my daily commute. On most days, I drive with the mindset of a racer. Dodging cars, jumping from lane to lane, flashing headlight at cars in front of me, driving at exactly one kilometer per hour short of the speed limit… well, truth was it gave me a lot of stress, and no tangible benefits. Let’s not even talk about the stress I must have given the other drivers around me. On my own test of Derek Sivers’ theory, I realized that this manner of driving didn’t save me more than half an hour on a five hour drive from Dubai to Muscat, whereas the driving took a toll on my mind, made me tired sooner, and heightened my anxiety throughout the journey. What if a radar caught me speeding, or  what if I hit another car in the blind spot while changing lanes. I was on the edge of my seat, much like in a thrilling video game. 

We often have a difficult relationship with time. From a famous explanation attributed to Albert Einstein, we know that a sense of time runs relative to the amount of pleasure or pain in our experience. 

In my own experience of time, I remember feeling that I had been working in a firm in Bangalore for too long when I had only worked for three years there. I resigned from the firm after that, and spent another three years in Bangalore, in three different firms. Now, I am in Dubai, where I have been working for the last five years. When I look back to the time in Bangalore, all of the time I had spent there seems like a small amount of time. I am confused about this aspect of time and have asked others for their views. Each have experienced time in their own ways, but two observations seem most common: we perceive time relative to the number of years we have already lived, or we see time in one way when we look forward and another way when we look back.

I looked back at some instances from my life to see which of the observations fit my own experiences. When I was in 6th grade, all I wanted was to get to 9th grade. All the cool guys at the time were in 9th grade. While my seniors in 10th grade were all serious, studious, the 9th graders always seemed to be into fun and adventure. I looked up to them as the seniors I aspired to be someday. They seemed to be a mature set of “men”. When I entered college as a fresher, the 9th graders I once aspired to be were in their final year. Somehow though, they looked and felt closer to us in age. Some more years have passed by now and I see that some of my batch mates are working alongside those same seniors who once seemed much elder to us. In two people of same skills, an employer sees little difference between 15 years of experience and 18 years. That’s why a recruiter advertising for vacancies in the mid-career bracket usually ask for people having between 15 and 20 years of experience. The observation that we perceive time relative to the number of years we have lived seems true in this case. 

I realize that, perhaps, the first and second observations are probably two interpretations of the same theory. About five years ago, I set myself three years to achieve a certain target. I haven’t passed that milestone till date. I wonder where the time went. When I set the target and selected three as the number of years to give myself, I was fairly certain that three years was a long enough time to achieve it. 

As I write this piece, we have witnessed close to six months of a global pandemic. In these six months, we have experienced the slowest of times, the grief, the pain of sitting still inside our homes and we can’t help wondering when it will all be over. The year, only halfway through, already feels like a decade or two put together. A few years from now, in a world with no more COVID-19, imagine looking back at this time: what would we say about this year? We might quite accurately remember that it was an unprecedented time in our lives. Yet, when enough time has passed, we are likely to reach a point when we talk about these times as a passing experience, a difficult time for sure, but hopefully not something we will remember in all its brutal detail. With each year that will pass, we can only give this time a small space in our minds, one of those hard times during our lifetime. I think of how we learned in our history class of World War I and then World War II. I always thought of them as having happened within a few years of each other. Except, those few years were about two decades. So, ten years from now, we might with bitterness recall that our generation had experienced 9/11, the Great Recession and Covid-19 all within a few years’ time. Wouldn’t it be hard to remember that a decade had passed in between each of these global events?

My eldest daughter and one of my nieces turned 13 this year. Another niece graduated a couple of weeks ago. I think of them as witnesses to a new chapter in history. Considering an average life span, they would recall this moment for a longer time than I would. And then, there would be more events in the rest of their lifetime. These black swans happen every few years and cannot be entirely avoided. We can’t even put a pin on the number of years between each of them. What each generation can build now is a stronger relationship with time and perhaps, a better understanding of the relativity of time. No matter how hard we think this time is for us, it is just a moment in history, a brief pause you’ll eventually come to think of years later. We must pay our respects to those we lost and at the same time, we must appreciate the experiences this time brought us. 

My daughter missed several meetings with friends in the last few months and is sad about all the time she didn’t get with her friends, a winter that was cut short, all of the activities she missed during the spring term. In a few years’ time, she will still have other memories to cherish and the difficulties we went through might only have a shadowy presence in her mind. My niece and many from the batch that graduates this year might be anxious about what seems to be an uncertain future. Would there be jobs? Would their future be secure at all? When they move forward in life, they will realize in a few years that this single moment in history did not matter in their life’s story. If anything, they will now emerge stronger, more stoic than what life’s normal course would have empowered them to become. 

The recent stay-home, work-from-home routine gave me some insight into my own relationship with time. When I think of time now, I realize the true meaning of Derek Sivers’ experience. I had always connected it to my commute each day. I had also thought of it in connection to my road trips to Muscat. However, the more important message in Sivers’ experience was in how we live out the moments in our life. There is so much more we can appreciate in the seconds, minutes, hours that we pass by in a hurry. If you are not taking someone to the hospital in a life-or-death situation, stop taking the faster route. Take the route you’ll enjoy, take the route that will make your trip – and not just the destination – worthwhile. Your difficulties on the way, the time you lose, and your fear of missing out are all fleeting concepts which will have no significance years from now; but, if you haven’t found meaning in each moment you have truly lost that time forever.


Featured Image: Photo by Harrison Kugler on Unsplash

By Suhail Rasheed

Suhail Rasheed is a founding editor of The Bangalore Review. He lives with his family in Dubai, where he currently runs a small business. Suhail’s essays and short fiction have appeared in The Bangalore Review. His novel Living with Smoke is available to buy on Amazon stores around the world.

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