About time

About time

If there is one certainty in life, it is that time has always been there, and will always remain. But although it is a basic fact of our existence, most people don’t tend to reflect much on the characteristics and implications of time. Neither do I, as I realised when I read Eva Hoffman’s book ‘Time’ – part of a series called Big Ideas, Small Books (from Picador). To me, her book incited new thoughts and visions, and gave me a lot to think about in terms of how I approach my (professional) life.

Never enough time

The author grew up in post-war Poland and later moved to the United States. In hindsight, she realised that time in Poland had moved rather slow in those days. In a communist society, no careers could be made, so there was nothing to hurry towards: there was always plenty of time for a good chat at the kitchen table. How clear was the contrast when she moved to the United States, a capitalist society, where time equals money. She observes that time moves faster there: people are always on the run, and suffer from the fear of not having done enough. There is a lot to be gained – big money, big cars, promotions – and thus, there is a lot to lose. As a consequence, people become more strict in their time management, and are less willing to “give it away”; for example, by stopping to chat.

In my experience, this phenomenon it quite common in science, as we are all under immense pressure (from ourselves and from our supervisors) to produce: you might recognise the dilemma between taking the time to have a coffee with a colleague and rushing back to the lab to do the next experiment. Chats during incubations are therefore a great solution – the work continues while you catch up on each other’s weekend activities! I love it when different experiments I do in parallel need attention alternately: it keeps me active, I get a lot done and time flies. But, however productive, those days leave little time for reading papers – there never seems to be enough time for that. Just like taking the time to network with other scientists, whether in your research building or when going to conferences, keeping up with literature is crucial when your goal is to develop a successful research career.

Cultural differences in time perception

The author gives many examples of cultural differences in how humans approach and experience the concept of time. For instance, did you know that, people walk the fastest in London out of all of the world’s major cities?

From working with scientists of many nationalities, it seems to me that cultural differences in time perception can affect how people work in the lab, too. For example, some people are much more willing to spend a late night in the lab, if it means that they can have a long, leisurely lunch, or even take the afternoon for a nap or a stroll. Others feel like it’s their obligation to put in time on evening and weekends, and don’t necessarily see this as an imposition on their personal time, and they might even feel the need to excuse themselves when they leave exceptionally early if they have a doctor’s appointment.

The impact of our perceptions of time

Attending conferences and engaging in collaborations bring all of these different concepts of time together. Computers and the Internet now allow us to ignore time zones. Jet travel perturbs our circadian rhythms, and can even disrupt our experience of seasons.

Due to the ever-present computer technology in our lives, we have gotten used to instant gratification, whether we are looking up information, or wanting to listen to a specific song. Some would argue that this has shortened our span of patience and attention, and several psychological conditions, such as attention deficit disorder (ADD) have been attributed to the concept of time in Western society.

Strangely enough, the time it takes to get a degree, get your first grant, and get tenure all seem to have increased over the years. While this is frustrating in itself, I wonder how much more difficult we perceive it to be because of an increasing insistence on instant gratification?

Open access journals and online publishing play a role here, too, in fulfilling the desire to see our work published right now; other scientists can even comment on research published online, as if it were a blog post, without the necessity of traveling to a conference or engaging personally with the authors!


‘Time’ is not always written in the most coherent way, but maybe the author is excused considering how broad the subject is. It didn’t bother me much; I mostly enjoyed being confronted with so many aspects of the concept of time that I hadn’t thought about before. The book discusses time in the context of the body, the mind, culture and our time. Some of the author’s points were just interesting to read, and some sparked a whole new cascade of reflections and conversations. Who knows, you might be inspired by another culture’s viewpoint on time, and apply it to your life and career. Food for thought!

Book information:
Time by Eva Hoffman
Series: Big Ideas/Small Books

This article was previously published on BitesizeBio.com, an online magazine for cell and molecular biologists.