How the Office Can Negatively Distort Our Perception of Time

Are you living in Kronos (sequential time) or Kairos (numinous time)? Where and how you work can affect how you experience time.

Last month, I was temping as an editorial assistant at a respected publishing house. I would arrive at the office at 9am, and except for lunch break, would remain at the desk till 5pm working on the tasks my manager assigned me. These tasks were mainly data entry and fact-checking, not very challenging or interesting. Like filing your nails, brushing lint off your jacket, or washing the dishes, the work required only a minimal amount of brainpower, and certainly no emotional or spiritual investment. This made me recall something a former boss had told me when I started my first job as an overly-anxious, painfully meticulous journalist at another publishing house. “What we do isn’t exactly rocket science. So just do the work and stop worrying so much.” Her intention, I believe, with that comment, was to encourage me to let go of my need to control the outcome of my labours, and to remind me that what I was doing really wasn’t that important or meaningful in the grand scheme of things. It was just a job.

As I sat at my temporary workplace — a garden variety, modern, open-plan office with about fourteen work stations and a corner office for the head honcho — I became aware that as a quarter of my mind engaged in the repetitive work in front of me, another quarter was mentally tracking the movements of my boss and other employees, and counting down the hours and minutes left till lunch break. The remainder of my brain occupied itself contemplating how this office environment, similar to most others, seems to have warped my perception of time, and not in a good way. Because I was essentially bored, I felt like I was “watching the clock” and time was something that needed to be killed rather than savoured.

As a freelance writer, my usual mode of work is sitting comfortably in my pajamas at my computer in my study room, juggling projects from at least three different clients. If I manage my time wisely, I will then have an hour or two to devote to my own writing (short stories, posts for my travel blog, and this article).

A typical workday begins with the jotting down of action plans on a post-it in terms of priority. Each project often involves different types of task that engage a variety of mental faculties — research (finding the right sources, stories, and ideas), communication (clarifying briefs with clients, reaching out to sources for quotes or photos, coming up with interview questions), organisation (creating folders for relevant documents and images), writing (this includes planning or outlining, composing, revising, editing, fact-checking, and formatting), and copywriting (coming up with headlines and subheads that are attention grabbing and relevant). I am Lord of my domain. From macro to micro, I am in charge of the workflow and processes. I take full ownership of the content that I deliver to each client. The work I send through is, to me, not simply an assembly-line-manufactured commercial product, but a carefully constructed piece of work that I hope will succeed in meeting the purpose of its commission. So I pour my whole heart into whatever it is I am doing. Though what I do may not be rocket science, it doesn’t feel like just a job. My work feels important and meaningful because does not speak for the entity of “the company” or “the brand”, but of me as a professional writer. Thus, my vanity compels me to take it all very seriously, approaching it like as a sculptor approaches a lump of clay or block of marble.

Every part of my mind is brought to attention and harmony throughout the day, because I am constantly making decisions about what to do, when to do it, and how to do it in the most efficient and impactful way. To work at this level, one’s mind is required to be fully present and undivided. When one gives the mind completely over to the present moment, and allows one’s entire being to be wrapped up in the activity at hand, the concept of linear time ceases to exist. When I am freelancing at home this way— an animal uncaged, unwashed, and unobserved — the hours between 9am to 5pm belong entirely to me. Even though they are technically working hours, they feel like free, leisure time because they are mine to structure as I choose. Because these are hours of autonomy, they become much more precious compared to when I am obliged to spend them in the psychological equivalent of a mule pen, with a boss and colleagues on stand by to keep me chewing on my hay.

By working smarter and steadier on my own rather than trying to look busy so others will believe I am deserving of my pay cheque, my true rewards are the valuable morsels of time leftover in the day, which I can then use to work on stories and essays such as this. After all, it is this type of work that quietly brings the greatest joy, and helps me contextualise the experiences I’ve had in what know to be a life that will always feel too short.

Kronos Lives in the Office, Kairos Lives Elsewhere

The ancient Greeks has used two terms to describe different experiences of time. Kronos refers to chronological time, whereas Kairos is the concept of numinous time.

Liberated from the confines of the office system, I can get into the highly focused mental state that Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow” much quicker and stay in it for much longer. When in a state of flow, one’s perception of time shifts from that of Kronos to Kairos.

In the inaugural issue of Artella magazine, author and professor of philosophy Lonnie Kliever wrote: “Kronos is sequential time…the time of clocks and calendars; it can be quantified and measured. Kronos is linear, moving inexorably out of the determinate past toward the determined future, and has no freedom. Kairos is numinous time. Kairos is a time of festivals and fantasies; it cannot be controlled or possessed. Kairos is circular, dancing back and forth, here and there, without beginning or ending, and knows no boundaries.”

I came across a comment from Quora user James Quek who I think expresses the difference between Kronos and Kairos even more poetically than Kliever. He writes, “The best way to differentiate between Kronos and Kairos is to see time as either a flowing river which carries us away (Kronos), or a quiet lake which we swim in (Kairos). We all experience time as both, all the time, in whatever we do. We experience Kronoswhen we are impatiently waiting for something to be over and done with. We experience Kairos when we are so deeply engrossed in an activity that time seems to stand still. In Kronos, we are stressed. In Kairos, we are refreshed.”

Perhaps my take on working in offices is subjective, and in part due to a non-conformist temperament, but this I know for certain, whenever I am in a traditional workplace, slogging away in the panopticon with my brothers and sisters, for the gains of the ones in the big room with the closed door, I feel like time is my enemy as I struggle to stay afloat in rapids dragging me out into a dark sea of oblivion. When I work on my own terms, at home, or in a café, or in my mother’s kitchen, time expands and treats me more gently; I am swimming in a lake where the opportunity for magic, serendipitous encounters, eureka moments, and fruitful labour can present itself at any moment.

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