Saving Time (2023) takes a deep dive into the complicated concepts surrounding time and the multitude of ways it can be experienced. Combining historical research, philosophical ideas, and social commentary, it offers new approaches to perceiving time that can help us learn to truly live in the present while looking toward a more hopeful future.
Introduction: Discover how to “give yourself more time” by changing the ways you perceive it.
Imagine you’re in a library, searching for ways to save time and avoid burnout. The first section you see is full of books about time-management strategies to increase productivity. The second section contains books about the history of time, as well as philosophical theories surrounding it.
Which section would you choose? While it might seem logical to head straight to the first, author Jenny Odell suggests that section two is where the solutions truly lie. In this summary to Saving Time, we’ll delve into the complicated – and often misunderstood – concepts surrounding time, and look at how we can change the ways we perceive it.
We won’t be able to cover all of the complex ideas and research presented in the book. Ironically, that would take far too much time! Instead, this summary will focus on the overarching concepts to help you gain a better understanding of what time really is, the different ways it can be experienced, and how you can save it – in theory at least.
How was the concept of keeping time created?
It’s no small irony that clocks are the modern symbol of time, because – for most of history – there was no need to keep time by them. While ancient civilizations did have devices for sensing the time of day, such as sundials and clepsydras, they had no reason to separate it into numerical parts.
In fact, the process of breaking down time into linear units didn’t begin until the sixth century, when the development of Christian canonical hours specified the eight moments of the day that monks should pray.
Five centuries later, Cistercian monks intensified this practice by using bell towers throughout their monasteries. This new technology would soon catch on and be developed into public and private clocks, spreading rapidly as European towns became centers of power and commerce.
While they were mainly still used for coordination, these mechanical turret clocks helped to conduct trade and signaled the end of a day’s worth of labor. Unlike the bell towers in monasteries, the new clocks were able to mark hours as equal and countable.
The history of time is also deeply entangled with colonialism and struggles for power. It’s no coincidence that marine chronometers were invented in eighteenth-century Britain, just as the colonial power was rising to international dominance.
Beginning in the 1850s, “master clocks” in Greenwich, England, began to send Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to “slave clocks” throughout the rest of the country via electrical pulses, which allowed all trains to run on the same schedule.
Meanwhile, railway systems in the US and Canada initially had no standardized time zones, which made coordinating them nearly impossible. While helping to design the Canadian railway network, engineer Sandford Fleming developed the idea of a “Cosmic Day.”
According to his strategy, everyone on the planet would use one of 24 time zones – reflecting the 24-hour clock, or what we now refer to as “military time.” In 1884, at the International Meridian Conference, these 24 time zones were officially recognized with Greenwich as the prime meridian: the point from which time would be measured throughout the world.
How much is our time worth?
In 1998, the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics made the controversial decision to require its researchers to clock in and out during their workday. The physicists working at the facility were outraged, stating that the decision was needlessly bureaucratic and conflicted with the ways that research was actually conducted.
This decision would go on to cause an uproar not only within the scientific community, but throughout the world. At the heart of the controversy was the question of what employers are entitled to when they pay their employees – or the concept of “time as money.” In other words, how much is our time actually worth?
In cinema, one of the best representations of this idea comes from Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times. In an early scene, Chaplin’s character, The Tramp, frantically works to screw nuts into pieces of machinery at his factory.
Later in the film, the company straps The Tramp into a device called “The Billows Feeding Machine,” which aims to save time by feeding employees while they work – eliminating the need for a lunch break.
The machine ultimately malfunctions, causing a rapidly spinning corn on the cob to repeatedly smash into Chaplin’s face. This serves not only as a hilarious movie scene, but as a commentary on the capitalist idea of “squeezing” as much time as possible out of each employee’s workday.
Many decades later, this issue was revisited during the coronavirus pandemic. With many people working from home, time-tracking systems were used as a way to check on employee productivity.
While some of these systems used self-reporting, others monitored employees’ productivity with screenshots, recordings, and keystroke logging. In a Vox article about remote work, one employee stated that her boss knew every single thing she did during the day – to the point where she felt like she was barely allowed to stand up and stretch.
This relates to Allen C. Bluedorn’s idea of fungible time, which is epitomized by Benjamin Franklin’s famous line, “Time is money.” In essence, time behaves like a currency – just like every penny has an equal value, every second can be interchanged with another second.
But who gets to decide what time costs? And do we all get an equal share of it?
Is time distributed equally?
In much of the modern world, there is a pervasive and ever-increasing mentality that work and productivity should be valued above all else. In the US especially, “hustle culture” leads us to believe that we should constantly be on the grind if we want to have any measure of success in life.
