“The Case For Not Knowing What Time It Is”
“Since I started experimenting with short stretches of idleness throughout my otherwise very busy summer days, I’ve become convinced that we’d probably get more done, and enjoy our lives more, if we encountered fewer clocks. Even without clocks, we know what part of the day we’re in- early morning, late morning, mid-afternoon- and that’s usually enough to know what we ought to be doing right now. We can set alarms for appointments easily. So why do we need the time displayed on every electronic device, at all times? That much clockage might be more than just unnecessary. Maybe there’s such thing as being too aware of the exact hour and minute. If there is, we must be well past that point.
As I’ve hidden and disabled the clocks around me, the days seem to flow better. Without question, I’m more efficient with my time, even though I’m unsure of exactly how much of it goes where. It simply feels healthier to operate with the vague sense that it’s mid-morning than to know it’s 10:24.
Almost everyone reading this remembers living in an era where you had to make some effort to check the time. You had to look around to see which room had a clock. If you were out on the street, you had to ask someone. I can’t help but feel like back then we had a healthier relationship to time.
Returning to a low-clock lifestyle has made my creative work, in particular, much less conflicted and painful. I’m less critical of myself. It feels like there’s more space to follow the natural flow of the creative process, rather than fight to get a project to the next stage.
Perhaps this improvement isn’t so mysterious. Being made aware, repeatedly, of the hour and minute prompts us to evaluate our process, and our abilities, far too frequently. Each time I see a clock, my mind is given another reason to revisit certain doubts about my day’s position and trajectory, and my capabilities- Is there a better approach to this? Will I be able to do everything else today? Can I really pull this off?
Checking the clock does more than just supply information. It connects, in our mind’s eye, what we’re doing now to everything else that must be done later. Seeing the numerical time draws our attention away from the task at hand and into the abstract realm of planning, scheduling and evaluation. When we’re trying to solve a problem or create something, maybe that’s exactly what we don’t need.
We’re so immersed in clocks and their numbers that it may be hard to see what they’re doing to our minds. So consider an analogy: Imagine if you couldn’t easily avoid knowing your current blood pressure numbers. Wherever you go, there are readouts everywhere: on towers, buildings, entertainment devices and appliances. You see it within seconds of waking, and last thing before bed. Obviously it can be useful to have access to your blood pressure numbers. But if you received 80 blood pressure updates a day, it would be considerably harder to enjoy your life. You’d spend so much time in health-evaluation mode that you’d be unable to enjoy so much as a restaurant meal without wondering what your actions mean for the big picture.
There’s an analogous psychological cost to constantly learning what time it is. Whenever we see the time, we often can’t help but remember our whole basket of obligations and goals, and wonder how we’re ever going to fit them all together. And how often do we feel completely confident in our ability to do that?
It’s easy to forget that clock time is an invention. To achieve certain social and agricultural goals, we began to imagine an abstract, numerical grid lying across our real-life, sensory experience of the Sun’s movements.
This is a useful ability, to envision the big picture in this way- to map out in our minds how things had previously been, or may be later, and assign numbers to all of these hypothetical “locations.” Doing so certainly makes it easier to plan, and communicate our plans, before returning to the real-life, ground-level work itself. But on a psychological level, there must be a point of diminishing returns for how often we enter this abstract mode of thinking. Hyper-awareness of the time makes us too concerned with measurement and evaluation- how we’re doing at what we’re doing, and what has to happen later. For most kinds of work, and maybe all kinds of leisure, that mindset is stifling to say the least.
Today, it’s incredibly difficult not to know the time. Everything is electronic, and everything electronic has a clock. We no longer have to pull out and flip open a dainty pocketwatch, or even tip our wrists, to check the time. In fact, we don’t have to check it at all- we learn the hour and minute constantly and involuntarily.
A bit of conscious, big-picture, abstract thinking—planning and scheduling—can help us use our days sensibly, but we could probably do without the several dozen additional sessions per day of unconscious, informal planning and hoping that erupt whenever our eyes catch on the numbers displayed on our laptops, phones, or microwaves. In other words, time is something we do, and we could stand to do less of it, and do it less accidentally.
I’m proposing something very simple: Become less aware of the hour and minute, and see how your experience of time changes. The easiest place to start is by disabling the clock on your computer’s desktop. You can still set alarms for appointments and other things that have to happen at a certain hour. You can still check the time. The idea is to do it less, and do it on purpose. See what happens when you navigate a little less often by the map- clock time- and a little more by the territory: the sensory experience of living life and doing your work, on an ordinary morning, afternoon, or evening. The Sun will tell you most of what you need to know.”