Jenny Odell on Why We Shouldn’t Worry About Time

When it comes to seeing the forest, not just the trees, few people do it as well as author, educator, and artist Jenny Odell. Her 2019 debut, How to Do Nothing, helped make plain the pervasive, draining pull of the attention economy, that network of applications built to reward our engagement and exploit our aversion to sitting quietly with ourselves. Sure, we already knew our ballooning screen time wasn’t exactly healthy, but Odell’s book investigated not just the negative impacts of the endless scroll, but the underlying motivations that keep us double-tapping. It also suggested where we might find an alternative to all that blue light.

With her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, Odell tries to make her readers aware of the water they are swimming through. She tackles an incredibly broad topic, our human experience of time, with a specificity and critical acumen that invites us to reconsider conventional wisdom about productivity and longevity. As with How to Do Nothing, readers with a vague sense that “something is wrong here” may breathe a sigh of relief as Odell overturns one fallacy after another, almost as if she is reassuring us, “Your suspicions are correct. You’ve just been too busy to examine them.”

Saving Time covers labor, leisure, and self-improvement, but it really sings when Odell addresses moments of greater urgency and immediacy, like our time-warped pandemic (during which she wrote the book) and the ratcheting, uneven intensity of climate change—the kind of epochal moments that make us wonder whether we should be worrying about time or its end.

In a conversation with Esquire, edited here for length and clarity, Odell tells us how to start combating the tyranny of the clock, uncovers the self-flagellating ethos of the “productivity bro,” and provides a little reassurance about the end of the world (short answer, and forgive us for this: it’s only a matter of time.)

ESQUIRE: Did Saving Time grow out of How to Do Nothing? Were there certain threads you wanted to pull out a bit further with this one?

JENNY ODELL: It definitely grew out of How to Do Nothing. After I wrote the last book, something I heard a lot from readers was that time was a really big obstacle for them in adhering to the things I wrote about. In How to Do Nothing I talk about privilege and space—these circumstantial factors that affect how easy it is to inhabit the state of mind that I’m describing—but the time element is maybe even more obvious. It was like a thorn in my side. I knew that was a very natural response, and I didn’t feel like I had a good answer for it. So that’s what set me on this path.

You introduce this ‘Linda’ character in the book, who you borrow from the sociologist Hartmut Rosa. She stands in for a relatively privileged person who feels constrained by time, even if they aren’t literally on the clock, being watched. Following that, you suggest that the Lindas of the world try to resist the clock for the sake of people who can’t. What do you think resistance looks like?

First, I think it’s really important to point out that there’s a gray area. It’s obviously an oversimplification to say that there are Lindas and Not-Lindas. There’s a spectrum, and the same person could find themselves on different points on the spectrum over time.

But for someone who is currently on that side of things, I think the first step is just being aware of the context and the history that I try to bring into that chapter—this longer story of why, especially in the U.S., we associate being really busy and working really hard all the time with inherent moral goodness. It’s so taken for granted and it’s so deeply internalized that even just seeing the outlines of it is actually huge. Once you have the vocabulary to talk about that cultural idea, it’s no longer your problem in a pathological way. That’s what I’m hoping for in that part of the book, to say: “Okay, you’re hurting. This is why it hurts.” I can’t fix that necessarily, but when someone knows what the problem is, it can help orient them in a new way.

A lot of these values are codified into policy, but some of them are existing on a softer level of how people talk, what language people use, and what judgments they make. And that stuff matters! We care what our friends think. If you were to hang out with a group of people who had a different way of thinking about worth and productivity, it would start to rub off on you, and it would be easier for you to uphold those values. I say that because obviously the Linda character is privileged, but that’s not to say that it’s not really difficult to undo a lot of that thinking, and a lot of it comes down to social pressure.

Would you say that a big part of the project of this book is consciousness raising?

It’s almost like I’m poking someone and trying to make them be as angry as they actually are. I’m trying to re-awaken some impulse that I think is actually quite intuitive and common sense. It seems like common sense to me that people want meaning and autonomy in their lives. But in order to get through the day, a lot of people have to bury that. And I think that’s so awful. But you do that so you can survive. I’m trying to uncover that again. And to suggest to the reader that this is actually a very widespread feeling, currently and throughout history, that has never gone away.

It’s almost like I’m poking someone and trying to make them be as angry as they actually are.

Speaking of history, the way you write about automation and AI in the labor chapter felt very prescient, but also very familiar. I’m curious about this idea that “the robots are going to take our jobs,” and whether you think that’s a well-founded fear, or just something that happens every so often when new technology pops up?

I wish that we could change the phrase to “robots are going to change our jobs,” because that’s true, and it’s really important. What you’ve seen historically is that it just reorganizes the work. Emily Guendelsberger, who wrote On the Clock and was working in an Amazon warehouse, describes it really well. The warehouse floor is partially automated, but it means that the human workers have to work so much faster and harder, and there’s this sort of brutal contrast, as she puts it, between robots and algorithms that never need a day off, and the human body, where she’s collapsing on the floor. That scenario is something that you see in many different professions right now, but I think you also see it historically. So far it seems that the nature of the work that people do changes, and it often seems to get worse, or it creates a scenario where there’s someone at the very bottom doing a task that is so rote it would have been unimaginable a little while ago.

In another section of this book you talk about “productivity bros,” which is a subculture that I’ve always avoided, I think because they make me feel guilty.

That’s totally what they want.

But you have a more nuanced take on why there’s a problem with what they’re selling. Could you talk more about that?

