On Saving Time and How to Do Nothing by Jenny Odell — Must we live by the 24-hour clock?

Speaking about her new book Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this past weekend with Jess Scully, Jenny Odell reframes our modern lingua franca for time.

We don’t have enough time. When my friends and I ponder the future, we often feel overcome — not by a feeling of excitement or hope, but by climate dread, a morbidly common feeling that it is only a matter of time before we succumb to inevitable heat death. 

Jenny Odell, writer, artist, and Bay Area bird-watcher, wonders if it’s our conception of time that’s setting us up for failure, quoting Dr. Michelle Bastian: “the clock can tell me whether I am late for work, [but] it cannot tell me whether it is too late to mitigate runaway climate change.”

Speaking about her new book, Saving Time: Discovering a Life Beyond the Clock, at the Sydney Writers Festival this past weekend with Jess Scully, Jenny Odell reframes our modern lingua franca for time.

She addresses how our current view that “time is money”, as opposed to a concept of time that works in tandem with our natural instincts, is only a recent development. The concept of “fungible time” or of selling your time as wages arose according to the needs of industrialisation and colonisation. Odell speaks about one of the earliest examples of measuring labour: when plantation owners needed to start quantitatively measuring the labour of their workers from overseas, they started using accounting books (spreadsheets). She describes this as “removing the humanity from labour”, as the commodification of money is rooted in the cultural history of slavery. Now, it is manifest in the “time management” and “productivity” sections of Dymocks. 

In order to reconsider cultural constructions of time, Odell invites us to consult numerous experts for helpful definitions of time. 

First, we meet the Ancient Greek philosophers. Chronus describes the linear trajectory of time, the time that we measure with our clocks; while Kiros refers to the need to “seize the time”. Linear time is literally an invasive theory of time, Odell says, as it was a colonial invention imposed on many Indigenous communities who organised their time based on ecological and cultural cues rather than abstract notions of labour hours.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea of time was Hannah Arendt’s concept of “non-time”. Arendt argues the present is a “gap”, a site of possibility between the past and the present. Like Arendt, Odell rejects a deterministic view of the world. Without being naively optimistic, she encourages us to dwell in the liminal space between the everyday and the apocalyptic — to think of the present as a time to “hold the gap”, rather than to descend into nihilism. 

Saving Time initially began as an “effort to be helpful”, but towards the end, Odell writes, “I felt I was writing it to save my life.”

Odell weaved through topic to topic with freedom and lucidity — discussing time, Art, attention, activism, the Anthropocene, tailorism and beans — all within an hour. It was as if the talk was itself structured to show her strong opposition to a linear understanding of time. 

I left feeling convinced that if we can adopt a more expansive discourse of time, seeing it less as money or as mere hours in a day, we can move towards a more liberated and autonomous way of being.