The strongest proponents of this mindset are the “productivity bros” – a group of male content creators who constantly sell the idea that time management and personal policing are cure-all solutions to life’s biggest problems.
Let’s briefly go back to the concept of fungible time. The idea that every person has an equal number of hours, minutes, and seconds is the bedrock of modern time-management strategies. In fact, productivity bros seem to live by the creed that “we all have the same 24 hours in a day!”
But as soon as you begin to poke at this theory, it unravels – as anyone who has had to care for a loved one, lived with a chronic condition, or taken on a large share of housework can attest. Philosophy professor Robert E. Goodin even refers to this suggested equality of time as a “cruel joke.”
And yet, the theory has thrived in modern bootstrapper culture – which lives by the idea that anyone can achieve their goals if they just work hard enough. Funnily enough, the term “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps” was originally intended to mean “attempting the impossible.”
The first problem with the equal time theory is the simple fact that certain people have more power and influence over their own time, as well as the time of others. Second, the price at which we sell our time reflects aspects that are often out of our control, such as age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
Long story short, time management boils down to the question of who really controls our lives – and therefore our time.
According to Odell, for individuals, time is less something that’s measured and more a relation of power structures. Each person’s experiences with time depend on where they’re currently seated in the “economy of temporal worth.”
Odell refers to the work of author Sarah Sharma, who notes that our culture’s fixation with time management runs in direct contrast to political definitions of time. In order to reach a true understanding of time, we need to address society’s uneven and deeply biased structures of power.
Until that lofty goal is achieved, Odell offers a simpler solution that can be applied on a more personal level. By acknowledging the ways that experiences of time play out for different people, we can create a new – and in turn, more fair – meaning of the phrase “time management.”
How has our view of time changed?
The COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the ways that we perceive time, and our place in it. In the early days of lockdown, many people took to social media to vent their frustrations, posting memes and funny tweets about how “time means nothing anymore.”
Days blended together, weekdays and weekends became indistinguishable, and each hour seemed to blur into the next. For Odell, this ambiguity of time relates to the ideas that French philosopher Henri Bergson put forth in his 1907 book Creative Evolution.
According to Bergson, the problem with trying to understand the true nature of time stems from our desire to imagine it as a series of concrete moments that happen side by side in space. Instead of occurring in neat segments, time is a series of overlapping successions, stages, and intensities.
For Bergson, time is more like a duration as opposed to something that’s measurable. It’s a mysterious thing that’s always creating and developing.
A good way to illustrate this concept is through an image of flowing lava. At the front, the leading edge of lava is alive – always moving toward a new destination. But at any point, you can look back and see the path it’s taken, which contains all the histories of the places it’s been.
The increased awareness of time during the pandemic goes hand in hand with rising feelings of dread about the climate. With far more opportunities to stop and observe the world around us, it seems that the “climate clock” is ticking down faster and faster.
Just as with the inequality of time, large structural changes need to take place in order to address climate change and give the world a chance at a better future. In the meantime, Odell suggests two important ways of thinking that can help ease the strain on our minds.
The first – and most important – is to remember that we’re not alone. Although time is experienced differently by each individual in the present, the future belongs to all of us. Worrying about what comes next can be isolating, so we shouldn’t be afraid to share our fears with others.
Second, it can be helpful to remember that, throughout history, many worlds have ended and been born anew. Odell notes that Native American author Elissa Washuta often refers to her people as “post-apocalyptic.” Because of colonization, Indigenous people have lived through many forms of annihilation – but continue to exist and seek to build a better future.
According to Odell, if you don’t want to “kick the can down the road,” it can be helpful to think like those who were never on that road to begin with.
How can we give ourselves more time?
When Odell was young, she came across one of her mom’s fairytale books from the 1970s. It was about a witch who gave a boy a ball of golden thread and told him that pulling the end would cause time to move faster.
Eager to meet each of life’s major milestones – finishing school, getting married, having a child – the boy impatiently pulled the thread. Soon, he found that he had reached the end of his life without truly experiencing any of it.
This slightly terrifying children’s story perfectly ties into the question for this final section: How can we give ourselves more time?
Time-management strategies, like the methods used by productivity bros, might seem to be the obvious solution here. But in reality, they often make the problem worse.
In his book about why time management is ruining our lives, author Oliver Burkeman states that paying close attention to the usage of time ironically heightens our awareness of just how little of it we have. The more you notice time, the faster it seems to slip away.
Capitalizing on this fear of lost time and mortality, the wellness industry produces a neverending line of products designed to help us live longer. The message seems to be that a longer, healthier life is within reach for everyone – as long as they’re willing to put in the work… and money.
