Author Jenny Odell’s surprise bestseller, 2019’s How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, was a meditation on our age of distraction and a road map for how we can reclaim our focus. For her next book Odell decided to take on time itself—how we measure it, how we are driven by it, how we can liberate ourselves from the feeling of being perpetually on the clock.
Then came the pandemic. If you were stranded at home, time could stretch to near infinity; if you were working triage in an emergency room, days and nights could pass in an exhausted haze. Odell wanted to examine time up, down, and sideways, and the pandemic “definitely provided that opportunity,” she remembers, as she watched friends and acquaintances struggle with a radically altered sense of time. She set out on a journey through the science, psychology, philosophy, and history of time, both human and geological, with side trips through social justice and our imperiled environment. Her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock (Random House, March 7), is the result. Odell, a 36-year-old Oakland, California, resident, answered questions by telephone about how she wrote her ambitious book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
One thing you highlight in Saving Time is our obsession with using every minute of our waking hours. You appear to be a pretty high functioning person—do you feel that pressure, and how do you deal with it?
It’s hard to live in this time and culture and not feel it. It does help me to be aware of it—sometimes the things that have the most power over you are the things you can’t see.
I think the idea that you should individually accrue value to yourself and learn to do everything by yourself obscures other channels where we could lean on each other for things that we are good at collectively. Everyone doesn’t have to be good at everything.
Another belief that drives many of us is that time is made up of discrete units that we have to use to maximal advantage. You encourage thinking of time in a different way, and one analogy you use is time as a lava flow. Can you explain that?
I think of lava because the edge of a lava flow, like the type they have in Hawaii, is always active. You can look back and see the path the lava has taken, but that doesn’t mean you know what’s going to happen next. For me it suggests that everything that exists has a story, and the story continues into the present in ways that are not necessarily predictable.
Many people these days feel a sense of impending doom as they look at the dangers we face and worry that we might be running out of time, especially when it comes to climate change. You use the word declinism to discuss that mindset. Explain what that is and why that can warp our point of view.
I encountered that perspective a lot with my students when I was teaching at Stanford—I mentioned in the book that some of their art projects had that flavor. Declinism thrives on the idea that either everything is going to be totally OK, or everything is going to be irreversibly destroyed.
The truth is that there are a lot of shades in between those extremes. There are things we know are going to happen and that are going to be lost, and there is obviously a need to grieve that, but it’s also true that there is room left for us to decide how things are going to be. Getting overfixated on that first part makes it hard to see the room that we do have left.
Every moment, someone makes a new decision, a new person is born, things change. I think that keeping that dynamic quality of time in mind is really helpful for not thinking in too deterministic of a way.
Another term you introduce is chronophage, a word for something that eats time. I think we all know that social media has a huge appetite for time. What advice do you have for people trying to wean themselves off Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok?
When I used that term I was quoting Richard Seymour, author of The Twittering Machine. I don’t know if I have advice, but I speak from experience: It’s important that even when you are in the grips of social media you acknowledge that it’s not an optimal amount of engagement for you. You acknowledge that I do need to know about this, but I don’t need to know about this at this rate.
I have found that most of my friends are relatively plugged-in people, and I find out about things anyway. There’s some kind of trust that you have to cultivate, that if you check in slightly less often, eventually you will find out about it through other channels. You are going to get the information, maybe just not in the same way that you’re used to.
I think there’s a lot of uncertainty that underlies the compulsion to keep checking in.
Yes, and keep in mind that it doesn’t generally make you feel more secure, which I think is a lot of what you are looking for. I feel that way sometimes about loneliness and social media—there’s something that’s driving you to use that platform, and then you use it, and it just exacerbates that feeling instead of making it go away.
What are your hopes for how readers will approach this book?
The biggest hope is that someone would read it and then they would go back to their daily lives and things would appear different in a very concrete way. So, maybe the way you think about time is different, maybe you’re noticing how time shows up in the world differently, and maybe it’s easier to think about the future. Because right now it’s really hard to think about the future.
I was thinking recently about this experience I had when I was in the sixth grade. I went to a science camp, and the camp leaders had taken a part of a trail and made little prompts along it, cards hanging from a tree or something, and they had us each go down the trail alone, one at a time. The prompts were pretty short, like “turn around and look at the view.” That made such an impression on me as a kid. I think that’s what I’m trying to do. Like, I wrote the cards, and I put them in the places, but ultimately it’s about the person’s individual experience and what they see when they are given those prompts.
Mary Ann Gwinn is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist in Seattle.