Everywhere we go, we are offered opportunities to save time. We are proffered a panoply of shortcuts, lifehacks, and end runs that—if only properly applied—will somehow allow us to accrue a surplus of that most valuable resource: time.
This is of course total bullshit.
Time is so valuable precisely because we can’t save it. I know what you’re thinking: “Yeah, everybody knows you can’tliterally save time. It’s just a figure of speech. Stop being pedantic.” And while I freely admit that I am more than passing familiar with a little pedantry now and again, I do think it’s important that we really stop and think about what we mean when we talk about “saving time.”
I think when we say something saves us time, what we means is that it helps us not to waste time. Which…sure! Not wasting time is great! Count me in! But I think saying the former while meaning the latter is bad for a couple of reasons:
2.You can’t do a negative.
1. Words Matter.
We are influenced by the way we say things, even if we know that we don’t mean them literally. I think it’s worth taking a short detour to show you what I mean, and so I’d like to turn to the world of politics, where this is called “framing the debate,” and specifically to something called the estate tax.
The estate tax is basically an inheritance tax—when someone leaves someone else property in a will, the state taxes it. You can be for or against this philosophically, and I think there are good reasons for and against it, but Republicans, who generally oppose it, realized that as long as it was called the “estate” tax, then only people with “estates” would be very concerned about it. And unless you live in a much better neighborhood than I do, there just aren’t that many estates around, so it was hard to mobilize effective opposition.
So what did Republicans do? They straight up changed the name! Every single time a Republican official, strategist, or candidate talked about the estate tax, they didn’t call it that—they called it the “death tax”! Death tax! You get taxed for dying! That sucks! Who would even do that? Man, what won’t Democrats tax?
So when we talk about “saving” time, even though we know we don’t literally mean that, we subconsciously put it in the same category of things you can save: money, gas, paper plates from the last barbecue…anything that can be accrued. And when we include time with those others, we subconsciously start thinking of it as something that can be accrued as well, even if logically we know it isn’t. And this changes how we make decisions in how we spend it.
2. You can’t do a negative.
If when we say “save time” we basically mean “don’t waste time,” that’s all well and good, but as a guide for living, I find it lacking. Not wasting time is great, and finding ways to waste less time is no doubt a worthwhile endeavor, but the thing is…not wasting time only matters if you find something better to do with it instead.
As long as we think of our various strategies as “time savers” they seem productive, positive…we are saving time. Saving is an action, it’s got forward momentum. And so you can download the latest app to shave minutes off of your morning commute, your morning shower, your actual morning shave and it feels like you are getting something done. And that feels good!
It’s just not true. Life isn’t a county fair where you go around collecting time tickets for all of the smart lifehacks you’ve accumulated over the years and then turn them in at the end and the guy behind the counter says “Way to go! You get five more years!”
“Extra” time only matters if you do something with it. Time is a breath-catching sunset, it’s a screaming-to-be-surfed wave…If you don’t stop and look upon that sunset, if you don’t go and catch that wave…there will be others, to be sure, but that sunset,that wave, that specific moment…those will be lost forever.
Time is finite (at least, any individual experience of it is). There are only a certain amount of seconds, minutes, days and years left in each of our hourglasses. It’s possible to take that bleakly, but I don’t mean it to be. I think it’s actually an inspiration: you can’t save time, but you can use it wisely. And “using time wisely” is something productive, positive. It is an action, and I think it’s a goal worthy of lifelong pursuit.
So by all means, work to be more productive, strive to waste less time, but remember: what you do with that time is what counts, and the next time you catch yourself thinking about “saving time”, remind yourself that that is a dangerous way to waste it.