When I was working with Timeful -- the productivity app co-founded by behavioral scientist and Love Your Work guest, Dan Ariely -- we had a great feature. You could put todo items on your calendar.
You could estimate how long a todo item was going to take, and then you could drag that todo item onto your calendar. It would be right there on the timeline, along with any other events you had planned for the day.
This todo-items-on-calendar thing was a handy feature. It makes sense, really. Too many of us have a todo list a mile long. We know what we intend to do, but we have no idea when we’ll actually do those things.
When Timeful built this feature, and I finally got to use it regularly, I made a discovery. We’re really bad at estimating time. It shouldn’t have been a surprise. Our vision is distorted by our “time worship.”
Our perception of time is warped My own faulty time estimates went both ways. I might think it would take me less than fifteen minutes to respond to an email. I’d be shocked to discover that it took half an hour. I might think it would take an hour to draft a blog post, and I’d be pleasantly surprised to see I could do it in only ten minutes.
Instinctively, we know that our perception of time is warped. We know the saying that “time flies when we’re having fun.” Our perception of time changes. It changes according to our mood, our personality, or the number of events that happen within a certain amount of time.
But if our perception of time is so warped, why is time so important to us? Why do we treat time as if it’s the only thing that matters? Why do we practice “time worship?”
The way we measure time is arbitrary It turns out, the way we measure time is pretty arbitrary. There’s nothing in the natural world that says that we should divide our days up by twenty-four hours, with sixty minutes in each of those hours, with sixty seconds in each of those minutes.
Our heart may beat about sixty times a minute, but if we’re exercising, it could be 160 times a minute. We breathe about fourteen times a minute, but if we’re running, it might be forty times a minute.
Aside from the rotation of the earth and the earth’s revolutions around the sun, there’s nothing about the natural world that says we need to measure the time the way we do.
Dividing the day up into twenty-four hours, sixty minutes an hour, sixty seconds a minute -- that’s leftover from a 4,000-year-old Babylonian numbering system.
And hours weren’t even originally a fixed length of time! Back in the days of sundials, hours were relative to the amount of daylight in the day. Hours in one season were shorter than hours in another season.
It wasn’t even until the late 16^th^ century that there was a mechanical clock that kept track of sixty minutes in an hour. To measure seconds, we had to wait until a century later -- the 17^th^ century.
Even the earth’s rotations are unreliable Yet even with this mechanical precision, the way we measure time doesn’t totally match up with the natural world. In an atomic clock, 9,192,631,770 cycles of radiation in the caesium-133 atom represents one second. The atomic clock uses this atom’s radiation to keep time, because it’s one of the most reproducible and stable things in all of nature. Certainly more reliable than grains of sand falling through an hourglass, or even the vibrations of a quartz crystal.
But still, even with the help of one of the most reproducible and stable things in all of nature, the atomic clock is not perfect. We still have to add an extra second -- a “leap second” -- to our measurement of time. We add a leap second eight times a decade.
It’s hard to match mechanical or even atomic precision to time, in part, because even the thing that time is based upon isn’t perfect. There are tiny, portions of a millisecond, difference