Is Time Working for or Against You?

You are standing at the foot of the mountain. We are all always at the foot. The speed of light is the foot of a mountain; the three dimensions of space are a foot of a mountain. You are imprisoned in the deep gorge of light-speed and three-dimensional space. Does it not feel… cramped?

– Liu Cixin, Mountain

If you have a deadline a week from now, there is always some impending sense of dread.

Were you to sleep through an alarm, or stay out late with friends, those are hours wasted. Time is working against you, and every hour you don’t make progress is an hour you’ll never retrieve. In fact, even if you do make progress, if it’s not at the pace required to achieve your goals within the allotted time, you are still falling behind.

For many of us, this is the norm, and has been our entire lives. Not even our adult lives, but since infancy. I was taking timed tests in elementary school, trying to finish homework before my bedtime in middle school, writing essays up until the last minute in high school… It’s not that I’m a chronic procrastinator, it’s that time is chronically catching up with me.

This is the norm, but it doesn’t have to be. Consider putting your money in a high-yield savings account. As you sleep, you are earning money. Were you to sleep in an extra hour, that would not be an hour wasted, but an hour to accrue more compound interest. Were you, like Fry from Futurama, to fall into a coma for 1,000 years, you could wake up a billionaire. Time is working for you.

Finance is the most obvious example, but it’s not an isolated case. Lots of things grow and compound, far beyond the effort you put into them. If you plant an apple tree today, you’ll be greeted years from now with a bountiful harvest. If you have children today, you’ll be greeted decades from now with beautiful grandkids. And as it turns out, if you start a blog, you can stop writing posts for months at a time and subscribers will still trickle in on the legacy of past writing.

Time is on your side.

This isn’t just a convenient growth hack, it’s the only way to tolerate this otherwise miserable human condition. If you are not investing, which is to say, if you do not have plants growing, kombucha brewing, relationships maturing, and so forth, what are you doing other than dying?

Without time working for you, all that awaits is slow decay. If not through your own personal demise, then through thermodynamic entropy. Making time work for you is a kind of dark magic, a way to resist death even as it threatens to swallow you whole.

And as with all dark magic, it imposes serious costs.

Say you’re on an airplane, 9 hours left on a trans-pacific flight, ravioli in its tin tray, blockbuster on the seat-back screen. There’s nothing to do but wait. And why not? After all, time is on your side. Each passing hour brings you closer to your destination, closer to home, closer to the moment when you can get off this plane and really start living again.

But what happens next? Now you land, and you’re standing in the aisle, waiting to deplane, then you’re at the App Pickup Zone waiting for your Uber, and then in the Uber once again in some state of sleep-deprived half-death waiting. But it’s okay, right? Time is working for you. You’re getting closer to where you want to go.

The problem is it never really ends. Now you’re commuting to work, now you’re at a job, and it’s not one you really like, but you have to be there anyway because it’s the path to something else. And it’s fine, because every day you spend in this job is another day you get closer to having Four Years Experience, and meanwhile your investments are accruing compound interest, and your relationships are maturing, and all of this is part of the plan.

How should we properly deal with the paralyzing oppression of our temporal overlords? There are typically three answers:

  1. Beg Death for more time: Eat more vegetables, do more cardio, do more longevity research, become multiplanetary, align AGI, advocate degrowth, build solar panels.
  2. Embrace Death in all its forms: Delist your website from Internet Archive, go skydiving, eat a five-pound gummy bear, marry Courtney Love.
  3. Become immortal but only metaphorically: Have a lot of descendants, build a giant clock inside a mountain, send big prime numbers into space, invent fundamental physics, endow a fellowship, put your name on a building.

These stances all have their uses, but they’re still just one side of the axis. You can also choose to simply live atemporally. To understand that you have already died, will always have died, and all that’s happening here is your experience through the temporal axis of your own life.

Is time working for you? Against you? It’s a bit of both, but you can also choose to sever the employment contract.