The Tyranny of Time Optimization

5 min read
Shivmirthyu / Pixabay

Source: Shivmirthyu / Pixabay

For years, I have been annoyed by society’s commodification of time.

We extort time in the name of self-improvement and use it as yet another arena for hurling judgments. Take, for instance, an episode of the Oprah Winfrey Show in which Dr. Phil explained that people who are chronically late are on an “ego trip.” As someone who tends to run behind schedule, I can’t help but take exception.

Reasonable time management can be a good thing, and strategies for improving it can save jobs, relationships, and sanity. However, obsessive time optimization can interfere with well-being, leading people to sacrifice their health and happiness to get as much done as possible in as little time as possible. I know because this is one of my lifelong tendencies.

Take, for example, my idea to deliver home-baked muffins to my neighbor right before I had to pick up my kids from camp. The timing was intentional, so I could limit how long we chatted. Unexpectedly, my neighbor shared an upsetting event, and ending the conversation abruptly would have been insensitive. Regretfully, I was late to pick up my kids.

Obsessive time optimization has taken a toll on my mental health and how well I treat my loved ones, as no one, including myself, can move fast enough to meet my unrealistic demands for making the most of every minute.

I’m not usually selfish, but I acknowledge that a sense of entitlement comes with being too attached to time optimization. It leads to perceiving normal but unexpected events as catastrophes, which fuels an unjustified victim mentality, such as blaming every red light I hit instead of taking responsibility for leaving too late to pick up my kids.

Obsessive time optimization operates on misconceptions about time, such as:

  1. That was a waste of time. The idea that something was a waste of time inaccurately assumes that we know how life will or would have played out. For example, while some might think baking is a waste of time, others would say that I invested in a relationship and that giving to my neighbor might be reciprocated in a future time of need. Nobody has a crystal ball that can say for sure; therefore, none of us are qualified to judge how well the time was spent. On top of this, because how we spend our time is linked to our values, there is no ultimate scorekeeper for seconds well spent, only the one we create in our minds. Relaxing, for example, is necessary for mental health, but time-obsessive people often view it as a waste of time.
  2. We can make up for lost time. Of course, time lost cannot be retrieved in a literal sense. More importantly, this myth resembles deficit thinking, a term used by psychologist and perfectionism expert Thomas Curran to describe the insecurity that over-strivers experience about never being good enough. Similarly, the belief that we can and must make up for the time that has passed inevitably leads one down a rabbit hole to burnout.
  3. Multitasking will work this time. Only 2.5 percent of people can multitask effectively, yet most think we are part of that 2.5 percent. Similarly, the idea that, despite past failed attempts, multitasking will work this time if I try harder is asking for disappointment. Effort alone does not make us capable of multitasking, just like it can’t resurrect time that has come and gone.

Underlying these misconceptions is the unspoken conviction that self-worth depends on how we use time. It is the misguided belief that if I use my time more efficiently, I will become a better person.

This falls into the same insecurity trap bred by a society that ties a sense of self to what we own and how much money we make.

With this understanding, you can start befriending time as opposed to letting it be your nemesis. Consider the following strategies:

  1. Show appreciation for the time-saving events in your life. There are obvious examples, like appreciating that you didn’t break your leg today, which saved hours you would have been sitting in an emergency room. There are also countless less extreme moments, such as remembering to pack an important item at the last minute. The gist of this strategy is to focus on what is going well.
  2. Embrace non-productive moments. I have worked with clients so distressed by the free time that they responded with unhealthy behaviors, like skin-picking or becoming preoccupied with existential thoughts about their mortality. However, being unproductive can inspire creativity, and learning how to have fun can strengthen relationships. The trick is to be OK with such moments without labeling them as wasting time. When a self-critical thought arises, do a mindfulness exercise, such as imagining placing the thought in a “Do Later” box. Then, refocus on the thought that activities can be a good use of time solely because they feel good and help you relax.
  3. Aim for good enough. Time optimization fuels unhealthy perfectionism. Ironically, perfectionism tends to sabotage time management. I might spend unnecessary time hemming and hawing over spelling when my word processor can make corrections in a fraction of the time. By choosing not to act on perfectionistic urges and aiming for “good enough” instead, you will feel less frustrated with how you spend your time.
  4. Focus on social connection. If you want to tie your self-worth to something, express your inherent value through prosocial behavior. This doesn’t mean you need to have a lot of friends. Rather, look for simple moments to share a connection, such as complimenting the server at a restaurant or holding the door for a stranger.

Aiming for a sustainable life will lead to more contentment than striving for an optimal one. The way we perceive time is inextricably related to balance and self-preservation.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours