We sat down with Catherine Blyth, author of On Time and Enjoy Time, to gain some perspective on the power of slow and find out how to take back control of our time.

Despite living longer lives than ever, technology and changing lifestyles mean we are always rushing to keep up with an increasingly fast-paced world, and it can feel like there is never enough time. In her book, On Time, Catherine Blyth combines scientific and anecdotal evidence to reveal universal truths about our relationship with time, and offers an alternative philosophy: "reset your body clock, refurbish your routine, harness momentum and slow down."

On 13th March, Catherine joined us for an evening of discussion around the subject of time, how to enjoy it more, and rush less, whether it has really sped up, and how the steady and regular have been replaced by the instant and unpredictable.

Here’s what we learned.

Catherine has covered a broad array of topics in the books, articles and columns she has penned over the years, but it was after writing a piece on procrastination that she was invited to delve deeper into the subject of time. Her two books, On Time and Enjoy Time are complementary. While Enjoy Time offers workbook style advice and practical exercises for changing our attitude to time, On Time offers a broader overview of constructs of time and our historical relationship with it, as well as touching on the fascinating research of featured neuroscientists, psychologists and sociologists. 

“I felt like I was running up a down escalator.”

The offer to write this book was timely, explained Catherine. As someone who was experiencing the common struggle to balance her time between herself, work, children and friendships, she had a “personal selfish need” to investigate the subject. “The time I had available felt so precious I found it incredibly difficult to decide what projects to invest in.” Although hesitant at first (“procrastination is just such an unsexy word”) she “started thinking about the systemic changes in time. Why everyone I knew, whatever their demands or stage of life, seemed to think they were terribly busy.” The obvious answer is technology. “If you have a phone you can be in multiple time zones, theoretically doing amazing things with thousands of people you’ll never meet. It’s a huge existential shift. [...] I wanted to step back a bit and think harder about what it meant. [...] How is it that we feel like servants to these tools that are meant to liberate us?”

Is time speeding up?

“The pace of life is accelerating.” In her research Catherine came across sociologist Robert M. Levine (mastermind of the Stanford Prison Experiment), who observed the relationship between walking speed and the pace of life (in colder, more densely populated cities, people tend to walk faster). On average, walking speeds have “gone up by 10% in ten years – Singapore got 30% faster!” The research proves that the whole concept of rushing is something that we imagine and perpetuate ourselves. “Lots of things have changed about our relationship with time, but the bottom line is, for you and me it’s an intensely personal thing to feel like you’re overwhelmed or can’t cope.” Catherine explained how she had wanted to take some time to examine the practical and neurological reasons behind her thinking. “I wanted some answers.”

The Candy Crush effect

Our perception of “the passage of time” is directly affected by the number of distractions in our lives, and the external stimuli that steal our attention – it’s no coincidence that as technology creeps into more areas of our lives, we start to lose our grip on time. We are “extremely distractable beings”, says Catherine. “The trouble is, the more distractions we have [...] the more things there are bidding for our attention,” the less we can commit true focus to any of them. The phones we keep constantly by our sides offer us “all these magnificent freedoms, but how free are we?” The work day used to end with leaving the office, but mobile email means that younger generations haven’t yet “got the defences established, or an etiquette for finding our own barriers.” We should be questioning the value of these interactions outside work, Catherine argues. “Unthinking communication digests a huge amount of time”, as do “pointless emails” instead of “efficient face-to-face conversations.” Despite huge leaps in technology that promise more efficiency, “we are more wedded to these indirect, convoluted, time-consuming ways of carrying out our business”.

“Busy is a badge of honour.”

The trend goes that, the richer societies becomes, the more time-pressured they become. “The more you’re paid per hour, the less disposable it feels to you, the less likely you are to say no.” Today companies expect more of their ever-available employees, and the time we do have, we carelessly squander: “people have an enormous amount of leisure, in theory. [...] The amount of time people spend watching telly or looking at their smartphones is astounding [...] we toss time away”. It suggests that busyness is something that we subscribe to out of habit; to Catherine, “busy is a descriptive term for the effort you put in”, rather than indicative of what you’ve  achieved in that time. “When you feel busy, time feels faster to you. The feedback effect is that you try and rush.” She believes that the people who identify as busy are far more likely to cut back on the things they value such as family and time with friends, than they are to cut back on work.

