Death Clocks and Motivation

2503766243_68052099cb_oHere at ProfHacker, we’re big fans of timers. I use them for everything from tracking time spent on various projects to reminding myself to get away from the computer every now and then. But recently I’ve noticed a new interest in a more speculative type of timer: the estimated life-countdown. Life countdown timers–or, more sensationally, “death clocks”–are all over the web, and sites like The Death Clock calculator make it easy to share the less-than-scientific results on social media. Steven Petrow blogged on the motivating potential of “The Ticktock of the Death Clock” when facing aging, while others (like me, through the years) click on it out of morbid curiosity.

Several recent successful Kickstarter projects are looking to make these countdowns more than a momentary diversion. The Tikker wrist watch is either a “death watch” or a “happiness watch” depending on how you react to its design spec, which simply puts an estimated countdown on your wrist as an ever-present reminder of the potential limits of time. Likewise, the ALARMclock promises to “Jump start your ambition. Reconnect with powerful motivating forces such as financial instability, social insecurity and fear of death.” With it, you wake up every day to your projected life expectancy and bank balance. There’s also hardware-free approaches, like the Death Clock app for iPhone.

I was reminded of these projects by a powerful piece from Kate Bowles this week on Irreplaceable time:

“I’ve been thinking back to a planning day that I recently sat through, that for all sorts of banal reasons left me feeling completely exasperated with the corporate culture of team-building that is so reckless with people’s time and trust. I followed the instructions, more or less, while thinking about how much I’d like to quit my job, and the thing that went round and round in my head as we were hustled through a series of exercises designed to show how perfectly team building is created from the will to win, was this:  you don’t have my consent to use my remaining time in this way.”

Motivated as it was by a cancer diagnosis, Kate Bowles’s essay is relevant to all of us: as she puts it, “Having this diagnosis doesn’t make me special, because it doesn’t make me differently mortal than anyone else.  We are neither vampires nor zombies, whatever the craze for playing with these ideas: we are humans, and we are all here together for a very short time, historically speaking. And so that being the case, the question facing us all is this: what do we do about work?” Such awareness evokes everything that the philosophy of life-countdowns are tied to: the idea of time’s scarcity as motivating, not demotivating, and not so easy to dismiss.

Certainly, I’ve found that awareness of the scarcity of time can make my practice of record-keeping take on new meaning: did I really spend that many hours on a committee whose suggestions were never implemented? Other hours, like those spent helping someone understand a new concept or master a challenging skill, I can record with satisfaction. Such consciousness of time seems particularly of interest in a professional culture where, as Jason examined, “expecting” work-life balance is considered unrealistic. I for one find this larger discourse particularly relevant as we move into the holiday season and transition between semesters, traditionally a time when demands of work and life find themselves in seemingly unsolvable conflict. Bonnie Stewart further illuminates that holiday connection in her essay on academia’s Scrooge / Tiny Tim complex in light of irreplaceable time:

“Secure or precarious, we are all tied like Scrooge to our desks these days, trying to fit more and more work and possibility into the same old 24 hours. If you have a reasonable job in academia after studying for half a lifetime? Please expect to work increasingly long hours on the treadmill for the privilege of believing you have not been left behind. If you don’t? Better bust your hump and distinguish yourself ever further, ever higher.”

Will I be wearing a life-countdown watch as a reminder to weigh my time investments carefully? Perhaps in time. Have you picked up one of these tools for motivation? Share your experiences in the comments.

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User George M. Groutas]

Return to Top