Dropping Nothing: Expanding Time

An undergraduate gives herself some thinking room.

In July I did the most un-Harvard of things: I dropped my summer-school class. And the moment I did so, I felt amazingly happy. Being a Harvard Summer School proctor, working two part-time jobs, and trying to get my independent philosophy reading done, was “possible,” but not enjoyable, when I had 10 hours of class and two rather long problem sets each week. So I admitted defeat and let my class go.

I have been quite surprised by the reactions I receive when I (admittedly) gloat about being free from my class commitments. Mostly, people are worried about how it will look on my transcript, or how I’ll “explain it away.” I, however, am not worried about that, because a healthy dose of “free” time has always been more productive for me than constant scheduling. I am trying to do independent philosophical research, after all.

My independent research has mainly focused on the philosophy of time. This has understandably made me very conscious of my own timely pursuits. So, feeling like I had too little time in which to ruminate properly on time, I made myself more of it—and have, in my opinion, enriched my life in the process. I do a lot more of my kind of nothing: I say yes when people ask me to go places with them, talk when talks are needed, and have long, meandering conversations and shared rumination sessions early into the day—not just late into the night.


Time seems to be the most precious of resources here at Harvard. It really is like money—we waste, spend, save, budget, borrow, lose, and invest it. This metaphorical phenomenon of the English language has been noted by cognitive linguist George Lakoff, who also observes that we don’t necessarily have to commodify time. Instead, it’s a “metaphor we live by,” and is wholly cultural—that most troublesome of categories. There are plenty of cultures in which time is not seen as a scarce resource—or as a resource at all. There are even some, such as the Aymara, a South American ethnic group who live in the Andes, for whom the future lies behind us instead of in front of us: instead of seeing uncertain possibilities on our horizon, all we can see is all that we have ever seen in the past, as we walk backwards, uncertainly, away from yesterday and into tomorrow. The Aymara word for tomorrow literally translates as “behind-the-back day.”

But at Harvard, the future is most definitely in front of us, and we are walking into it—face-first, with various levels of certitude and solitude. The undergraduate Harvard community seems a shining bastion of conservative-time-capitalism (despite our majority’s trend towards liberal economic and social leanings): spent time is cost, and gained time is profit. For the most part, our valuations are nonsimultaneous: we put in time today, in order to reap good times in the future—be those good times in the form of success, money, family, holidays, love, or social justice (every student  niche has its own preferred payment method). But the future, it appears, is our compound interest.


With this common interest in mind, we Harvard students, on the whole, like to challenge the boundaries of possibility, both present and future, with our demanding course loads, heaped extracurricular piles, fast-paced internships, and interpersonal relationships. This culture leads to its own type of booms and busts and is, I argue, rather unsustainable. Why? Because everything is on the up.

We are the up-and-coming faces of the future. We hook up, mess up, and blow up in the face of impending deadlines, constantly upping the proverbial ante. But—as any child who has ever attempted to fly in backyards has had to learn, to the tune of various degrees of bruising—what goes up must, in accordance with laws of all things anti-, come down.


Bruising aside, we like to move up in the world in our various perceived ways. Many of us are perennially on our way somewhere: to hand in a problem set, study for an exam, lead a meeting, organize a networking event. Don’t get me wrong: I admire people’s ability to perform all these tasks, their drive to do well, and their inexplicable ability to stay awake on the amount of sleep they advertise having had. (These advertisements linger somewhere between pride and indignation—“I’ve only had three hours of sleep!” we cry, untearfully, as we stir coffees and the hearts of friends for comfort.)

The common lament is, of course, that we just don’t have enough time. Sometimes we wish time would disappear altogether, but mostly we think, and talk, about how great it would be if we could make more of it. This solution seems quite impossible, even in a culture of defying possibility. We can, however, make ourselves think that we have more of it—a solution that is just as useful, and a whole lot easier to achieve. A recent psychological study, forthcoming in the journal Psychological Science, hints at ways of doing just that: how to expand our perception of how much time we have.

This study, conducted by Cassie Mogilner of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Zoë Chance of the Yale School of Management, and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, reveals a counterintuitive solution to the perception of having too little time: giving our time away. Their experiments found that giving our time to others—as opposed to “wasting” time, spending time on oneself, or even gaining a windfall of “free” time that we were not counting on— increases our perception of time affluence. This boost in our perceived time wealth seems to stem primarily from an increased feeling of self-efficacy, as opposed to increased feelings of meaningfulness, connection, or enjoyment that one would initially suppose. When we feel effective, the time we spend seems “fuller,” because we perceive ourselves as having accomplished more with it—much like the feeling of financial effectiveness that (I imagine) comes with money well spent, returning handsome dividends.

The Harvard culture seems to value efficiency just as much as we value time—because really, most of the time, we seem to see them as one and the same. We are a hub of time-capitalism after all, with present costs and future profits constantly looming and, we hope, booming. It would appear that in increasing our own sense of effectiveness, we could play to multiple obsessions, creating the perfect perception of win-winning. But, like many things at Harvard, this realization of how to make ourselves think that we are time-richer needs to be handled carefully, lest it run away with itself, blindly racing off into the future. When we make time-giving another to-do, another “obligation” or “chore” in our eyes, we can incur as many losses as when we don’t give at all. For, as even the most well-intentioned among us know, once giving becomes an obligation, it can fast become gone. Just as with money, an obligation on our time is taxing.


In an economy where time is money and money is time, perhaps we don’t necessarily need to monetize in the first place in order to reap some rewards, and re-distribute some wealth. Harvard is a place in which we can work toward psychological truths—a place where we are uniquely situated to use them to our advantage—where we can rethink our political economy so it isn’t as liable to cyclical collapses. And, taking some time off seems to be the perfect stimulus package for achieving just that.

Working all the time doesn’t work at all, and let’s face it: working hard and playing hard are, well—hard. So let’s take some time to travel on a road to nowhere by doing nothing with no one—or something for someone. Put down the books, turn off the phone, lock away the laptop. Give ourselves some “free” time as necessary wiggle room for expanding our time. Who knows, in doing so, we might silently solve the mystery of how something can come of nothing.

And, I wouldn’t worry about pausing on the up-and-up ladder, watching other Harvard students frantically pass us by, at least for a little while. As someone who’s dropped things before, and happily let my class go, I can say that it’s just like being underwater, zipping through a crowded pool—hearing far off shouts and splatters, but only hearing myself clearly. Everything else becomes blurred. I think only of breathing and thinking. I think. I breathe. I shoot forward, effortlessly.

Or, better yet, I just float.

No up, no down.

And, in that moment, time appears to disappear, expanding off in all directions—until its boundaries fade into the distance of infinity.

And, surely, infinity is about as sustainable as things can get.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Cherone Duggan ’14 is passionately committed to her main curricular and extracurricular activity: unstructured time.

Read more articles by: Cherone Duggan

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