The problem with this idea is that it ignores factors like genetic predispositions and socioeconomic circumstances. If someone is living with a disease or disability – or simply can’t afford access to expensive wellness products or even basic health care – then they can’t access the same opportunities to extend their life.
As a solution, Odell suggests that we shouldn’t be concerned with making more time, but with truly living in the time we have. If we spend all our precious moments trying to stretch them as much as possible, are we truly living at all?
In ancient Greek, there were two words used to describe time: chronos and kairos. Chronos relates to linear time, or the steady march of events leading into the future. Kairos, which can be roughly translated to “crisis” – involves “seizing the moment.”
You might think that chronos would be the more stable of the two, while kairos brings about anxiety and uncertainty. But when it comes to thinking about the future, Odell suggests that living in kairos is the key.
With life changing so quickly and an uncertain future ahead, kairos offers new possibilities and opportunities to imagine something different. By changing the ways we perceive time, we can embrace the fact that we have no control over it – and begin to truly live in the present.
Living in a world that seems to change by the minute, it’s easy to get swept up in the concept of “saving time.” After all, modern demands for productivity can make it seem as if there are never enough hours in the day. Pair this with an ever-increasing sense of dread about the future, and it can get overwhelming.
But there’s a solution.
On a structural level, collective changes need to be made so that time is distributed fairly and equally – regardless of external factors like gender, race, or economic status.
On a community level, it’s important to remember that although everyone experiences time differently, we aren’t alone in our worries – especially when it comes to the future.
On a personal level, we can each work to change the way we perceive time. By accepting that time isn’t something to be measured, but something to be experienced, we can relinquish control and just be.
In the end, our biggest concern shouldn’t be to live longer and do more. The ultimate goal is really just to be more alive in each moment we’re given.
About the author
Jenny Odell is a multidisciplinary artist and author. Her first book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy was the New York Times bestseller. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Sierra magazine, and other publications. She lives in Oakland, California.
Science, Motivation, Inspiration, History, Philosophy, Society, Culture, Nonfiction, Self Help, Psychology, Essays, Productivity, Mental Health, Personal Development, Social Science, Business, Economics, Environmental Economics, Environmentalism, Popular Culture in Social Sciences
Table of Contents
Introduction: A message fro the Meantime
Chapter 1: Whose Time, Whose Money?
Chapter 2: Self Timer
Chapter 3: Can There Be Leisure?
Chapter 4: Putting Time Back in Its Place
Chapter 5: A Change of Subject
Chapter 6: Uncommon Times
Chapter 7: Life Extension
Chapter 8: Halving Time.
Credits and Permissions
NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the author of How to Do Nothing comes a “paradigm-destroying new book . . . about the various problems that swirl out from dominant conceptions of ‘time’” (The New York Times Editors’ Choice).
In her first book, How to Do Nothing, Jenny Odell wrote about the importance of disconnecting from the “attention economy” to spend time in quiet contemplation. But what if you don’t have time to spend?
In order to answer this seemingly simple question, Odell took a deep dive into the fundamental structure of our society and found that the clock we live by was built for profit, not people. This is why our lives, even in leisure, have come to seem like a series of moments to be bought, sold, and processed ever more efficiently. Odell shows us how our painful relationship to time is inextricably connected not only to persisting social inequities but to the climate crisis, existential dread, and a lethal fatalism.
This dazzling, subversive, and deeply hopeful book offers us different ways to experience time—inspired by pre-industrial cultures, ecological cues, and geological timescales—that can bring within reach a more humane, responsive way of living. As planet-bound animals, we live inside shortening and lengthening days alongside gardens growing, birds migrating, and cliffs eroding; the stretchy quality of waiting and desire; the way the present may suddenly feel marbled with childhood memory; the slow but sure procession of a pregnancy; the time it takes to heal from injuries. Odell urges us to become stewards of these different rhythms of life in which time is not reducible to standardized units and instead forms the very medium of possibility.
Saving Time tugs at the seams of reality as we know it—the way we experience time itself—and rearranges it, imagining a world not centered on work, the office clock, or the profit motive. If we can “save” time by imagining a life, identity, and source of meaning outside these things, time might also save us.
