The History of Time + Perception

Derek Thompson is one of my favorite writers. His work criss-crosses between economics, psychology and marketing in often wild ways.

His piece on the history of the construct and perception of time came out in December and I just got around to reading it this week. And I’m mad I waited.

Like most of Derek’s work it’s a simple read but full of fascinating detail. Derek’s substance to words ratio is always off the charts.

I probably should have known that the use of watches came about en masse because of war and time zones, in fact even the construct of an agreed upon standard time (what minute is it), came from the railroads.

As railroads covered more ground and more people were connecting from one railroad to another, 2pm had to be 2pm otherwise people and freight would miss trains.

Imagine walking through an airport terminal (already logistical chaos) and learning that Delta and United now operate by entirely separate time schedules: A United flight that takes off, on-time, at 1pm leaves at the same time as a Delta flight departing on-time at 2pm, and the clocks on the wall correspond to neither Delta nor United.

Imagining a time when such a thing was not widely accepted is like considering a time when gravity was widely believed to be not a result of a mathematical calculation, but because rocks “wanted to be on the ground.”

The piece goes on to discuss our perception of time, specifically how we think about work and leisure.

But those who valued time over money were happier, even when the researchers controlled for income. Among people with similarly high income, those most satisfied with life were far more likely to choose time. As they wrote, “the value individuals place on these resources relative to each other is predictive of happiness.”

This is really just one of the better things I’ve read in a long time.

Clayton Christensen Profile in The New Yorker

The New Yorker has a great profile of Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dillemma. I’m not sure when it came out, like many things it may have been sitting in my Instapaper queue for a long time.

It’s long. I read it over a solo dinner recently. Christensen is a fascinating human, full of contradictions. I particularly loved two things.

First, this bit.

But Christensen was a man of function, not form. He loved machinery, he loved to see how things were made and problems solved. Every Christensen family vacation included a trip to a local factory, and it was usually Christensen’s favorite part of the trip.

I did this recently, in Italy. I took a trip to Naples for the express purpose of visiting a factory. Not only did it quench my mechanical mind’s thirst but the journey itself led to a set of incredible experiences. Understanding the details gives you a different view about how to solve problems in any context.

Second, a great anecdote about a large company (probably McDonald’s) who couldn’t figure out how to sell more milkshakes. How they approached the question is definitely worth reading. For brevity I’ll leave out the why and jump to their conclusion:

“Once you understood what job the customers were trying to get done, how to improve the product became clear: you make the milkshake even more viscous. You stir tiny chunks of fruit into it, not to be healthy, because they didn’t hire it to be healthy, but to make the commute more unpredictable—they’re driving along and—upp!—a lump of fruit. And you move the dispensing machine to the front of the counter and give people a prepaid swipe card so they can just gas up and go.