Procrastinating Ourselves to Death

Jenny Odell’s latest book asks an urgent question: What happens when our emergencies become banal?

A bedroom with fuzzed out clocks and maps and squiggles zooming around
Jon Han

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“Time to stand!”

My wrist gets a buzz. The tiny computer strapped around it lights up with a message, rendered in lilac-blue: I am sitting, the watch informs me. I shouldn’t be. The screen sends the same reminder—cheery, vaguely judgy—several times a day. Sometimes I find myself refusing to heed, in an act of petty rebellion. And some of those times, I find myself wondering, as I stay in the chair, What exactly am I defying?

Watches mark time; they also impose it. I got the “smart” version of one as a gift over the holidays, and I thought of it, at first, as a way to add some order to a stretch of time that felt out of control. I’d been sleeping badly; quantifying the badness, I thought, might be the first step toward fixing it. If I could understand the rhythms of those wayward hours—the deep sleep, the REM sleep, the stretches of enervating wakefulness—maybe I could improve the rest, and with that, my life overall. My “new watch, new you” hopes soon expanded: I kept the “Stand!” reminders and the default step-counter. I added hourly exhortations to drink water. To help things along, I bought one of those enormous water bottles that break the day down into fluid ounces (7 a.m. at the top, 10 p.m. at the bottom), treating hydration as a winnable race against time.

None of it worked. This was predictable, I know: If you are relying on a computer to tell you when to be thirsty, perhaps your problem is bigger than time management alone. So it was fitting that the reminders kept interrupting my reading of Saving Time, Jenny Odell’s exploration of Americans’ relationship with the clock. Time, in Odell’s rendering, is a systemic disorder. It is a fact of physics. It is a contingency of culture. It is political. And it is therefore vulnerable to the other forces that shape our lives: individualism, competition, the conviction that we control nature rather than the other way around. The book is ambitious, expansive, meandering, acute; it helps explain how a person, hoping to reclaim her hours and days, might come to outsource the software of her body to the hardware on her wrist. But its core interest is the collective: What does that capitulation look like, at scale? What happens when a society, addled and weary, keeps ceding its present to its future—when procrastination becomes not just an individual habit but also a collective one?

Time is a difficult subject to write about, in large part because of its status as both invention and inevitability. It lends itself to yawning adages (“Time is money”; “Time heals all wounds”; “Time is a flat circle”) that say everything and nothing at once. But Saving Time, an effusive blend of philosophy, memoir, and cultural criticism, treats those truisms as starting points rather than as conclusions: It explores how they shape our assumptions, and how those assumptions came to be. As with Odell’s previous book, the 2019 best seller How to Do Nothing, the purpose is to reveal the unstable foundations of our certitudes. (Defamiliarize is a common word, and an even more common theme, in Odell’s writing.) Questions about time—In what ways is it universal? In what ways is it subjective?—double, at base, as questions about what makes for good lives. And the clichés about it typically reveal the answers a culture has come to. Saving Time is, in that sense, a book about time that is also a book about language: the grammars and idioms that bind the world we have with the one that could be.

Take, again, “Time is money.” The wan aphorism acknowledges—and encourages—many assumptions at once. It is an outgrowth of the factory and the plantation. It is indivisible from the histories of capitalism and colonialism. Clocks, Odell reminds us, created moral hierarchies and ratified them: Europeans assumed their industrialized conception of time to be superior to everyone else’s—and then used that assumption to rationalize their other bigotries. They dismissed Indigenous understandings of time and labor as lazy, less-than, insufficiently mechanistic. They used timepieces to impose synthetic rule over their new domains: days ordered not by the tilt of the sun but by the call of the clock. In the Philippines and Mexico, Odell notes, Spanish colonists placed their subjects bajo las campanas: “under the bells.”

Today, Americans live under bells of a different sort, synchronizing our lives to the clang of silent chimes: eight-hour work shifts, 8-to-3 school days, two-day weekends. The privileged discuss “work-life balance” as both a practical goal and a Sisyphean struggle. (To find the elusive balance first requires distinguishing between “work” and “life”; the age of email and Slack and remote work makes it ever harder to determine where one ends and the other begins.) Many of those discussions elide other workers’ experience of their time on the job. Odell quotes a 2015 article detailing UPS’s second-by-second surveillance of one of its drivers: “[The sensors] reported when he opened the bulkhead door. When he backed up. When his foot was on the brake. When he was idling. When he buckled his safety belt.”

The essential ideas here—that workers’ time is not strictly their own; that the correct response to the dictum “Time is money” is “Whose time, and whose money?”—are familiar. So are the broader notions of disconnect between time as a planetary fact and time as a human construction. Many reviews of Saving Time have mentioned that familiarity, some treating it as a necessary feature of Odell’s ambitions, others framing it as evidence that the book is insufficiently new in its ideas.

A book and its reviews make for revealing dialogues. The latter argument, in particular, neatly captures one of the ways to read Saving Time: as an exploration of the restlessness that underscores so much of American culture. Our lives are driven by the desire—and then the demand—for instant gratification, not just in our goods but also in our entertainment, our news, our knowledge of the world itself. Impatience shapes our most basic expectations. This is both an old truth and a new one. Insight, given enough time, typically settles into cliché—but when news cycles last for hours instead of days, the transformation happens ever more quickly. Familiarity, thus elasticized, can breed cynicism. It can lead us, as the consumers of news, to conflate novelty with significance. It can compromise wisdom rather than generate it. “Old news,” we might scoff. There are few insults more cutting.

