Ask any schoolchild how many hours are in a day and the response—24—will come quick and easy. But ask Jenny Odell, an artist and writer based in Oakland, California, and she may have a different answer.
As Odell sees it, time is “stretchy.” While the atomically calibrated clocks that regulate human civilization tick steadily forward, our own temporal experience follows a personalized cadence: It slows down in some moments, speeds by in others. When we lose touch with this rhythm, Odell argues, time slips from our grasp, leaving us with a persistent feeling that we’ll never have enough of it.
Odell’s best-selling 2019 book, How to Do Nothing, urged people to reclaim their attention from extractive tech corporations. Her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, examines the similarly pressing contemporary problem of time scarcity. In an era marked by collective exhaustion and skepticism about traditional work structures, Odell invites her readers to imagine what making good use of their time might look like—and how “good” can mean something other than “productive.” Once we stop accounting for our time like currency, she promises, it will become inexhaustible.
One piece of advice you offer in Saving Time is: “Experiment with being mediocre.” What do you mean by that?
I’m addressing a reader who might feel like a perfectionist in arenas of life where it’s not actually necessary in order to have a meaningful life. There are cases in which you’re trying to live up to standards that aren’t yours, or aren’t helping you feel alive in the world. So actually, you’re just punishing yourself. If you feel like you are an overambitious, perfectionist, anxiety-ridden person who is working yourself to death, try adjusting the goalposts a little bit. Then, I’d suggest that you think about goals entirely differently. Maybe it’s not about goalposts anymore, it’s about meaningful encounters. Which is a goal in a way, but not something that you could optimize for or punish yourself for not achieving.
I think most readers of this book will find your skepticism of productivity culture intuitively sensible. But trying to scale back the demands on one’s time or opt out entirely can feel quite difficult, even impossible. What would you say to someone who has a demanding job or childcare needs?
There’s a difference between somebody who doesn’t have time because they are not in control of their time in a literal way—you are on someone else’s schedule; you can only afford to live x number of miles from the place where you work, so the commute is nonnegotiable—and someone who feels like they have to do stuff. This pressure can feel very real. It feels external to you. I know, because I felt it. There is a cost to not doing it—but it’s a social cost, or the cost is not as straightforward.
Between these two people there’s a gray area. For example, an adjunct arts professor is technically self-employed, but in order to continue to be employed, you have to appear like a very productive artist. The distinction is not always a clear one, and the same person can go from one category to the other. But it’s an important distinction to make, because it can be frustrating for someone in the first situation to see people in the second situation complain about not having time.
It’s also important because the solutions are different. If your problem truly is that you 100 percent internalize the hustle, then maybe you need to do some thinking, you need to have some conversations, some personal reckonings. But if you are someone who has no control over your time, you need to join up with others, because you alone don’t have any power in the situation. It’s the movement from feeling guilty and responsible for your own time scarcity to understanding that you are not responsible and the game is rigged against you.
Can there be solutions to overwork on a policy level? Some companies have recently begun instituting four-day work weeks, and in Belgium, Scotland, and Iceland, governments have trialed this nationally.
I could see a four-day work week being really helpful for some people in terms of how they organize their time, but I could also imagine a scenario in which the work overall gets intensified. One thing that I came away with after writing this book was that one’s experience of time is playing out in a network of other people’s time. Someone might feel their time impinged upon by their boss’s time, or a mother by her family’s time. Sometimes when we say we want more time, we do need two more hours in a day. But sometimes we just want more control over how our time feels. If the number of work hours gets reduced but people end up having less control or having a more intense work experience, that’s not necessarily a net gain.
You describe Saving Time as an alternative to unhelpful self-help books that peddle personal time-management strategies. How do these books damage the way people view their time?
The idea a lot of those books operate on is that everyone has 24 hours in the day. That’s the thing that does the damage—and it’s insulting. What about employment? What about your work schedule, your kids, your commute? Even psychologically, we don’t experience time that way. Every minute is not equal. But this idea is still very pervasive. It’s an amazingly contextless statement.
So what’s your essential advice for how to see time differently?
Try to see outside the concept that time is money. And then, try to see outside the concept that you have your time and I have my time, and they have nothing to do with each other except on the market.
Can you break down the assumptions behind “time is money”? In your book, you call this fungible time, as opposed to nonfungible time, which I found to be a useful distinction.