I find that whole genre to be a really fascinating illustration of how an individual person can take these principles that are very much from an industrial context and apply them to themselves and their fitness, but also their worthiness and success in life. I researched that chapter and watched a lot of those videos after I had done the chapter that concerned factory labor and Taylorism. I was like, “These spreadsheets that they’re offering are very similar in spirit to someone trying to make a system for someone to assemble a machine faster.” The difference is that you’re doing it to yourself in this case.

When I write about Charlie Chaplin in [the film] Modern Times, the factory owner sitting in his office is the villain. He’s abusing his workers. It’s interesting that you would want to internalize that relationship in yourself where you are now rewarding and punishing yourself. It has this punitive flavor to me, which is very much related to the Protestant work ethic. You’re always working harder to be good. I never know what to make of people who really like that stuff and find it meaningful. Who am I to say it’s inauthentic? But I worry that someone who is actually seeking autonomy and purpose gets drawn to something like that and ends up in a dead end where they’re just reinforcing these ideas of the scarcity of time, and work being the thing that makes you worthy.

When I talk to friends about this book and bring up the broad strokes, or even just the title, Saving Time, people assume it’s a self-help book. What do you make of that?

I think about it similarly to How to Do Nothing, which is also a title that many people have interpreted differently. In both books I try to work towards a model of a self that exists in relationship to other selves and to things in the environment and to history. I’m advocating for this very blobby notion of an individual.

From that less individualistic perspective, there actually isn’t really such a thing as “self-help.” There’s “help,” maybe. I see it much more as asking someone to readjust the relationships that make up any person. The traditional notion of self-help is very additive or subtractive. It’s understood that an individual contains these things, and “I would like to add this to myself,” or “I would like to get rid of this,” is like a Chrome plug-in or something. I think someone who approaches the book from that perspective will probably be very frustrated, because not only does it not tell you what to add or subtract, it kind of messes with your whole notion of there being anything to add or subtract from.

In this book you write about geologic eras, the change of seasons, and how long it takes for a garden to grow. What do you think natural time offers us that clock time can’t?

It’s a really nice, concrete reminder of a concept of time that’s familiar to all of us, but you can get alienated from it if you are living a very clock-driven existence. There’s a buckeye tree that I mention in the book that acts like a sort of clock for me. It has a schedule. It’s dormant for quite a bit of the year and then there’s this very specific moment where the leaves open, and then the flowers, and it’s very uneven. I just walked past it this morning and it’s like a huge green orb now. All the leaves are out, and that happened so quickly. If I want to smell the buckeye flower, I have to be in the Bay Area at a particular time, or I will have to wait until next year. It’s a reminder of a less linear kind of time that is not interchangeable.

There’s this idea with clock time that a minute is a minute, which is very much tied to the idea that a labor hour is a labor hour, and it doesn’t matter who is doing that, when or where. It’s like currency. But when you look at time, which is basically just change in the natural world, nothing could be further from the truth. Every moment is completely different, and that aspect of time I found very helpful during the pandemic. For myself and a lot of other people, time started to seem the same—it was very deadening and undifferentiated—and being reminded of that dynamic quality of time was kind of a lifesaver.

You talked about how time was running together for a lot of us during the pandemic. Do you think the quarantine period changed how we look at time?

I would love it if I could just plug into the American id and figure out what the hell happened as a result of all that. It does seem like there was a really interesting interruption. I remember being optimistic that there was more awareness of who was still working, and the fact that for some people time felt really slow, but for anyone working in a hospital, time sort of sped up, and whether or not you had children really affected your experience of time, so there was more discussion about childcare and who does it.

Maybe it’s too early to say whether any of that will stick. On the one hand I feel like there are some things you can’t unlearn, or you can’t unsee once you’ve seen them. But I’m also thinking of the example in Saving Time where there was this study done at a company where they introduced something called “quiet time,” where you couldn’t email or talk to other people during this time. Everyone loved the experiment and they wanted to keep quiet time, but as soon as the person conducting the study left, the company basically said no, and the normal values just closed in around this little pocket that had happened. I think there was a really interesting moment of questioning, but I also don’t underestimate the pervasiveness of certain cultural values. I really don’t know.

There’s a passage in your book that reads: “To look into the future is to look around. To look around is to look into history. At not the apocalypse coming but the apocalypse past, the apocalypse still unfolding.” It suggests that if things feel dire now, they have always been that way. Do you find hope in this idea that the apocalypse is always happening?

That is definitely what I was going for, and in that chapter I’m using it specifically in the context of climate change. Earlier I describe this nightmare that I kept having about fire, during the days when the skies were red in the Bay Area. There was this feeling of a line that’s slowly advancing, sort of like, “It’s coming. It’s coming for you.”

Morbidly I find it fascinating how [climate change] is still talked about this way, like it hasn’t already arrived. It’s arrived in different ways in different places, and there are already people responding to it and things have already been changing for a long time. The reason I think that is so important is because that “It’s coming for you” mentality is really paralyzing. All you can feel in the face of that is dread. If you accept that this has been happening, it will be happening, and every day your job is to wake up and respond in a meaningful and creative way to the situation that exists, that’s a very different attitude toward time. It accepts that there are things that we can do, and things that can be saved, and new solutions we can come up with. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but the worst possible thing would be if we just gave up.

Framing it that way makes it feel active, even exciting.

Yeah, it’s not coming to destroy meaning in your life. You might actually find meaning in being alive in this particular moment, and being together with others who are also facing this moment, and facing it with agency and ingenuity.

Headshot of Jon Roth

Jon Roth is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. He’s partial to turtlenecks, he learned to embroider this year, and he can lose entire days in the right vintage store.

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