“Saving Time’s real triumph lies in her road map for experiencing time outside the capitalist clock. . . . Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.”—Esquire
“This grand, eclectic, wide-ranging work is about the various problems that swirl out from dominant conceptions of ‘time,’ which sometimes means history, sometimes means an individual lifetime and sometimes means the future”—The New York Times
“Saving Time seeks a more expansive, nonlinear view of time itself, an important endeavor. . . . A kind of compendium on time itself, one that attempts to take a less depressing and deterministic view of the climate future.”—Vanity Fair
“Odell’s follow-up to 2019’s How to Do Nothing establishes her as a leading philosopher of our age.”—Hazlitt
“A sweeping yet personal challenge to assumptions Western society makes about the relationships between individuals and the finite hours in a given day.”—Time
“Saving Time’s real triumph lies in [Odell’s] road map for experiencing time outside the capitalist clock. . . . Expect to feel changed by this radical way of seeing.”—Esquire
“An ambitious project that takes on time-management, self-help, climate nihilism, our fear of dying and the grind of corporate life, ultimately asking us to see time itself through different lenses.”—The Washington Post
“Unpack[s] the clock as a tool of domination [and] goes in search of a conception of time that isn’t painful—but rather, liberatory.”—Ms.
“Odell elevates non-Western, non-linear ways of understanding time—as circular, or tied to our changing environments, or stretching into the past and future simultaneously. Money can’t buy the time it takes the ocean to wear down rock.”—Literary Hub
“A carefully constructed vision of hope with meaningful advice that will linger.”—BookPage (starred review)
“Bounds from the meaning of church bells to present-day methods for optimizing every moment of our lives—always with an eye to the holdouts against temporal order.”—Vulture
“At this pivotal historical moment, when so many of us are struggling with burnout, anxiety about the future, and a gnawing dissatisfaction that things don’t have to be like this, in strides Jenny Odell with the exact book that we needed . . . It is rigorous, compassionate, profound, and hopeful. It is one of the most important books I’ve read in my life.”—Ed Yong, author of An Immense World and I Contain Multitudes
“I experience Jenny Odell’s work as the rarest kind of intervention: it alters you immediately, and then it lasts. In Saving Time, she is alive, as always, to the bleakest aspects of contemporary existence—the brute-force instrumentalization of our time, our planet, our humanity—and yet [Jenny Odell] finds a way to transubstantiate grief into vision, to beat back inevitability and instead show us possibility, beauty, resolve, sublime desire . . . Saving Time is an inimitable gift.”—Jia Tolentino, author of Trick Mirror
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Whose Time, Whose Money?
The Port of Oakland
Time to me is about life-span and the ageing of individuals against the background of the history of our world, the universe, eternity. —Dominique, a schoolteacher interviewed in Barbara Adam’s Timewatch
Moments are the elements of profit. —A nineteenth-century British factory master, quoted in Karl Marx, Capital
We’ve emerged westward from the Seventh Street tunnel into the Port of Oakland, in a sun-blasted sedan I have had since high school. The clock in this car went dark at some undetermined point long ago, but my phone tells us it’s seven a.m., eight minutes after the sunrise.
Ahead is a wide cement expanse punctuated by palm trees and pieces of things: trucks without containers; containers without trucks; chassis, tires, boxes, pallets. All of them lumped together, sometimes stacked, partitioned in ways not immediately legible to us. A landscape of work. As the BART train tracks and their chain-link fence disappear underground, soon to pass beneath the San Francisco Bay, they reveal a different kind of train, double-stacked with containers in serendipitous color combinations: white and gray, hot pink and navy blue, bright red and dark, dusty red. There are a few indications of human bodily concerns: a picnic table painted red, a portable toilet, an empty food stand, and a vinyl ad for chiropractic services.
We pull into Middle Harbor Shoreline Park, which is separated from the SSA Marine terminal by a see-through fence. Just on the other side, the stacks are six containers high, giving the impression of an endless city made of corrugated metal. Farther ahead are the dinosaur-like figures: blue-green straddle carriers and white shipping cranes, some of them sixteen stories tall. A massive ship sits underneath them, having arrived from Shenzhen. But, for now, the equipment is sleeping; the workers are just clocking in.
In July 1998, the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) decided to make its researchers start clocking in and out of the lab. They could not have known the backlash this would inspire, not only at the institute but also across the world. Hundreds of scientists wrote in support of the INFN physicists’ complaints, saying that the move was needlessly bureaucratic, insulting, and out of step with how the researchers actually worked. “Good science can’t be measured by the clock,” wrote the former director of the American Institute of Physics. A physics professor from Rochester University surmised that “the US garment industry must be advising the INFN on how to improve productivity.” And the deputy director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory wrote in with cutting sarcasm: “Maybe they will chain you to your desks and benches next, so you do not go out after you come in, or better yet, install brain monitors to make sure you are thinking physics and not other thoughts while you are at your desks.”