Fungible time is uniform, standardized, and interchangeable. It is the lingua franca now. It’s what we use to coordinate our activities. It’s the temporal order that we all live in. When you live in a society that speaks the language of fungible time, it’s very difficult to try to think about time as not being fungible. It’s not easily done away with.
But when you do look into the history of time, you realize how culturally specific it is. It is the history of colonialism and industrialism. In Accounting for Slavery, Caitlin Rosenthal talks about the spreadsheets—the accounting books—used on plantations. This is one of the earliest examples of the concept of a man-hour, a labor hour. And that concept is inseparable from the question of why anyone was measuring labor hours in the first place.
What is nonfungible time?
I experience nonfungible time—which in reality, all time is—whenever I’m aware of how one moment is different from the next. This is the way time works in the body. The experience of illness or injury and then of healing is a good example, something I was reminded of when I had Covid recently. Or watching my friends’ children learn how to speak. I think anyone who gardens knows nonfungible time very well. There is a sense of timing, as in needing to do things at certain times, but you can’t brute-force things in a standardizable way. You have to remain attentive to what the plants are doing on any particular day.
How did we arrive at the present moment of obsession with productivity and self-optimization?
First, I want to say that someone whose productivity is being measured on the job or someone who is self-employed might appear to be obsessed, but it’s because they need to be. Some of that is coercion, or the way that the workplace is designed. Some of it is wanting to stay afloat or make a better living. So it’s complicated.
I would say our overall fixation on productivity has roots in the Protestant work ethic, where work was a moral equation: You are not a good person if you are not busy all the time. You’re not even really supposed to spend the money that you make. In the US, there was an early-20th-century obsession with applying Taylorism—a scientific method for increasing productivity—to things outside the factory. Even to bodies, which dovetailed with eugenics. It was an obsession with perfecting a machine to certain standards. This idea is still very much with us.
How do you see readers using your book to push against this idea?
I’m trying to offer something like a birdwatching guidebook. I have the Sibley Birds West field guide, and it tells me what birds I might see and helpful ways to recognize them. Someday I won’t need that guidebook anymore—but if I went to a new place I would need it. The guidebook format gives a shared vocabulary, so you can talk about the things you’re seeing with other people.
I really respect the type of book that takes something that feels pathological to an individual, or like a personal shortcoming, and puts it in a broader context. And in that broader context are other people who have the same feeling.
And these feelings aren’t new. For example, your book cites the hippie movement of the ’60s as a big cultural push to opt out. But it didn’t last. Do you see the current conditions as more fruitful for people to opt out and make it stick?
Every generation has people who exist at odds with cultural assumptions. It doesn’t always leave lasting effects on policy, but if you look in art and culture, it’s there.
One of the things I’m trying to do is connect all those previous iterations of this same feeling, this desire for a meaningful life and a sense of autonomy. My students could pick up Processed World, a magazine I love from the ’80s and ’90s, and recognize everything in it—the humor, the sarcasm as a response to this stultifying culture. They would recognize themselves in it.
I want to help that message get through so that someone now who is having those feelings realizes that they’re not alone. They’re not alone in the present. They’re also not alone in history.
Over the time that you taught digital art at Stanford, I wonder if you noticed a trend in how your students were talking about their time.
I taught from 2013 to 2021, and over that period of time there was definitely more conversation about burnout and mental health. There were students who gravitated toward an entrepreneurial mindset—sleep at your desk, work is your passion—and others who totally rejected that. Certainly the rejection of those values is something that was talked about more in the last years of my teaching, because certain things were starting to seem so unsustainable.
Did you write Saving Time primarily for the younger generation?
I certainly was thinking about my students in the chapter about climate dread and not being able to imagine a future. But there’s also a chapter about mortality and aging. I actually don’t think that concerns in life are as specific to generations as we make them out to be.
Yes, generations are a scam.
They are, and we should see them that way. I really strongly believe that. I’m very fortunate to be good friends with a handful of people in their seventies. They have more experiences than I do, and they certainly have a different perspective, but on the important things about what we want out of life, we’re aligned. At the same time, I will meet up with a former student, and we are also aligned.
I’m curious about how you personally avoid falling into a productivity mindset. You’ve published two books in four years, so how do you apply your advice to yourself?
