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Time rules and regiments our lives from the moment we wake up until the end of the day – there’s no escaping our need to keep a close eye on the clock.

On the plus side, it’s the oil that allows modern society to keep ticking – how else could you have millions of people show up to work at a specific time or globally coordinate flights, trains and all manner of transport? Financial transactions rely upon split second timing and the navigation systems we now use on a daily basis function because of extremely precise clocks in the satellites circling the world above us.

Individually however, we are all astonishingly time poor. It seems like there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish what we want or make those deadlines, so we rush around like mice in a maze. Time pressure makes us walk faster, drive faster, impairs performance, adds to chronic stress, workplace stress and leads to poor food choices that leave us vulnerable to associated health problems.

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Constantly being on the go, means we mostly live on autopilot, speeding through the day with little awareness of the moment. It’s no surprise that the idea of living in the “now” and experiencing a sense of timelessness has grown so popular.

Train schedules meant that everyone had to start using the same system for measuring time rather than relying upon the rising and setting of the Sun (Credit: Getty Images)

When the Norwegian island of Sommaroy declared that it was abolishing time to become the world’s first time-free zone, the story made headlines round the world. It sounded heavenly – to leave the clock behind and do what you wanted whenever you wanted to. Fancy a swim at 4am. No problem. Unfortunately, the idea turned out to be a clever marketing stunt by Norway's tourism agency rather than the real deal.

But it raises a tantilising question – can we give up time?

From a consciousness perspective we simply can’t lose our intrinsic awareness of time, as it’s intimately connected to our sense of self, explains Marc Wittmann, a psychologist at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany.

“Our sense of body is also the basis of the sense of the passage of time,” says Wittmann. “Time and our ‘self’ are modulated together.”

Even if we were put in a cave without any external time cues or knowledge of day or night, the human body follows a roughly 24 hour cycle

Consider how fast time passes when you are dancing or having a good time. Being in the flow makes you lose track of time and self. In contrast, imagine how slowly time drags at a boring meeting and how aware you are of yourself.

Even if we were put in a cave without any external time cues or knowledge of day or night, the human body follows a roughly 24 hour cycle, known as the circadian rhythm, which is tracked by many internal molecular clocks. André Klarsfeld, a chronobiologist at ESPCI Paris-Université PSL, who studies the biological rhythms of time in organisms, says that many – if not most – cells in our body possess their own more or less autonomous clock. If those clocks get out of sync, however, it could cause problems.

“The question is how the whole collection of clocks within an organ, and between organs, remain in sync, and what kinds of pathologies result when they don’t,” asks Klarsfeld. “We are still at a very early stage in unraveling the signals involved.”

Holly Andersen, who studies the philosophy of science and metaphysics at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, also warns about what losing our sense of time could do to our sense of self. She believes it’s not possible to have conscious experience without time and the passage of time. Think about how your personal identity is built over time, filed away as memories.

“These memories constitute you over time,” says Andersen. “If you lose a bunch of time you are now a different person.”

The Norwegian island of Sommaroy's pledge to become the world’s first time-free zone was more of a publicity stunt than a real proposition (Credit: Getty Images)

If all that existed was the now, we couldn’t prepare for or anticipate anything in the future.

“I can't imagine how you would plan your goals, or how you would perceive yourself as a temporal being,” says Johanna Peetz, a psychologist at Carleton University, in Ottawa, Canada.

Time also plays a vital role in all our mental and social constructs, from understanding causality, to spoken language, social cues and more. Think of a casual look that if continued, becomes a stare.

“Time is an intrinsic part of how our biological systems, cognition, and social systems function,” says Valtteri Arstila, who studies the philosophy and psychology of time at the University of Turku, Finland. “You cannot live without it, and you would not want to do it either.”

But while we can’t give up the concept of the passage of time at such fundamental levels, we may be able to wean ourselves off our obsession with it. After all when we talk about being ruled by time, we are really referring to “clock time”, an entirely human invention.  

