The Secret Pulse of Time

dali persistence of memory
Image: Dali’s Persistence of Memory

Stefan Klein’s book The Secret Pulse of Time is a fascinating, scientific explanation of how we ‘make sense’ of life’s scarcest commodity. Alas, while it is long on exposition, it is short on resolution. Readers hoping for the ‘how tos’ promised on the book jacket will likely be disappointed. But it may start a conversation that other writers can build on that could actually help us learn to live in Now Time, like most of the other creatures on our planet that are not confounded by large brains.

The first part of the book explains our biological clock, which actually runs on a ‘day’ that varies from 24 hours and 5 minutes (for ‘morning people’) to 24 hours and 30 minutes (for ‘night owls’), and which is ‘reset’ by the first bright sunlight of each day and again at the last sunlight at night. Our indoor lives, and window coverings, can deprive us of these ‘resets’, so night owls (and those prone to depression) are advised to expose themselves early and often to direct, bright sunlight.

Klein then goes on to explain that our sense of never having enough time stems from three factors that originate in our own minds (and they are especially prominent in those with ADD/ADHD, he asserts):

  • an inability to concentrate
  • an overwhelming feeling of stress
  • a lack of motivation

The inability to concentrate, he says, is exacerbated in modern humans by the number of distractions we face. When our attention is caught, three things happen:

  1. a heightened sense of alertness,
  2. a focus on one thing to the exclusion of others, and
  3. a concentration of mental energy on the thing we’re focused on. 

This 3-part instinctive reaction to stimulus is addictive; we like the feeling. The more stimuli that are available, the more we end up distracted from giving sufficient attention on anything to be productive. The process of learning to concentrate therefore requires us to practice giving our attention to one thing, and avoiding distraction. Klein suggests (as I did in this article) breaking large tasks into pieces that can be done in one sitting. He suggests exercises that strengthen memory and focus (crosswords, meditation). And, interestingly, he suggests a simple technique for restless minds: When an idea occurs to you that is off-topic of what you are concentrating on, write it down, quickly, set it aside, and focus back on the matter at hand.

The overwhelming feeling of stress, he says, is often viewed as the result of a perceived ‘shortage of time’, when it is actually the other way around. This stress-caused time ‘shortage’ is often a function of one or more of three things:

  1. a feeling of lack of control over how our time is spent (parents of children who consume a lot of our attention, often unexpectedly, and employees whose employers make unreasonable demands on their time are especially vulnerable to this),
  2. a strong sense of constant responsibility for others (women, care-givers, and people who take the weight of the world on their shoulders or bite off too much, are especially vulnerable to this), and 
  3. our perspective on the tasks we face (if it’s perceived as work it’s stressful; if it’s perceived as fun it’s not).

But what can we do to change that lack of control, sense of responsibility or perspective of tedium? Not much, Klein admits. At least we can be aware of it.

The lack of motivation, Klein says, is what can make a simple task take longer (due to procrastination) or seem to take longer (the ‘watched kettle never boils’ perception) than they actual should or do. If we have problems or chores at home, we may spend longer time at work doing what could be done more quickly, to put off the ‘home work’. Modern life, by presenting us with a smorgasbord of things to do, can reduce our motivation to do any one of them.

A consequence of this is what I have called Pollard’s Law: We do what we must (what we’re absolutely motivated to do), then we do what’s easy and/or fun. We feel guilty for not getting to what is ‘merely important’ but that guilt isn’t enough motivation to overcome the propensity to proscrastinate. Result: We ‘never have time’ to do it. One useful suggestion for increasing self-motivation: Visualize the positive consequences of doing, or having done, the unmotivating task.

My favourite quite from the book (as someone who loathes ‘self-help’ books):

Organizational psychologists who have studied so-called time management have established that it is useless, or at least not useful in saving time (three studies are cited).

The final chapter of the book prescribes six steps for improving our ‘sense’ of time, but I found these mostly unhelpful: they are pretty obvious, and easier said than done:

  1. Negotiate with others (employers and others who make demands on our time) to get more control of it, so we can schedule our time more predictably and effectively.
  2. Know how your personal biological clock functions and live in harmony with it (it often changes over your lifetime) so you do work that requires mental energy, memory and/or concentration at the times of day when they are they peak.
  3. Set aside unscheduled blocks of leisure time so your mind has the chance to recharge and unwind and so you can learn to enjoy doing things just for their own sake — this will increase your mental energy and ability to concentrate at other times.
  4. Train yourself to be more attentive, observant and perceptive.
  5. Train yourself to concentrate better (e.g, breaking jobs into small manageable tasks, avoiding and ignoring distractions).
  6. Set priorities and (as I suggested in this article) learn to say ‘no’ to urgent, unimportant tasks — ask yourself if it will really matter in the future if you don’t do this task.

Worthy objectives. Now we need a lot more exercises and practices (that have been shown to work) to actually accomplish them. And some first-person stories of how people who never used to have enough time for anything, now have all the time they need.

This entry was posted in Working Smarter. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Secret Pulse of Time

  1. Mariella says:

    my perception of time changes according to the activity I´m in : if I am doing stressful gym excersises…ufff… my time is in the “never ending” mode, but if I am focused in my work, or some interesting conversation… my time is in the “unnoticed” mode.. maybe the secret is to be able to switch modes at will. Non modern people living according to natural time clocks (seasons, days), and modern people producing and consuming (not living) according to artifitially fragmented clock time….. maybe learning to use both modes according to the present needs could help….. both are usefull….

  2. But what can we do to change that lack of control, sense of responsibility or perspective of tedium? Not much, Klein admits. At least we can be aware of it.Not true. Wisdom traditions such as Buddhism have much to say about dealing with the demands of life. The key lies in the wisdom of anatta (non-self). We strive to make our actions less about what the mythical “I” wants to do, and more about dealing with life on its terms.I think that when we feel like this – stressed out by external events, pulled in too many directions at most – we’re focusing too much on what “I want to do,” as opposed to focusing on what needs to be done. Personally, I find that the more I regard my activities as service to myself and others, rather than as self-fulfillment, the less stressed I feel.

  3. It’s interesting that a starting point in discussions around time is that it, like love, is in short supply. Both are misunderstandings we picked up form our dysfunctional culture. If you look at what we are actually DOING with the time we have you will see we are either WORKING to get the world into a more counter- sustainable place than it is today ( see my rantings on this at we are WAITING. A lot of WAITING is done sat in a car which is filling the pockets of the state and oil companies whilst depleting precious resources.The advice to take the buddist approach, or living teachers ( is profound. The inner journey you take is one where you transcend the “emotional plumbing” put into you since birth. No ten simple step approach is going to do this.

Comments are closed.