The Science of Time Explains Boredom and Stress, and How to Deal With Them

The key to a relaxed attitude involves controlling external demands. Stress does not follow from the quantity of work per time-unit so much as from the fact that the work is imposed -- without our being able to control it.
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Excerpted from Felt Time: The Psychology of How We Perceive Time by Marc Wittmann published last month by The MIT Press. All rights reserved.

Boredom--Agonizing Time and Self

A memory of mine from Hong Kong: on one of the picturesque mountains over which the city extends -- overlooking the bay, the sea of skyscrapers, and the forested islands -- stands a park; here, there is a simple cage, maybe five by five meters. A lone chimpanzee is the occupant, sitting on a rubber floor with nubs. I can no longer recall the details, but the cage contained few objects for the animal's entertainment. I watched the chimpanzee for a few minutes. He seemed to be lying down more than he was sitting. His fingers toyed apathetically with torn nubs, performing repetitive motions. His eyes stared listlessly at the floor. I thought I heard a sigh. I was filled with empathy, for I understood that the chimpanzee was bored.
There is always a risk of anthropomorphizing animals, that is, conferring human traits on them. However, research conducted in the last few years indicates that the chimpanzee, as a self-aware animal, is capable of feeling a kind of boredom, experiencing the passing of time in a way that approaches what human beings feel.

A human prisoner who spends his days in an overly predictable routine with monotonous surroundings feels boredom to an extreme degree. That said, for many, a Sunday afternoon can lead to a similar state. Time passes much too slowly. In a negative sense, to feel bored is to feel acutely the proximity of time that refuses to pass. Nothing is stimulating. One experiences an uncomfortable proximity to oneself but does not know what to do with oneself. Boredom involves becoming directly aware of the fact that one is trapped in time. This description brings together the perception of temporality and subjectivity. As a matter of self-regulation, the condition itself practically screams: "Do something!" Indeed, boredom often leads one to avoid or abandon activities that are boring. The only problem is that, on this sluggish Sunday afternoon, I cannot abandon myself. Even the idea of going to the movies or meeting with friends holds no appeal.

My boring Sunday afternoon makes me become aware of myself and time. Neurobiological findings and phenomenal analysis of self-consciousness suggest that the feeling of boredom correlates with pronounced activity in the anterior insular cortex. All the phenomenal factors that have a demonstrated relation to the insular cortex also occur in boredom: in general terms, physicality and emotionality, and, in particular, a heightened sense of subjectivity and temporality. To put things in the terms of the philosophical dictum above, one might say: through boredom, nature achieves wholly unpleasant self-awareness. The feeling is attended by intensified self-perception, but also by a feeling of emptiness. It is as if the object of reflection (my ego) were empty, even though subjectivity intensifies as this void is perceived.

Acceleration -- How We Can Retain Control Over the Pace of Life

If boredom means too much time, what does too little time mean? If boredom, as time that is felt, is accompanied by an intensified sense of self that proves unpleasant, then the feeling that there is not enough time should lead to a less intense experience of the self. Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), who equated time and self in his philosophy and focused on the subject of boredom in a lecture, addresses the common complaint of "having no time":

This not having any time is ultimately a greater being lost of the self than that wasting time which leaves itself time. Perhaps there lies in this having time a far greater balance and thereby security of Dasein -- a being-alongside-oneself [Bei-sich-selbst] that at least has an intimation that what is essential in Dasein cannot be forcibly brought about by any busyness or mad rush. ... The "having no time" that looks like the most rigorous seriousness is perhaps the way in which we are most lost in the banalities of Dasein.

In essence, this means that if one has no time, one has also lost oneself. Distracted by the obligations of everyday activities, we are no longer aware of ourselves. If we rush from one thing to another and don't miss a single event scheduled for our free time, we will accumulate many experiences. Yet if we never allow ourselves to calm down but always set out immediately for the next activity, the danger emerges that we will lose ourselves senselessly in a mad rush. In keeping with the philosophical reflections offered above, this means: no time, no self. Most recently, this topic -- as well as the issue of a "time crisis" -- has been discussed in the context of society and technology; see, especially, Social Acceleration by the sociologist Hartmut Rosa.

...through boredom, nature achieves wholly unpleasant self-awareness.

