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Time Urgency and the Pace of Life

Responding quickly to distant events worsens time urgency and stress.

We live in an increasingly fast-paced world where communications are instantaneous. Even if the pace of life is speeding up, this does not mean that we must choose to be hurried.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, a strong sense of the passage of time is a distinctive feature of modern existence. Indeed, before the emergence of clock towers in medieval towns no one really knew exactly what time it was,

The Industrial Revolution monetized efficiency. As a result, we get more done per unit time. Even so, there remains a great deal of variation in how time urgent we are as individuals.

Individual Differences in Time Urgency

People who feel they have somewhere to go are likely to move faster. This principle was amusingly demonstrate in a study finding that people who are more successful have faster walking speeds.

While individuals vary greatly in how rushed they feel in the course of their normal lives, clearly we are living in an increasingly fast-paced world that can be stressful and destructive of health and well-being.

The Importance of Public Clocks

Accurate clocks have existed for many centuries but played little role in the lives of the general population (1).

Clocks were set to local noon using a sundial so that different places had different times. This was inconvenient for railways, making it difficult for trains to run on time. In 1847, British railways adopted a standardized time based on Greenwich Mean time and known as “railway time.” US railways followed this model adopting a five-zone time system in 1883.

By the mid-nineteenth century, English people had become obsessed with accurate time-keeping and every town had at least one public clock (2). In 1855, these were standardized to Greenwich Mean time.

Apart from efficient railways, a key application of clock time was the organization of shift work in factories.

Accurate clocks were essential for getting people to work on time, and for measuring their productivity.

Time-Keeping and Time-Urgency

For factory owners, the key to profitability was keeping their workers busy during the day. Very high productivity was facilitated by machine production. In time-urgent industrialized societies, workers strove to get as much done as possible in a limited amount of time.

Although the industrial economy forced workers to live by the clock, these societies were not time-urgent in general. They could not be because everything one did took plenty of time whether it was putting in hours to prepare a meal from scratch, or drawing, and heating, the water to take a bath.

These operations have become much more efficient thanks to improved infrastructure. As a result, leisure time has grown by leaps and bounds from very little in the 19th century to a great deal today (3).

Although we have plenty of leisure time when we are not engaged in paid, or domestic work, there is a jarring contradiction in the fact that our lives are increasingly hurried and lacking in relaxation.

With the speeding up of communications, leisure time is no longer leisured so much as a frenzied rush to stay current with news events, social media communications, and shopping opportunities.

Time Urgency and the Future

In Charles Darwin's life, the British mail system became truly global. He could, and did, receive letters from all over the globe and could reply by placing a stamped letter inside one of the red pillar boxes that had proliferated on street corners.

This development of communications connected most of the people on the planet to the outside world but it took weeks for letters to arrive at their destinations, limited by the time needed for ships to cross oceans.

The modern world is characterized by instant communications that necessitate instant responses. When insurrectionists entered the Capitol on January 6, they were in constant communication with others via social media and even took incriminating selfies that were broadcast to the Internet. My first inkling of the disturbance came in the form of a text from Ireland.

This is a far cry from rebellions in the past when news of such events was obtained from newspapers a day later, or more.

The speeding up of communications has many beneficial results because we are more aware of events in other countries and more interconnected as we face monumental problems such as pandemics and climate change. This shrinks distance and diminishes the sense of geographical separation from friends, family, and colleagues.

It boils down to stimulus overload. Even in the pandemic — when many people are no longer going to work — there is not sufficient time in the day to cope with it all. Many long for a remote island that has no digital signal.


1 McCresson, Alexis (2013). Marking time. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

2 Landes, D. (1999). The wealth and poverty of nations: Why some are so rich and some so poor. London: Little Brown.

3 Floud, R., Fogel, R. W., Harris, B., & Hong, S. C. (2011). The changing body: Health, nutrition, and human development in the Western world since 1700. Cambridge, England: NBER/Cambridge University Press.

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