Our Unnatural Relationship to Time

dreamstime_m_9100841I can think of no profession more enslaved by time than lawyers.  We track and record every 6 minutes of our workday.  We divide those 6 minute increments into billable and non-billable time.  We are conditioned to value the former over the later.  We judge our self worth by the number of billable hours in our column at the end of the year, and we are made to feel ashamed if we spend too much time on non-billable activities—such as mentoring young lawyers or taking  vacations.

The sad thing is we accept this as the way things are supposed to be.

In a profession like ours, it might be helpful to remind ourselves that this way of operating in the world is very unnatural and actually more than a little bit insane.

Time itself—this thing that so controls our lives—is actually our invention. For thousands of years people lived in a world where there was no such thing as 10:15 a.m. or 3:30 p.m.  There was the sun and there were the seasons, and that was enough.  People got up when the sun came up.  Ate when they were hungry.  And went to bed when the sun went down.

All of that changed in the mid 17th century when a few cogs and a ruler were attached to a balanced spring, and the modern clock was born.  Suddenly time was uniform and could be measured with precision.  In short, time became mechanical.  This wasn’t altogether a bad thing, as this technology changed the world.  (Some have argued that the ability to measure time in more accurate and uniform ways was the primary driver of Western economic development).

But when we put clocks in our homes and we began to wear time pieces on our wrists, this mechanization of time began to change us psychologically. Time wasn’t fluid anymore.  With the mechanical timepiece, time was changed into uniform, equally spaced moments. And if time could be broken up and measured in this way, so could we.  We became mechanized.  Now we don’t eat when we’re hungry.  We eat when it’s time to eat.  We don’t sleep when we’re tired, we sleep when it’s time to sleep. We have become a little less human and a little more like machines.

Fast forward a few centuries.  The legal profession has become one of the consummate measurers of time.  On top of that, we make value judgments about how that time is spent. Billable hours are good.  Non-billable hours are bad.  The associate who works through the weekend is the rising star. Leaving work at 5:30 to make it home for dinner with your family ensures you’ll never be made partner.

For lawyers time is not only quantifiable, it is also value laden.  As such, it is something we don’t have enough of.  How many times do we say to ourselves (or others) “I don’t have time for that”?

To understand how that phrase alters one’s perspective of life (and to understand just how unnatural is our relationship to time) try this exercise.  For an entire day, eliminate the phrase “I don’t have time for that” from your vocabulary.  And replace it with, “That’s not a priority.”  Instead of saying, “I don’t have time to work out” say “Exercise is not a priority.”  Instead of “I don’t have time to help my associate develop her practice” say “Mentoring my associate is not a priority.” Instead of “I don’t have time to have dinner with my family” say “Having dinner with my family is not a priority.”

Ouch. That will get near to the knuckle in a hurry.

One writer has suggested that stress is merely a perverted relationship with time.  If that’s true, it’s not surprising that we lead all professions in suffering from disorders associated with chronic stress.

I’d say, it’s time for a change…time we did a little less measuring, a little less judging and a lot more living.

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