Saving Time is a rebuke to that restlessness. It is not merely a challenge to industrialized time; it is also—more so—a challenge to readers to resist the habits of cynicism that are so entwined with the tempos of our days. Our vernaculars of time tend to treat life’s moments as both saleable commodities and plodding inevitabilities; the contradiction leads to dissonance, yes, but also to nihilism. This is how procrastination, so often framed as an individual flaw, can become a collective failure. If time can be controlled, why worry about the future? And if it can’t be controlled, why bother to try? We carry time with us, on our wrists, on our screens, in our moral imaginations. But the ways we carry it can prevent us from feeling what this moment requires: urgency about the present, and agency over the future. Instead, too often, we feel very little at all. We allow ourselves to be lulled by the steady ticking of the clock.

Earlier this month, the organizers of the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C., announced adjusted dates for this year’s event: The blooms were blooming early. The functional problem was that the trees were disrupting the preparations that had gone into the festivities. (The only thing worse than staying too long at the party is arriving far earlier than it’s scheduled to begin.) The more salient problem, though, was that the calendar was failing to account for nature’s new rhythms. However we might try to ignore them, those rhythms will always determine the cadences of everything else.

Nature is a constant character in Odell’s writing, and climate change, the future that is happening now, hovers over the book. The droughts and floods and storms are simultaneously self-evident and unimaginable; Saving Time details how they can be both at once. The ancient Greeks, Odell notes, delineated varieties of time. Chronos—the word from which we get chronology—denotes time as a linear progression: measurable, steady, predictable. Kairos, by contrast, is time that exists in more chaotically human terms: Somewhat akin in meaning to crisis, the word suggests the form of time that cannot be distilled down to Gregorian calendars or Newtonian physics. Kairos is in play when time seems to pass especially speedily or especially slowly—when your particular experience of time’s movement belies the number on the clock.

This warm winter, with its long storms and early blossoms, has become a truism. The misalignments of the wild world with the calendar’s grid are, at this point, commonplace: You will surprise precisely nobody by observing that the unseasonable warmth feels nice until you remember what’s causing it. But the tedium is the message. It can soothe us into complacency. This week has brought yet another report, produced by a body of international experts, on how little time we have left to avert global catastrophe. (Less than a decade, the report specifies.) We know what’s coming. We do very little. We panic and shrug at the same time, awaiting the impending future. We live, Odell writes, in a “catastrophic meantime,” suspended not merely between the now and the later but also between agency and passivity. We procrastinate together; we will share the consequences.

Reading Saving Time, I kept thinking back to a New York Times article published in 2019—during the pre-COVID expanse now known as the “before times.” That article, too, argued for a recalibration of basic assumptions. Procrastination, it suggested, is not really a failure of will: “Procrastination isn’t a unique character flaw or a mysterious curse on your ability to manage time, but a way of coping with challenging emotions and negative moods induced by certain tasks—boredom, anxiety, insecurity, frustration, resentment, self-doubt and beyond.”

Those “negative moods” might be recognizable to anyone who sees the daily evidence of rising seas and whipping winds—and with it, the meager reactions. Why this lack of urgency? Procrastination can also be a matter of rogue optimism, a delay born of the hope that circumstances will be better later on. Maybe tomorrow you’ll be less tired. Maybe tomorrow your boredom/anxiety/insecurity/frustration will be quelled. Maybe fate will intervene. Those “maybe”s almost never come to pass. But they are seductive. And they mean that, as the Times article summed it up, the solution to procrastination “doesn’t involve downloading a time management app or learning new strategies for self-control. It has to do with managing our emotions in a new way.”

This is true on the group scale as well. In 2020, news sites began writing about a novel way to fail at time management: “revenge bedtime procrastination,” the act of delaying sleep in order to exert control over the final hours of one’s day. (Think: It’s bedtime, and you’re tired … but instead of sleeping, you watch a few reruns of a favorite TV show.) The term is thought to have been coined in China in the 2010s; it was popularized in the U.S. by the writer Daphne K. Lee, who described it, in a 2020 tweet, as “​​a phenomenon in which people who don’t have much control over their daytime life refuse to sleep early in order to regain some sense of freedom during late night hours.”

Articles about the trend quickly proliferated. Many of them share a narrative arc: They extol the relatability of the phenomenon. Some specify, in grave tones, the maladies associated with poor sleep, among them cardiovascular disease, diabetes, depression, and chronic pain. And very many of them conclude with a list of tips meant to solve the problem of willful insomnia: Avoid caffeine and alcohol in the evening hours. Turn off your devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime. Take a hot shower. Take melatonin. Journal. Meditate.

You might notice—as I did, because, as a newly minted insomniac, I’m now well read on approaches to sleep improvement—that these tips are the same ones you’ll receive if you’re merely trying to get better sleep. In doling out their advice, the articles commonly edit out the “revenge” aspect of things entirely. They acknowledge, but then go on to ignore, the crucial subject in Lee’s definition: “people who don’t have much control over their daytime life.”

That narrative path—the treatment of a systemic problem as, finally, a personal one—tidily encapsulates one of Odell’s points. The prescriptions treat the wrong maladies. Unsure of what else to do, we seek medical solutions for ailments of culture. We try to invent new vernaculars (“quiet quitting,” “bare-minimum Monday”) that might provide new frameworks for old problems. The efforts acknowledge the situation without getting to the root of it. In that way, they mirror the broader challenge of life in a world that is running out of time. Saving Time is a frustrating book precisely because it is an insightful one: Odell is correct. That might not be enough. Paradigms, after all, don’t shift themselves. And inertia, that stubborn adjunct of time, is a powerful force. To live on this unruly planet, in this decisive moment, is to share a ceaseless purgatory: We know what will happen, because it is already happening. The lakes are drying. The ice is melting. The winds are howling. Here we are, though, engaged in business as usual—hoping, against all reason, that the watch will remind us that it’s time to get up.

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