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The Economy of Time

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

We are wrapped up in the economy of time, which includes investment activities, productive activities, and bottomless ones. Investment activities require attention and develop our awareness, pleasure, skills or knowledge. On the other end of the spectrum, bottomless activities are cyclical and almost automatic. They generate repeat outcomes, and we approach them with a disengaged mindset or a lack of joy, candor and awareness. They typically include chores, hygiene or grooming, but also any regular activity we grow tired of. They keep popping up again and again, no matter how often we repeat them. We tend to them out of habit, obligation or necessity. At times, human interactions (with friends, family, peers, lovers) can end up in this category. But most of our life activities fall in the middle between investment and bottomless activities: productive activities exist in a status quo – they require attention, but they do not make us grow. You can get reward out of a bottomless activity and make it a productive one. You can take the joy out of an investment activity and make it a productive one. Productive activities bring notable results, but somehow feel disconnected from our guts. They lack heart and they lack meaning.

Whether we invest in ourselves, waste our time or spend it on something useful, we approach time as a perishable resource or a receptacle. Time is supposed to be used or filled with activities. People look down upon on lost time and inertia. We remind ourselves that "life is too short" often to pursue decisions that focus on short-term gratification. Behing the awareness of our mortality lurks an abyss: we are unable to assign a weight to the future uses of our time. Although we are aware of our mortality, no exact deadline weighs on our experience. And this can be observed even in the case of the diagnosis of an incurable disease: Paul Kalanithi, writing about his experience as a 36-year-old neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, conveys his struggle with conflicting priorities:

Grand illnesses are supposed to be clarifying. (…) Instead, I knew I was going to die – But I'd know that before. (…). The way forward would seem obvious, if only I knew how many months or years I had left. Tell me three months, I'd spend time with my family. Tell me one year, I'd write a book. Give me ten years, I'd get back to treating diseases.[i]

Assigning weight and significance to the way we spend our time is better done in retrospect. Time itself is an abstract material. We don't know how to evaluate the currency because we don't know how much of it we have

[i] When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi, 2016

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