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Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

Most of us have this really weird elastic relationship with the years and months, weeks and days, hours and seconds that tick over and add up to our lives, writes Liz Breslin.

Liz Breslin
Liz Breslin

OK. It’s time. It’s 54 days until the release of the Last Jedi, 65 days until Christmas, 361 days until my next birthday, 1457 days until I’ll next turn a prime number after that and 5974 days until my 25th wedding anniversary. (Or, considering the length of time involved, should I say "our"?)

Of course, having maths teacher parents, you’d suspect I’d have this kind of slavish relationship with numbers and yes, I do get excited when I see a digital clock say 11:11 or 22:22. I’m very rarely still awake when it ticks over to 00:00 but that’s OK because I like sleeping and anyway, zero is only really a number in as much as infinity is. It doesn’t really count.

But we do. All the time. With the time. And most of us have this really weird elastic relationship with the years and months and weeks and days and hours and seconds that tick over and add up to our lives. Like: she hasn’t been in touch for hours! Like: I’ll just be a second. Like the way five minutes is a vastly shifting concept when you’re trying to leave, or to get someone else to go.

The way we mark time is not how we measure it. We, by which I mean science, measure both time and space, by which I mean seconds and metres, using a handy little unit called the caesium-133 atom. You could tell me every second until our 25th wedding anniversary how exactly the International System of Units works and I would nod and smile and think things like, "why don’t they say ‘you can skip this ad in one caesium-133 atom"’ or "‘next episode starting in three caesium 133-atoms"’ and not even really try to understand. It’s like planes staying in the sky and smartphones knowing magically when to update for daylight savings.

The oldest methods of measuring time, by which I mean ancient and not just slightly prior to digital devices, involved looking at the stars or observing the flows of water, sand or sun. Which sound now like the sorts of things that modern mythologies tell us that we’re far too busy to do. Christmas presents to buy. Chewbacca costumes to create. Significant occasions to plan. Come on, already! You can’t just let sand run through your fingers or watch the shadows change! Since the international uptake of GMT from the 1880s on, we’ve told ourselves we need shared time so that trains and planes can do their thing. So that deadlines can be created. So that stuff can happen "on time", rather than "in time", perhaps?

Almost 10 years ago, psychologists Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd wrote a book about how we relate to time. Because of the prevailing climate of life’s-too-short-to-digest-longform-stuff, I watched Boyd’s website video and skimmed Zimbardo’s TED talk and now I am an expert on the Time Paradox. Key fact: In 1989, 59% of people surveyed said they ate their evening meal with their family. In 2008 that was only 20%, even though we were using way more so-called "time-saving" technologies.

Zimbardo posits that how we think about time influences every decision we make in our life. He cites the marshmallow resisters in Walter Mischel’s tests: those one-third of kids who had the strength of mind to say "no, thank you" to one marshmallow now so that they could have two in the future.  

Apparently, this tendency means they all grow up to have high IQs and successful jobs. I picture them looking up Last Jedi showing times well in advance and popping them in or on shared calendars, ordering ham already and thinking about Christmas recipes and tree decorating schemes. Living now, for the future. It’s one way. But not the only way. It is also deeply valid to spend hours rewatching everything Star Wars, gogling (a word I just made up for Google-ogling) light sabre high heels, researching Shakespearian and Trumpian insults for a pantomime, raging about early Christmas advertising, mindlessly eating a bag of marshmallows and marvelling at why nothing on your "to do" list gets done. Right?

How we relate to time depends on our cultures, our memories, our education, our circumstances. Zimbardo suggests that the ideal mix of time perception is an equal-ish mix of thinking of your past connections positively, planning your future wings and enjoying the present.

Eating a third of the marshmallow now, then, for optimum results?  It reminds me of my dearest list-making friend who has started splitting her planning into "to be" and "to do".  That it’s OK to sit, to sift, to trickle. There are deadlines and there are timelines, and while the march of caesium-133 atoms waits for no-one, we can still choose how we live, in and on and over time. 

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images


Time is not real unless observed

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