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The Case For Not Knowing What Time It Is

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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 doand 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.

***

Photo by Annie Spratt

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{ 46 Comments }

Priscilla September 7, 2017 at 5:06 am

I’m so glad to finally meet (well, come across online) someone else who doesn’t live with a clock strapped to their wrist! I got rid of my watch 15 years ago. I can’t see any clocks in the house without having to get up and go look at the microwave clock. I’ve found it much easier to fully lose myself in a task this way, rather than just checking off the list of to-do’s on the refrigerator. Like you, I set an alarm so I can get to work, an appointment, or whatever on time.

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 8:23 am

I’m not sure why this isn’t a more popular thing. We’ve caught on to the downside of too much connectivity and too many screens, but not the downside of too many clocks, even though it’s an older problem. It’s such an easy adjustment too.

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Taavi Lai September 7, 2017 at 5:12 am

And teen there’s the issue of task switching in your brain that you need to do to check time – it was something like 10-15 seconds of wasted time and breake in creative flow every time you switch tasks … (according vaguely remembered research findings)

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 8:24 am

Yes, exactly. It’s ironic that we interrupt ourselves so often, for a culture that is so preoccupied with efficiency and productivity.

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Jeroen September 7, 2017 at 6:16 am

This makes a lot of sense and deserves more attention. I think alot of people can benefit from having fewer sense of time. It applies to me because I’m working in the creative copywriting business. The struggle I will encounter is the fact of having to be billable and have proof for it. So somekind of timetracking will be mandatory. Any thoughts on that?

You’re inspiring David, thx.

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 8:27 am

We do all need to use clock time, yes. The point is that we check them much more often than we need to, because there are clock displays everywhere. So you check the time and the beginning and end of your billable time for a given client, and whenever you need to to stay on track. In the mean time, while you’re working, don’t have a clock in line of sight.

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Rocky September 7, 2017 at 7:51 am

I think this dovetails nicely with your idea of putting your cell phone out of reach. The first thing you see when you engage your phone is it’s digital clock boldly displayed.
So … I am sold. I now plan to wage guerilla warfare against clocks and dismantle them everywhere I find
them, both public and private.
Many thanks David !

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 8:28 am

Right, yes. That’s what I’m saying — put the clock just out of reach, so that you have to move or go somewhere to check the time (i.e. you only check it on purpose, when it matters).

I was unable to get the time off my phone. Apparently you have to root the phone in order to do it, which I’m not willing to do.

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Mrs. Grumby September 7, 2017 at 8:31 am

Limiting awareness of clock time is a valuable exercise!

I find that when I’m too aware of clock time, my mind most often goes into scarcity mode. And when I conciously avoid clocks, I experience more abundance and flow.

Thanks for this great post!

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 9:12 am

Totally. And I’ve also found, that on those odd occasions where I check the clock and feel an abundance of time, it only makes me feel free to waste time. Lose-lose!

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John September 7, 2017 at 8:38 am

Fantastic.

This article resonated with me very much

raptitude.com seems to produce amazing content – I look forward to it!

going to try to disable the clock on my phone as well

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 9:13 am

I tried to disable the clock on my phone and I couldn’t do it. I could probably remove it from the lock screen with a third party app, but removing the status bar clock (on android at least) requires rooting the phone :/

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JC September 12, 2017 at 11:26 pm

Perhaps a tiny sliver of black electrical tape, in just the right spot on the status bar – to experiment…

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Diane September 7, 2017 at 8:51 am

I loved my whole summer like this and it was glorious. Plus I was more productive!! Great to read a how to article about this! What a way to be!

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 9:14 am

I want to take this further, maybe doing an experiment where I hide all my clocks, wake up and eat based on my body’s internal time, and only use clock time for appointments. We’ll see…

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Mernsley September 8, 2017 at 8:35 am

I would be very interested in hearing the results of this experiment. I think I’ll try it myself. I’ve got a four day weekend thanks to Irma :/ so now is as good a time as any to try it.

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Gabrielle Bauer September 7, 2017 at 9:12 am

Love your posts. There’s so much dreck on the Internet and your blog really stands out.

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David Cain September 7, 2017 at 9:15 am

Aw thanks Gabrielle.

