Fighting for Time


In a previous meditation, The Rhythm of Attention, I wrote,

How we envision time can determine how we make use of time, how we navigate via the clock and the calendar, and how we find our place in it.

Circumstances can conspire to disrupt our own rhythm of time. The most obvious disruption is when we feel that we have too much to do, that we lack sufficient time to accomplish all that we need to do. This turns out to be a universal, and growing, conviction.

In recent years, the concept of 'time poverty' has arisen as one factor in the paradox identified by Richard Edelin in the 1970s: while economic growth in the U.S. had steadily grown, people's level of happiness had not. In particular, even people with growing affluence expressed being time poor. Researchers Laura M. Giurge, Ashley V. Whillans, and Colin West define it this way:

Defined as the chronic feeling of having too many things to do and not enough time to do them, time poverty is increasing in society. Data from the Gallup US Daily Poll – a nationally representative sample of US residents– shows that, in 2011, 70% of employed Americans reported that they “never had enough time,” and in 2018, this proportion increased to 80%.

The authors point out the dangers of chronic time poverty, which "is linked to lower well-being, physical health, and productivity". This is one of the preconditions of burnout, which has become endemic in the modern workplace.

We are all, in a sense, fighting for time. Both in the work-a-day sense of trying to find time enough to do our work, and balance that with downtime with family and friends, staving off the deleterious effects of time poverty.

Paul Graham is the source of the distinction between the maker’s and manager’s schedules:

The manager's schedule is for bosses. It's embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default, you change what you're doing every hour.


Most powerful people are on the manager's schedule. It's the schedule of command. But there's another way of using time that's common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started.

I generally recast Graham's distinction slightly, downplaying the creator v manager angle, and shifting to the different kinds of time rhythm that we all toggle between. So, me-time versus we-time:

  • Me-time is when individuals are focused on deep work -- writing, thinking, programming, planning, designing -- it's just someone working alone with the tools and artifacts of their trade.
  • We-time is when we are involved in communications with others -- meetings, calls, and working sessions; 1:1 or 1:many -- where the focus of the participants is split between the topic at issue (like discussing a project) and the many social aspects of the interaction (negotiation, arguing for and against ideas or propositions, establishing how the project will impact the project participants, and other social aspects of the topic at issue).

There is tension between these two very different sorts of time orientation. First of all, the different rhythms are rivalrous: you can't be in both rhythms at once. Second of all, they involve different sorts of thinking.

Instead of considering this tension as just moving from one time slot to another on your calendar, let's think of it as two different operating strategies, divided by a mind shift.

Moving from one rhythm to the other involves a shift in priorities -- in values -- more than just switching from one task to another. It's not just “what am I doing next?”, but “what do I put a higher value on: the me-work that defines my role and identity, or the we-work that involves coordinative and cooperative work?”

Yes, we-work is valuable, but its primary value should come from its scarcity. We should seek to minimize we-time to take up as little time as necessary. For one reason, its financial costs rise at least at a linear rate based on the number of people involved. And a second reason: every minute engaged in we-time -- for the individual -- is a minute of me-time lost forever. And me-time is the overwhelming source of value creation for the business.

Once we understand the real difference between these two rhythms the next question is how much time do you spend on each, and how much does it “cost” to switch from one to another?

Paul Graham pointed out that maker's work can be broken into pieces too small to make progress, as an hourlong call in the middle of the afternoon leaves two fragments too short to accomplish much since it takes time to get recentered on the individual work being pursued: programming, writing, or designing.

These breaks aren't clean. They are dirty breaks from the perspective of me-time.

The call ends, I take some notes, set dates on the calendar, and return to my writing. Perhaps it takes 10, 15, or more minutes to get my head back into the writing, and finally start to pick up the threads of my writing task and go. So I didn't lose just the hour for the call, but an hour and a half. A wisp of a thought that was hovering at the edge of my consciousness perhaps is lost. Momentum was broken.

And If I have two meetings in the afternoon -- even if they are only 45 minutes long -- I could get to the point where I make no me-time progress at all once the meetings start.

The best practice is for individuals and companies to designate times in the day when all communications -- meetings, calls, workshops -- are to be scheduled, and the rest of the day is left intact for deep work, a topic I will return to in future meditations.

But the core message is this: people are suffering -- in the literal, not metaphorical sense -- from time poverty. In the context of work we can't solve all of the time stresses that people are grappling with. But we can diminish the time pressure at work by seeking to minimize we-time and therefore to leave as much of me-time intact.

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