long . lines and ripples

The Value of Unmeasured Time

I can't have a thought about time without the accompanying idea that it should be measured. Time comes to me already in units, pre-measured. In my respectable life that is the only way I know it. The amount of time available in my own life, even a whole lifetime, still seems short when I state it in years.

Time shortens further in the amounts that structure ordinary life. The week, the day, the hour. The smaller the block of time, the more zealous my measurement of it becomes. The more time fills with tasks, the shorter it becomes. What can you do in five minutes? Buy something online while cleaning the bathroom while watching youtube while finishing some work while…?

And yet, time still comes unmeasured. The middle of the night, hours before I am supposed to wake up but sleep doesn't come, so I am just there, awake. The stretch of time that opens up after a long ordeal, wide open with possibility. Time can still come like that.

The present moment is busy. Or, there is greater value attached to being busy. But what thoughts can be thought, what can one do, in the temporary absence of time pressure? Let's call it "open" time: time that isn't differentiated, directed, managed.

New layers of transience. Given even a short stretch of open time, new subtleties call for my attention. The blowing, twisting leaves become a draw; the shifting canopy of a tree becomes an overwhelming event. The wind shifts from a backdrop to a collection of individual effects.

Effort without the urge to completion. Start reading a long book-what the hell-multiple volumes of an epic series, without any expectation of finishing it. Walk out the door without arriving anywhere, just to "take a walk." Open up a new document and write what you are thinking, only for yourself.

Escapism. The common form of open time is wasted time. We waste time because there is a certain pleasure in consuming it. Now, that can mean an experience on a screen. Distraction is where the mind goes to temporarily escape from measured time. Distraction is now so much of life because it promises us, first, an escape from the tyranny of measured time, and second, that it will only be "a moment." The distraction of the moment is now an ocean, which drains little pools of well-structured attention (work, school) that have become the justification for who we are.

The chance to think. Unmeasured time is still the ultimate space of potential. Good things happen given guardrails, limits and discipline. But impossible things happen, given the chance to wander in open time. Not all of them will translate back into the expectations of the managed world, but I have become convinced that a precondition of feeling like one has used one's time well is the right to consume it, even to waste it.