Do any of these phrases sound familiar to you?


You’re wasting my time.

This fix will save you hours.

How do you spend your time these days?

That late train cost me an hour.

I’ve invested a lot of time in her.

You’re running out of time. Is that worth your while? Do you have much time left?

He’s living on borrowed time.You don’t use your time profitably. I lost a lot of time last week.


As Lakoff & Johnson point out in their book Metaphors We Live By, we construe Time as Money. This is a buried metaphor, used for so long that we use it without thinking. It’s become a cognitive metaphor, that shapes how we live and act every single day.

In the capitalist system, it makes sense – we are paid by the hour, day, month or year, and we tend to charge by it too. Our time has been exchanged for money. But we extend this metaphor to every part of our lives – spending time with friends, asking if that film was worth seeing. Would we be more generous if we didn’t have this idea that our time can be spent, wasted, or lost?

One of the purest forms of this is the queue. When there’s a limited amount of resource available, like the number of open counters at the Post Office (never enough!), you line up and form an orderly queue. Many jokes have been made of the British love of queuing. Our basic sense of fairness means that everyone, rich or poor, has to take their place in the queue.

Sometimes, you can exchange money for queuing time though. You can pay to ‘queue jump’ at clubs or theme parks. Or you can pay for someone else to queue for you, like these people selling their iPhone 5 spots.

But woe-betide you if you attempt to skip our value system, offer neither time nor money, and queue-jump.

Our (remembering) self

ImageOne of the experiments that most powerfully affected me from Amos Tversky & Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow was the cold water trial.

Participants went through a trial where they measured levels of pain while placing one hand in cold water. They had one 60 second trial in 14 degree Celsius water, which is painfully cold but not unbearable. They had a second trial that lasted longer – for 90 seconds, where 60 seconds were in the cold water, then another 30 seconds in that water that was secretly made one degree warmer. The trials were carefully controlled – participants were randomly assigned different hands and different orders for their trials, and didn’t know how long their trials were.

They were then given the option of repeating one of the trials. Over 80% chose the longer trial, voluntarily choosing to suffer 30 extra seconds of needless pain. If they’d been told the trial was longer, they wouldn’t have picked it. But how people remembered pain and how they actually experienced pain was different.

This is due to a conflict between our remembering and experiencing selves. Our experiencing self suffers more pain while the trial is happening – but our remembering self remembers only the worst or best moment, and the end. This is called the ‘peak-end rule’. Kahneman then explores the implications of this for doctors, national happiness, and palliative care at the end of life. Should doctors aim to minimise pain at the end of the procedure, not control it during? Are you happier with more money?

However, what blows me away about this is how this changes our notion of self. We constantly alter how we actually experience the world around us, in order to fit in with our memories and our sense of self. Every minute, we are changing what is actually happening in order to construct our own narratives, overcoming actual real-life experience in order to form cohesive memories.

Who we are is not what we are experiencing – but what we remember.

We are the stories we tell ourselves.

Extra link: Daniel Kahneman on The Riddle of Experience vs Memory, TED