In a compilation of the letters written in response to the new policy, only a few express ambivalence over the scientists’ protest. The most straightforward disagreement comes from Tommy Anderberg, a rare contributor with no listed professional affiliation. Instead, he identifies as a taxpayer and one who is angry about this kvetching by public employees:
Your employers, in this case anyone paying taxes in Italy (the real thing, money derived from earnings realized in the private sector, not the piece of accounting fiction being applied to your own, tax-financed paycheck), have every right to demand that you be at your place of employment at the times stipulated by your contract.
If you don’t like your terms of employment, quit.
In fact, I have a great suggestion if you want real freedom. Do what I did: start your own business. Then you’ll be able to call your own shots and work when, where and with whatever you feel like.
At its heart, this disagreement—between the working scientists on the one hand and the INFN and Tommy Anderberg on the other—isn’t just about what work is and how it should be measured. It’s also about what an employer buys when they pay you money. For Anderberg, it’s a package deal including not only work but also life minutes, bodily presence, and humiliation.
As attested to by the scientists’ wry jokes about factories and being “chained to a desk” (an image that comes up in several of the letters), the concept of clocking in and out comes from an industrial model of work. Probably one of the best illustrations of this model is the beginning of Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film, Modern Times. The very first image in the film is that of a clock—severe, rectangular, and filling the entire screen behind the title credits. Then a shot of sheep being herded fades into a view of workers exiting the subway and heading to work at “Electro Steel Corp.,” where two very different kinds of time exist side by side.
The first is leisurely: The president of the company sits alone in a quiet office, halfheartedly working on a puzzle and glancing idly through a newspaper. After an assistant brings him water and a supplement, he pulls up closed-circuit camera views of various sections of the factory. We see his face appear on a screen in front of a worker in charge of the factory’s pace. “Section Five!” he barks. “Speed her up, four one.”
Chaplin’s character, the Tramp, is now subjected to the second temporality—that of time as punishing and ever intensifying. On an assembly line, he frantically works to screw nuts into pieces of machinery, falling behind when he has to scratch an itch or is distracted by a bee hovering around his face. When his foreman tells him to take a break, he walks away jerkily, unable to stop performing the motions of his job. In the bathroom, the manic soundtrack briefly turns to reverie, and the Tramp calms down a bit, beginning to relish a cigarette. But all too soon, the face of the president appears on the bathroom wall: “Hey! Quit stalling! Get back to work!”
Meanwhile, the company tries out an inventor’s time-saving device. It comes with its own recorded advertisement: “The Billows Feeding Machine, a practical device which automatically feeds your men while at work. Don’t stop for lunch! Be ahead of your competitor. The Billows Feeding Machine will eliminate the lunch hour.” On his break, the Tramp is picked out as management’s guinea pig and strapped into what is essentially a full-body vise behind a rotating platter of foods. Things get out of hand when the machine malfunctions and the corn cob rotator starts going too fast, slamming the spinning cob into the Tramp’s face over and over again.
I consider the corn cob malfunction one of the funniest movie moments I have ever seen. On the one hand, the scene is a joke about the capitalist’s desire to scrimp and save on the labor time for which he has paid—to squeeze more work from the worker in the same amount of time. (If humans could just eat corn faster, the crazily spinning cob might not be a problem at all.) On the other hand, it’s a joke about the human assimilated to a disciplinary pacing: Just as he must keep up with the assembly line and minimize bathroom breaks, he must also comply with the feeding machine’s rate of food delivery. He must become an eating machine.
Time, in this world, is an input just like water, electricity, or corn cobs. A 1916 advertisement by the International Time Recording Company of New York in Factory Magazine addressed the head of the factory and made this connection explicit: “Time costs you money. You buy it just as you buy a raw material.” In order to wring the most value from this time material, the employer resorts to surveillance and control. In a 1927 issue of Industrial Management, Calculagraph, another time recorder company, put it this way: “You pay them CASH! How Much TIME do They pay You?”
This final question makes sense only from the point of view of the factory owner, who is counting not just elapsed time, but time spent specifically producing value for him. The Tramp illustrates this distinction when he dutifully punches out in order to go to the bathroom and punches in again after the boss ends his break. Nor is this an exaggeration. In the history of work, things could get pretty granular: In the one hundred thousand words that make up the eighteenth-century rule book for the Crowley Iron Works, deductions from time paid included “being at taverns, alehouses, coffee houses, breakfast, dinner, playing, sleeping, smoking, singing, reading of news history, quarelling, contention, disputes, or anything forreign to my business, any way loytering . . . [sic].” In other words, a more accurate ad for the Calculagraph might have asked, “How much LABOR TIME do They pay You?”