Time Crimes

I’ve been thinking a lot about my mortality recently.

Since reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, I’ve become convinced that life is a one-shot game. Once you die, the curtain drops.

This has made me increasingly aware of a number of things: my health, and investing time in family and friends, and traveling, to name a few.

What I’ve become most acutely aware of is where my time is going.

Even at 23 it feels like it’s running out. I know I’ll die, but I don’t know when. I hope there’s a Heaven, but can’t be sure. Only right now is guaranteed.

Same goes for others. One day they’ll be dead in the ground. That could be tomorrow. What if I waste an hour of their time today? If in their last 24 hours, I rob their precious time?

I believe our values on this topic are off the mark. If I stole an expensive vase from a friend’s house, I’d be a thief (and a bad friend). They could rightfully tell our mutual friends to watch out. But if I’m half an hour late to dinner and left my friends waiting, why are they expected to be understanding? In our last moments, there’s nothing we’ll want more than more time. Why can’t we be livid if it’s being robbed from us right now?

Every company that puts you on hold for an hour has sinned. Your friends who cancelled at the last minute. The lecturer who didn’t prepare but made a hundred students sit through it anyway. The city planners who did a shit job, condemning thousands to hours in a traffic jam.

I’m guilty of wasting peoples’ time, and I’m scared to know what my debt to others is. I’m trying to be better about it now.

Wasted time seems to be especially prevalent in the workplace: having unnecessary meetings, sending a pointless email reply, or speaking up just to have spoken.

Consider a meeting of ten people. You haven’t spoken and you want to make an impression, so you make a quick, three-minute comment. The real cost is actually a 30-minutes (3 minutes x 10 people). Is what you’re saying worth 30 minutes of human life? It could be, but it’s good to check.

The “people multiplier” is an interesting way to think about this. The impact of wasted time on the individual is huge; as far as we know, you only get to experience life once. But at a macro level it’s terrible too. Imagine the countless things never invented, the songs and books never written, and the economic productivity lost due to people being robbed of their time. Other peoples’ wasted time affects you as well.

I foresee a couple of potential reactions to this.

  1. “Are you and your time so important?” Yes, and yours is too.
  2. “Do you think idle time is bad? Do you need to fill up every moment?” Idle time is incredibly valuable and you don’t need to fill up every moment. Wasting someone’s time is different; they’re depriving you of the option of how to spend your time. You can’t pick to be idle or to be busy.
  3. “What if someone is accidentally late?” That’s fine to a degree. If there was an accident on the highway that set you back, that’s not your fault. I’m not suggesting we be selfish and condescending. But if someone is chronically late, deliberate or not, that’s worth taking into consideration.

All of this is to say we should be more respectful of our time and others’. Don’t be a thief or a victim. How that manifests for each of us will differ: it could range from sticking to your commitments to others to shortening your commute.