The tyranny of time

Time measurement is thought to have begun with the Sumerians, who divided their day into 12 units and used water clocks to keep time. Later on the Egyptians used obelisks to also divide the day into 12 equal units. As they used the rising and falling of the sun, the units would vary in length according to the season, helping them adjust their lifestyles to the shifting needs of the agricultural calendar. The need for greater accuracy saw the development of ever more accurate devices including sun dials, candle clocks and mechanical pendulum clocks. By the 17th century, watches were able to keep time to within 10 minutes give or take.

It was only in the 1800s, as railroads spread across the United States, that people began to think about regulating time to international standards. In the early nineteenth every city in the US had its own time zone – there were a mind-boggling 300 local sun-times in use. Running trains to a reliable timetable with this system was almost impossible, so time zones were introduced in the US in 1883. The international 24-hour time-zone system, which serves as a time reference for the world, was established the following year with the adoption of Greenwich Meridian Time (GMT).

For millennia, people's lives were governed by the rising and setting of the sun (Credit: Getty Images)

Clock accuracy continued to increase with the development of quartz clocks in the 1920s, and later the astoundingly sensitive atomic clocks. Today, the output of 400 atomic clocks in labs around the world is averaged to keep International Atomic Time (TAI) accurate. There are now optical atomic clocks under development that won’t lose or gain a second in 15 billion years. Our financial markets, global positioning systems and communications networks all rely upon supremely accurate clocks.

But it was during the industrial revolution that humans began to be ruled by the clocks we built. Clock time was a way to organise large groups of people, thereby managing not “individual time” but “collective time”.

Clock time is a very specific way of looking at time. As a global system it’s a less than a 100 years old. It's remarkable to realise that - David Gange

“If you think about history and clocks in monasteries, churches and railways, they basically were coordinating technologies,” says Judy Wajcman, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Pressed for Time: The Acceleration of Life in Digital Capitalism. “The big transformation everyone talks about is how labour gets commodified into clock time.”

Before this most people focused on “task-oriented time”, explains On Barak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, Israel. Importance was given to the time it took to complete a given task, from ploughing a field to reading the Quran, than using an abstract numeric notion of time. Time in agricultural economies were also more in tune with the natural rhythms of the days and seasons.

But with the industrial revolution, employers needed a way to synchronise factory workers, to coordinate the arrival of raw materials and optimise production. The answer was clocks and it fundamentally changed our relationship with the clock.

“Workers subjected to the tyranny of the clock soon started playing their bosses’ game and insisted on fixed shift times, on shortening the work-day, and on connecting monetary compensation to work-time measured by the clock (along the ‘time-is-money’ mantra),” says Barak. He points to this link between time and money in much of the language we use today – we “spend time”, for example.

There were some areas of their working lives that employees drew the line at allowing the clock to intrude. Railway workers in Cairo at the start of the 20th Century violently objected to attempts to introduce chronometers into staff toilets as part of an attempt to limit how long they spent in the bathroom. The workers destroyed the clocks and cut the rail line to Upper Egypt, clearly feeling that some things that ought not to be measured with a mechanical clock and that temporalities of one’s digestive system, trumped clock time.

It was the monetisation of time that turned it into commodity in itself and led to workers having to "clock on" at the start of their shift (Credit: Alamy)

“Clock time is a very specific way of looking at time,” says David Gange, a historian at the University of Birmingham, UK. “As a global system it’s a less than a 100 years old. It's remarkable to realise that.”

Pitfalls of Clock Time

And forcing our bodies – which have evolved to be attuned to the cycles of light and warmth, day and night with respect to where we live – to stick to an abstract notion of time that ignores those natural rhythms can lead to all sorts of problems. Shift workers, for example, can suffer from a range of mental and physical health problems as a result of the disruption their adherence to clock time causes to their natural sleep cycle.