According to Rosa, the ubiquitous acceleration of processes represents a fundamental principle in our society that the individual cannot escape. First and foremost, there is technological acceleration. Prime examples include washing machines and dishwashers -- devices that should actually relieve people of temporal burdens. Likewise, instead of voyages taking days or weeks -- as was still the case in the mid-nineteenth century -- modern means of transportation have shortened travel time to anywhere in the world to a matter of hours. But the situation proves paradoxical. All this time gained does not result in the feeling that we have more time. On the contrary, the universal lament is that we "have no time." This is surely the result of technological advances that enable us to undertake more and more activities per day; the time we've freed up is filled with even more activities and deadlines.

In addition to technological acceleration, the pace of life is speeding up. Tasks must be performed within certain periods of time. The sentiment voiced on all sides, however, is that these periods are getting shorter and shorter. The universally expressed feeling is that the segments of time demanded are becoming shorter. Pressure is mounting. It is difficult to relax during coffee breaks at the office if work will only resume at a breakneck pace. Accordingly, the break often gets cut short so that we have more time to attend to various duties that remain unmet. You feel you are constantly under pressure to get things done quickly. More still, expectations change through technological acceleration. It used to be that I would answer letters after a few days -- if not weeks. Today, email demands a response within minutes, or at very least on the same day.

A corollary of accelerated cycles of life is the sheer abundance of information available all at once -- as well as the array of options for activity that this entails. We might be able to do more and more things simultaneously, but nothing gets done properly. While we prepare a meal, the television demands our attention; we dash off our emails during phone conversations. Activities are switched into parallel mode. The simultaneity of activities results in inadequate processing depth.

Critical views of modern society describe a broad conceptual arc. They begin, on one end, with philosophical analyses of temporality and the self. They end with diagnoses of social conditions. Critics of acceleration maintain that accelerating patterns of life are the reason for a commonly voiced sense of unease -- the feeling that one is not "really" living. Everything is done all at once, faster and faster, yet no personal balance or meaning can be found. This implies the loss of contact with one's own self. We also no longer feel "at home" with ourselves and find it difficult to persist in any given activity because we are available at every moment; the phone always rings at the worst possible time.

In view of this diagnosis, it is certainly not a mistake to try to relax one's relationship with the culture of acceleration. At any rate, this is preferable to falling prey to frenzied activity yet again and then booking an expensive meditation retreat! Chapter 3 discussed a possibility for acquiring mindfulness: living in the moment. Small changes in the attention we pay to what is happening to us offer the key to having a sense of control over patterns and cycles in everyday work routines. My point is hardly to offer an instruction manual for how to use one's time; suffice it to say that time-management is, in essence, and contrary to suggestions of many books on time-management, making wise use of oneself and one's feelings. Work to be done as quickly as possible, which seems like a mountain, sometimes shrinks, upon closer inspection, to a hill that is easier to climb -- if we recognize that our emotionally colored associations are the real burden. Might it be my coworker -- and not the difficulty or quantity of work -- that makes me uneasy about tomorrow's deadline? The strong discrepancy we feel between an unpleasant situation anticipated tomorrow and relatively relaxed circumstances now is what creates the sense of temporal overload. Our imagination -- not just reality -- can also make us feel pressed for time. Like the social inhibitions most people experience when they go to a party where they do not know anyone, feeling pressed for time professionally often breaks down into emotionally charged ideas about the work to be done.

... time-management is, in essence, and contrary to suggestions of many books on time-management, making wise use of oneself and one's feelings.

One can train oneself in mindfulness to experience the moment more intensively and learn the real reason for emotional reactions and automatic thoughts. Via the feeling of emotional self-control, we can achieve a sense of "deceleration." The process is similar to learning a foreign language: at the beginning of our studies, when we hear the language spoken by native speakers, it seems terribly fast. Later, as our competency increases, the tempo we perceive lessens considerably. An increased feeling of control when dealing with the demands of a situation can slow down the perceived tempo of processes.

