On time: how time can be overwhelming

13 januari 2022

Angelique van de Beek

Do you also hear the phrase “I’m so busy”, many times in your life around you? Me too. Every time you seem to ask a fellow student, or a friend how they are doing, most of the time they respond with: “Oh, I’ve been so busy”, especially during the time of year we just passed: when Christmas and the new year is approaching. Our identity seems to be built upon how we organize our time. Essentially, there is nothing wrong with that, but how does it relate to how we live our lives? Byung-Chul Han, a Korean-German philosopher, has stated that burnout is a disease of this time. Why is that? And maybe even more important: how may our experience of time be responsible for this?

In the months leading up to my burnout, I often felt like there wasn’t enough time. I had so much to do, that I felt like I needed at least 30 hours in a day. Time was just passing so quickly and I was the one running after it. Like sociologist Hartmut Rosa says: it is the paradox of modern life. We seem to win time again and again, but we still feel like we are losing time. We don’t have to write a letter to get in touch with one another, sending a text only has to cost us a few minutes or even seconds nowadays. So, how come we still get the feeling that we are losing time when we are actually saving time? 

Chronos and Kairos

The answer lies in several different aspects of time. The distinction between Chronos and Kairos enables different perspectives on time. This distinction can be traced back to Ancient Greece. Chronos is basically the time society uses, the time we use when making an appointment with someone for example; or more simply put, the time on the clock, the chronological time. The more difficult notion of the two is Kairos, this is our inner experience of time. To understand this better, think about when you have no deadlines to finish or when you are on holiday. Time then seems to pass rather differently from when we are relying on the time society provides us. The agenda of the world, the Chronos, is the main focus of our lives. Our lives are based on appointments, opening hours of shops, all kinds of schedules are at play. These schedules are defining how we see time: time is money. When we go on vacation, or when we have no deadlines to finish, time is more based on what we, as an individual, want to do with our time. The Chronos is defining our lives to such an extent, that our inner feeling of time has moved to the background. The balance between the two is lost. Like the Dutch philosopher Joke Hermsen argues in her book Stil de Tijd, we need to rediscover this inner time experience. Because of the domination of Chronos, we have lost happiness, insight, and balance. 

Another great analogy, which is put forward by another Dutch philosopher Marli Huijer in her book Ritme, is that time has become something nonrhythmic. Years ago, we had external schedules which told us when to start and when to stop working. For example, the factory closed at 5 pm and we went home to relax. Nowadays, we have lost this external force. This external force made sure we had a certain rhythm to our day, we knew when we could relax or when it was time to study. Since this external force is lost, time has become something that is a set of individual choices to do something at a certain time. For example, the university libraries are open until 12 pm. The supermarket is, normally, open until around 10 pm. We do not have to rely on opening hours of stores and study places anymore. Thus, making no distinction between working hours and ‘relaxing hours’, which can be related to our meritocratic society in which we feel the pressure of achieving. There is no point in time where time tells us that nothing else can fit anymore; there are no more external boundaries. Time can be infinitely divided into smaller parts, and we always want to fit more into our day, to be more productive thinking this will lead us to a more successful life. 


We thus need the discipline to define when it is enough, discipline to say no to social gatherings or no to studying until 12 pm. No one will tell you to turn off your computer at the end of the day or stop working, that duty lies within ourselves. We can literally, as Byung-Chul Han tells us in Burnout Society, exploit ourselves until we are burned out. The loss of our inner experience of time, the time we experience when laying on the couch watching Netflix, or when we are on a holiday, is one of the underlying causes of the growing numbers of burnout cases amongst younger people. We have lost the balance between the chronological time in our lives as opposed to how we actually experience our time. This is not an argument in favor of letting go of Chronos completely, it is a plea to feel more into Kairos. Know that it is okay when sometimes you want to lay on the couch doing nothing or binge-watch an entire season of a show, or say no to that party all your friends are going to because you are working on your inner time experience. Put boundaries up for yourself where you might tell people that you do not respond to text messages after 8 pm. Or turn off your notifications on your phone. Make sure you are not lived by Chronos, but also keep time for Kairos.