Last week at work, I went through some timed creative-thinking exercises. Some were fun, intriguing and even a little helpful. One, however, involved designing something which would keep track of time. No budget, no boundaries. Just take 15 minutes to think up some new device that would be useful in keeping time. After I completed it, I read in the instructor’s end notes that this was supposed to help you learn to think outside the box, to not limit yourself to ideas based on things that already existed. That exercise did not teach me anything close to that.
What it taught me was that I really hate keeping time.
I have suspected this for a while, but the exercise only confirmed this in a visceral, deep-seated loathing that surfaced while trying to accomplish the task. I don’t want another way to track time, I thought. In fact, that’s the last thing I want. What I actually want is a way to move within it differently. To be looser with time, less strict. I want moving through time to be more like a rubber band. Stretchy. Adjustable.
There are a lot of “life values” quizzes that contain some form of this question: “What would you do differently if you knew you only had a short while to live?” My answer has become this: to the best of my ability (with some exceptions), I would never, ever look at a clock again.
I think what the exercise produced was the acknowledgement (and resentment) that I let clocks make far too many of my decisions for me, and when it boils down to the bottom of it, those reasons are largely based on tradition, efficiency, productivity and economics. If I could afford to swing outside of the system even a little, I would make my decisions based on other things. I would let my body tell me when it needed sleep. I would let it tell me when it was rested—waking up, not to a loudly-beeping machine, but maybe to the sunlight or the birds. I wouldn’t quit my job, but I wouldn’t worry so much about being 5 or 10 minutes late. Then I would get lost in my projects, working on them until I was deeply satisfied, not when it was just the scheduled time to go home or to move on to the next task. I would let my body tell me when it was hungry, instead of the clock telling me it was time for scheduled food intake. Why let a machine tell me when I’m hungry? It has no connection to my stomach.
I would like to experience time with a little more generosity, a little more give and take. Schedules can be useful, and even helpful—if I’d like to meet a friend at the gym or the movies or dinner, it does help if we show up roughly in the same time frame. But when everything gets too scheduled, I can feel myself start to shrink, in a bad dream where the clock hands loom larger and larger overhead, and I feel myself get smaller and smaller. Never mind small closets. I get claustrophobic in those small spaces between the notches on a clock.
Those hands on the clock will keep going around and around, but to be able to move more freely in and around those little notches? That would be something. After all, in the grand scheme of things, we really do have only a short while to live.