Fundamentally, the key to a relaxed attitude involves controlling external demands. Stress does not follow from the quantity of work per time-unit so much as from the fact that the work is imposed -- without our being able to control it. This is evident, for example, in the fact that work-related stress is experienced more acutely the lower one stands in the professional hierarchy. Even though the amount of work and demands on time tend to increase the higher the position held, physical and psychological stress reactions decrease the more one ascends professionally. This is because, at lower levels in the hierarchy, the work is more often imposed by others. It is easier for the boss to divide his time according to the motto of organizational psychology: "One thing at a time." In contrast, a secretary, although still busy completing an earlier assignment, will often be given a new job to do right away. The situation is only worsened when people in leadership positions display deficient social skills; this entails an additional emotional charge to the way the work tempo is perceived.

At the risk of seeming to provide a how-to manual on gaining control over the pace of one's life, I offer a few tips. A little "timeout": a necessity for smokers -- stopping work every now and then for a cigarette outside -- should be taken advantage of by nonsmokers. For a few minutes, one can escape the hamster wheel of contacting clients, making calls, reading and answering email, and working on spreadsheets. Take a deep breath; let thoughts come and go. Ritualized pauses during the day's business help one regain one's bearing. Breaks can also function as a latency period for thinking. The best ideas always come when one is not thinking about the problem directly. Breaks offer a pause for reflecting in the back of one's mind. It just might become clear what one's real priorities should be. All of a sudden, the hulking mass of work becomes manageable.

Business people sometimes speak about how, on their frequent travels, they wake up in the morning and do not know which city they are in. Thanks to airplanes, it takes only a few hours to arrive anywhere on the globe. Then, after a day or two, another trip leads somewhere entirely different. Leaving from London, after a mere ten hours, one finds oneself beyond the Great Wall, headed toward Beijing -- a veritable technological wonder of speed. Still, this leaves ten hours for the traveler to adjust to a new world. One need not watch the mediocre film on the tiny onboard screen; this time may be spent intensively studying the culture at one's destination. Likewise, traveling from Philadelphia to Boston leaves plenty of time to focus on the journey and the destination: a chance to concentrate.

Another load factor is the temporal overlapping that occurs between work and free time. Magazines often report that the separation between professional obligations and free time no longer holds for creative and independent people. This circumstance does not necessarily seem taxing (at least for a while), since it entails self-determination, and every working minute can mean more recognition and money. However, for those of us with fixed schedules and pay, it is healthier to switch off the business phone when the working day is done and to read professional emails only at work. At home, with work over and done, what reason is there -- once the children have been put to bed -- not to spend an hour, every evening, doing x? X might stand for whatever holds personal interest: reading Proust's In Search of Lost Time, spending time on a collection of interesting objects, taking a nighttime stroll on one's own or with one's partner. Do one thing, with full attention, for an hour a day. Or just spend fifteen minutes sitting on the sofa and don't do anything for a change: How's my posture? Does anything hurt? How do I feel? We can give free rein to fantasy and observe how we may come to terms with the acceleration of the world that we experience.

Of course, overly strict instructions for managing time may be counterproductive. They might wind up setting a course for everyday life that exerts too much pressure ("Now I just need to relax quickly and concentrate before I get the laundry"). A relaxed attitude toward life's demands does not begin from one day to the next. It might even turn out that a weekend retreat devoted to meditation, wellness, and gastronomy stands in the way of acquiring a different outlook on the rhythm of life. After all, the aim is to survive the reality of the everyday work environment. The learning process can succeed only in small steps: "learning by doing" in a relaxed manner.

We profit from the conveniences that more efficient and rapid cycles entail: a book can be picked up at the store mere hours after we order it; government forms can be filled out online while seated comfortably on the sofa; doctors on call are only minutes away. These are the advantages that technological and organizational acceleration affords. At any rate, it surely is the case that we cannot simply withdraw from the social pace of life. If we "disconnect" from everyday routine and take a week's vacation, 143 emails have piled up in the inbox when we return. We cannot change the speed of operations in our society. Nor can we change the number of new assignments the boss hands us. However, we can learn to deal with potential stressors. Negative stress reactions needn't result. The point is to feel that we are in control of the demands we face. Technology and social patterns offer opportunities for us to shape our lives autonomously. At the same time, they pose the risk that we will simply be dragged along by the accelerated tempo and burn out. In many fields today, a professional skill that is implicitly required is subjective control of the accelerated speed of life and work. If we manage to stay in control, we can find time for other things -- and for ourselves.

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