Reflecting on time

Catherine’s book is full of different views on time, including those of Brazil's Pirahã Tribe, who live without numbers or time, a woman who experienced dyschronometria (“not having a proper sense of time”) following a mild stroke, and the effect of the colour red on our perception of time passing: “it speeds up your heart rate, and blood flow, it makes time appear faster, your reaction times get faster, you think faster. [...] Sir Isaac Newton had a penchant for crimson furniture.”  She also returned to the research of ‎Philip Zimbardo, who asked “whether dynamic change be brought about in people’s lives by looking at something as broad as their beliefs about time.” Catherine was “sceptical” at first. Zimbardo suggests that being past, present or future-oriented in terms of your perspective on time, can change your behaviour. For example, “future-oriented societies tend to be more successful”. He asks three questions: “what are your strongest memories and how would you describe your relationship with the past? What are you doing this weekend and why? What does the future hold and what matters most?”

The willpower muscle

“Willpower is a bit like a muscle and it gets weaker”, believes Catherine. “The more you tax your willpower, the faster it weakens, the more your attention is being wrenched from what you’re trying to do”, like working in an open plan office, where drowning out the noise “takes up cognitive capacity”. This is where modern workplace culture fails us. “We’re so invited to celebrate flexibility [...] but we lose sight of the fact that to actually get something done efficiently, very often it is a linear process that’s best done by exclusively focusing on that thing.” She argues that multitasking is something that “so many people, particularly women, feel so proud of” but is actually proven to be inefficient. “Doing just two things simultaneously will take you 30% longer than doing them one after the other, and you’re twice as likely to make mistakes as you do so.” A “huge cognitive effort is required to keep pulling your attention back”. 

Embracing procrastination

Catherine gives us the example of a parole board to illustrate the importance of regular breaks during periods of concentration. Supposedly, parole boards are much more likely to grant parole in the morning. Rates spike again mid morning after they’ve had a snack, but “start dwindling again and by lunchtime you’re absolutely screwed.” The point is simply that accepting and factoring in our need to take breaks is part of productive work. “People quarrel endlessly about what procrastination means” but for Catherine it’s “putting things off until a point where it’s causing you harm and it doesn’t make any logical sense”. She likes Hilary Mantel’s take on it: “she’s a ‘now now now’ person” who has “had to make procrastination work for her”. It can take discipline to take time off a project that isn’t progressing, “instead of slogging away, to put it aside and do something completely different.” If you’ve hit a wall, Catherine suggests “using breaks intelligently”. A long lunch break or walk (something that Bruce Daisley also advocates) isn’t just valuable time off, but an opportunity for ideas to coalesce and have a ruminatory effect while you are consciously doing something else, like having a shower. If all else fails? “It sounds like such a cliché but, just sleeping on it.” 

Use your body clock

Sleep is a vital part of maintaining regular and healthy natural rhythms, when our brains synthesise and our bodies reset – yet it’s one of the first things to suffer when we are time-poor. Time poverty, says Catherine, is about choice and ownership – or lack of. Chasing time leaves us with a sense of a lack of control: “to introduce greater sense of choice in your time and how you structure it, and getting away from this sense that busyness is an inevitable thing” is key to creating “buffers” between you and that mindset of rash decision-making. “If we constantly feel like we’re running, we’re going to have the symptoms of someone trying to sprint through the marathon of life”. If you struggle to fit everything in, and wonder where the time goes, “stand back and look at your schedule” and be honest about “how you conceptualise time”; as Catherine reflects, we live longer than ever, so our problem with time lies with our own lack of ownership.

All photography Sam Bush.

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