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Living without time

by Georgie Okell

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Last week on the podcast, I invited guests to talk about their experience of living without time . This included a conversation with Dan Everett, a well-known linguist who has spent much of the last 30 years living and working with the Piraha, an isolated Amazonian tribe who have no numbers in their language, and no notions of time other than the rising and setting sun.

I also spoke to Steve Corona, start-up entrepreneur and ex-CFO of Twitpic, who got rid of all time cues from his life after spending years, in his words, ‘sweating stress’.

Though these two stories focused on very different people with very different lives, their overarching message seemed to be this: we are happier when we’re not constantly clock-watching and worrying about the future.

And so I decided to test this theory, by giving up time for a week.

This meant cutting out all time cues where possible – taping up phone and computer screens, scrambling clocks in the car and around the house, going to extreme lengths not to see or hear the time from any source.

The first thing I noticed is that the time is EVERYWHERE. In work, at home, being voiced in conversations around you. It was going to be far tougher to avoid than I thought.

Before starting this experiment, I must admit that I was something of a clock-watcher. I always knew how many hours until my next meeting, the next place I had to be, lunchtime, the end of the day. I set several alarms each morning, including weekends. The impulse to pick up my phone to check the time had become almost uncontrollable – a tic of sorts I didn’t even know I was doing it half the time. My life was entirely governed by time and I had never even considered the option of forgoing it for a few hours, let alone an entire week.

That said, I love an experiment, so on a Friday evening I bounced out of the office with an excitable and optimistic ‘I’m going to give up time for a week!’, skipping home to cover up the time wherever I saw it, looking forward to my first Saturday morning without an alarm.

The first thing I noticed is that the time is EVERYWHERE. In work, at home, being voiced in conversations around you. It was going to be far tougher to avoid than I thought. But, the first weekend without it was blissful. Time cues successfully hidden or scrambled, I woke when I felt like it, napped when I was tired, ate when I wanted, went running along the beach unaware of the time or distance. I told myself I had this thing nailed down already; it was going to be a cakewalk.

Things I ignored in this conclusion:

  1. It was the weekend, and you are allowed to do whatever you want, whenever you feel like it on weekends.
  2. I had just flown back to LA from Europe and was still supremely jetlagged, meaning the 7 a.m. weekend start without an alarm may not have been an entirely accurate reflection of my bodyclock.
  3. I kept my phone in a drawer for almost the entire weekend, not just so I wouldn’t look at the time, but because planning social meetings stressed me out when the entire rest of the world was still living their life by the clock. So I just ignored everybody instead.

The working week that followed was, of course, trickier. As much as it was hugely exciting to bowl around the office announcing that I’d given up time, I have no doubt that it was less fun for everyone else having to come find me for meetings or email me reminders when I was meant to be somewhere. Equally, I’m sure my other half had less fun than I did being constantly responsible for making sure I left the house in time for work without actually telling me the time, and answering awkward questions like ‘if I were to leave the house now to meet that person, would I, for example, have to wait there a long time for them?’

Clearly, I was unable to let go of time entirely, and though I thought I was much freer and calmer, some friends have recounted otherwise – I would stress about needing to know the time but not wanting to know because I was doing an experiment, and ask long-winded questions to sort-of-but-not-really find out the time.

All of that said, some key things happened that were hugely positive.

The whole ‘leaving my phone in a drawer’ thing meant that actually I check my phone less these days. I will look at it if necessary, and check the time if I need to know for something specific, but my twitchy ceaseless phone checking has disappeared, for now at least.

My computers at work and home still have the time scrambled so that if I am working on a project, I can immerse myself in it without my eyes constantly drifting to the right hand corner to how long I have left.

I only set one alarm in the morning now instead of four or five, and normally it’s a late ‘emergency alarm’ just in case I haven’t woken up naturally, because I’ve discovered I’m a morning person and I can rely on my internal clock to get me up. And for the first time in years, I am no longer setting alarms at the weekend.

In reality, time is so built into our lives, and our daily lives into time, that it is all but impossible to forgo time cues without either expecting a huge amount of your friends and colleagues to keep you in check, or just being the kind of person that does not care about being on time for anything, ever.

I will never be that person, but I will continue to look at my phone less, spend uninterrupted hours on certain projects, and forgo alarms and leave my phone at home on weekends.

Georgie Okell

Georgie Okell is a TV and Radio host from the UK. She currently hosts and produces the podcast Radio Headspace, which has almost 1 million plays in 2015. She also runs marathons.