If you’re not thinking of time as money, the other thing that you could be trying to find is meaning. That’s ultimately what I want out of life. There is meaning in writing a book, and I’ve had really meaningful interactions with readers and people I’ve met through doing this. But I’m always cognizant that it is not the only source of meaning for me. I try to really keep my focus on that because it can so easily tip over into wanting to start to optimize for exposure or for clout. Which is something that social media really encourages, where you start to forget why you did it in the first place.
Right now I’m doing Duolingo to learn Spanish. It’s an app designed with a leaderboard and performance leagues. I used to think that I needed to be in the top three. I don’t know where I got that idea. Why? Why top three? Why not top five? After a while, I thought: I want to learn Spanish, that is the goal, and this goal within that goal is arbitrary. It’s just something built into the app. It’s very effective for learning the language, but it doesn’t mean anything for me to be in the top three. Now I’m no longer in the top three.
You encourage people to try to change the language they use to talk about time. How have you changed your own language?
I’ve been redefining terms that we have a very fixed definition of. I once went on a walk several hours long with John Shoptaw, who’s a poet. When we got back to the bus stop he said, “I think that all of that was one moment.” You normally think of a moment as being something very short. But what does a moment actually mean? How long can it be? What if you organize your day by moments, instead of minutes?
Although that does feel like social media language.
I know. I kind of hated it as soon as I said it. But maybe that’s why it’s hard to answer that question. Because I really hate when something that should be diffuse and personally interpreted becomes a thing on social media. It’s so alienating.
On the WIRED Slack recently, we were talking about journaling and how there’s a kind of Instagram girl who journals every day. It’s called morning pages—
The morning pages, yes.
It’s supposed to be mindful. But then it becomes just another thing on the to-do list. Do you journal?
Yeah, I do. But I don’t do the morning pages. And that is a perfect example of how something that should be personally interpreted becomes a thing. Now suddenly, it’s about measuring up to something or meeting a quantitative output or checking all the boxes. OK, but why did you want to do this in the first place? Is there a different way to get at that feeling you were looking for? I write in a journal in an unsystematic way: The frequency and the types of things that I write down have changed at different points in my life to suit whatever it was that I needed at that time.
You’ve always said you’re not anti-tech. Do you have a favorite piece of technology?
I have a very broad definition of technology. I consider my glasses to be technology, I consider bicycles to be technology. Anything that is an extension of human abilities to me is a technology.
With that definition, my favorite piece of technology is my jeweler’s loupe. It’s a 10X magnifying lens that fits in your pocket. You could get a macro lens and put it on your phone, and it would pretty much be the same thing. It gives you more access to the physical world. I encourage really trying to observe things closely and realize that time is being inscribed into those things, not just into you.
What do you think of the Silicon Valley life extension project? Part of the goal there is to remain productive for longer, with the assumption that this is what leaves a bigger impact on humanity and a greater personal legacy.
On the one hand, I can’t imagine anything more natural than for humans to want to extend their lives. On the other hand, I think the risk is that someone would come to see their life as one more resource that needs to be maximized. Barbara Ehrenreich identified this in her book Natural Causes. You’d spend so much time trying to make more of your life that you wouldn’t think as much about what it was all for.
The point isn’t to live more but to be more alive in any given moment. By “more alive,” I mean more attentive to other forms of life, human and nonhuman, with an attitude of mutual regard rather than control and optimization.
As a digital artist, what do you think of generative AI like DALL-E?
In my classes at Stanford I would talk with my students about moments in history when there was a lot of anxiety around the loss of an artist’s primary contact with a piece, and then also other people embracing that loss. In the early 20th century, the Dadaist artists were making readymades, where the art was no longer about the paintbrush, but about the arrangement and the decisions that were made. And painting didn’t go away, either.
You’re saying that in the history of art this isn’t totally new.
The questions that it brings up about art and authorship are not necessarily new. And a lot can be gained by going back and looking at how people talked about it then. The painter David Hockney once said that he preferred painting to photography because the painting contained the amount of time that the painter put into it. Somehow the viewer is getting that sense of time from the painting. And I saw an interesting comment from someone who said that time is a big difference between a human painting and an AI painting. Even if the two may look similar, the knowledge of the human time that was invested into the painting might make you perceive it differently.
It’s like when you see an old-growth redwood. You know how much time it took for that tree to grow. You don’t just walk past that tree.
This interview has been edited and condensed from multiple conversations.
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