“Many disorders with increasing prevalence, such as obesity and sleep problems, may be due at least in part to electric light,” says Klarsfeld.

There’s also evidence that switching to Daylight Saving Time (DST) – where we move clock time one hour forward relative to the cycle of daylight – disrupts our internal body clocks, leading to less sleep, worse performance in tests and learning, decreased life expectancy and cognitive issues.

The clock, it seems, isn’t terribly good for us.

“It’s essentially the only form of time that isn’t rooted in things that are going on in the world around us,” says Gange. “It allows us to be inattentive to that world by being focused solely on technologies and regularity tied to the work place and ties us to a model of capitalistic growth economics, a celebration of work rather than wellbeing that’s outdated.”

Gange, who gave up clock time for a year while living on a boat and kayaking in the North Atlantic (although he did have to use it occasionally when arranging to meet people), found that his body adapted to natural patterns, easily making it incredibly easy for him to follow the time of the day. The challenge he later found was adapting back to a life ruled by the clock.

"Its incredibly easy to follow the time of the day once you get used to it,” says Gange. “Our bodies are very good at fitting into those natural patterns even if we live with habits that take us away from them.

"The tide would be changing four times a day. Being part of this big breathing system, big engine of the weather and the changes going on around us, was a mind changing, inspirational thing and a much easier thing to adapt to than might be guessed.”

The daily hustle and bustle of life as a commuter is governed by the ticking of clocks, something that modern technology has made worse (Credit: Alamy)

But when he returned to every day life, that sense of being part of something bigger “slowly slipped away”.

Modern technology does not seem to help. While the wristwatches that were ubiquitous only a couple of decades ago have largely vanished from our arms, we instead have digital schedules on our phones and computers that beep, ping and pester us for attention. The internet feeds us with stimulation 24/7 and email means we can no longer clock off at the end of the day. Clock time is evolving into an even more intrusive form.

“Digital agendas will increasingly assume the coordinating function in offices and have additional features like reminding us and setting priorities for us,” says Helga Nowotny, a social scientist, at ETH Zurich.

Barak also says the way we spend time is important. “An hour can be very long or very short depending on whether you spend it in a traffic jam or at a party,” he says. Liberating ourselves from a reductive monetised view of the time that many in developed countries now have “would entail focusing our energies and critiques on the right targets”.

Cutting out clock time

So, how can we live without the tyranny of the clock? Giving yourself the permission to do things without any time constraints, such as wake up naturally, or go for a walk until you feel you’re done, can help to restore some of your body’s normal rhythms.

“You don't have to have a life where you meditate for ten hours a day,” says Andersen. “But letting go of the reigns of control over your actions for say a twenty minute period, can be very healthy and reset your relationship to the present.”

A society that could prioritise wellbeing and time to care for the self, relationships and the planet, would see the value of time quite differently

In the long run, we need to ask hard questions about how we truly want to live. Adjusting to our circadian rhythms would greatly contribute to our wellbeing. A collective agreement to not have work impinge on our private time is also key. Instead of prioritising work to the exclusion of all else, a society that could bring itself to prioritise wellbeing and time to care for the self, relationships and the planet, would see the value of time quite differently.

“The economic model we live in is utterly unsustainable and clock time for all of its existence has been tied to that economic model,” says Gange. “That kind of social framework needed a vision of time, to match itself up to make it work and clock time was the answer to that question. If we deeply radically rethink the ways we interact with the world, we will arrive at a different social framework and a model of time that fits it.”

It has certainly happened in the past. And even today there are places that do not adhere to the rigid constraints of clock time. In Ethiopia, for example, much of the country takes its time cues from the rising of the Sun.

But could this work everywhere? The daily rhythms of life in Iceland, for example, are very different from those of people who live in sub-Saharan Africa. In our world, already shrunk by air travel and online technology, is it really practical to introduce so many complicated systems of time-keeping?

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