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Andrew September 7, 2017 at 11:45 am

I bought a cell-signal blocking bag for my phone because I was concerned about news articles suggesting that phones could be attacked remotely even when in airplane mode or otherwise disabled by software. Plus I was a little creeped out by the Google Maps “hey, I noticed you were at this specific restaurant earlier, what did you think?” notifications.

I started walking around with my phone in the bag constantly to see if improved privacy was worth so much inconvenience. As it turned out, it was an unexpectedly positive change. With the bag, I to need to take the phone out to check messages (and I don’t get any notifications until I do except for scheduled alarms) or even to check the time. Somehow un-velcroing the bag is a deliberate enough action that I don’t do it unconsciously, and because I get a flood of notifications whenever I do it, I’m hesitant to do so unless I have time to respond to everything.

At first it made me very uncomfortable to not have access to the current time, but gradually I learned to get a feel for how long things take without assigning numbers to them, and started treating time more experientially than numerically.

Similarly, I’ve started using paper maps, which have no blue GPS dot, which have made me much more aware of my surroundings and how they relate to each other.

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:51 am

I love how unplanned disruptions to our routines so often make it clear that there are better ways to live than we have been.

I’ve been meaning to write an article about that phenomenon you mentioned: how a tiny obstacle, like a strip of velcro, is enough of a disincentive to disrupt a pattern completely.

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Bob September 7, 2017 at 12:32 pm

Interesting read.  The prevalence of digital clocks does feel like a progress bar sometimes, doesn’t it?  To our mind’s eye, “10:24 AM” translates to “the day is 43% done; am I 43% done with my day?”.  Your experiment sounds interesting and I may give it a try.  I think there may be some discomfort in the beginning though — the computer programmer in me likes being able to quantify things, and feels lost when it can’t.

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:53 am

My analytical mind slips really easily into that kind of evaluation. And it isn’t always a good thing. I noticed that when it was later than I thought, I started to beat up on myself, or want to compromise in some way, and when I had more time I felt like I had permission to goof off a bit. Bad combination.

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Diogenesdog September 7, 2017 at 1:36 pm

Time? Hell I barely know what day it is.

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:53 am

Friday

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Anna September 7, 2017 at 10:58 pm

My biggest talent is my ability to guess the time without looking at a Watch. When it is time to go and fetch the kids and im working in the Holiday home or the garden where there is no clocks, i start to feel a sort of restless panicky feeling when it is time to go and fetch the kids. 90% of the time it is exactly the moment to fetch the kids. We dont have an alarmclock so me and my husband have trained ourselves to wake up without one. My husband jumps out of bed at 7 and i usually jump out of bed at about 5am. I trust that my body has had enough sleep. If i want to get up at another time i just look at the clock that is next to my bed and count in my head to the time i want to wake up and imagine it written on the clock. I always wake up exactly at this time…. no matter how late i have been to bed. We dont even set the alarm for important early wakeups …. we trust our subconscious to wake us. I had a Watch for a year or so but i was SO glad when it broke because i was looking at it about 100 times a day. I dont keep my phone on me at all times and dont even remember i have a clock on it.

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Anne September 8, 2017 at 5:13 am

You’re lucky you have this ability. I constantly lose track of the time and therefore need to check it repeatedly to make sure I’m on track with everything that needs to get done before I have to go fetch my son. I feel like this is another Raptitude article that isn’t very practical for or even applicable to parents, like the other one about time being a construct.

That said, I haven’t worn a watch in 25 years and prefer it that way.

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:54 am

I think my next experiment is to try alarm-clock free living. I already feel better without so much accidental time-checking, but I’m really afraid of not having an alarm clock. Usually that means there’s something to learn there.

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Daryl September 17, 2017 at 2:50 pm

Moving the alarm clock has been one of the better decisions I’ve made over the years. I tend to wake up several times a night for whatever reason, and not looking at the clock prevents me from registering these episodes so much or becoming concerned about how much sleep I’m going to get, what I have to do in a few hours, etc.

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DiscoveredJoys September 8, 2017 at 2:05 am

‘Railway Time’ (see the Wikipedia article) is a relatively recent invention to enable synchronisation of peoples’ efforts across wider distances. And yes, it has colonised the way we think of time and the world.

If we still used local ‘solar time’ we would probably be more relaxed and productive in local tasks but a lot of our technological infrastructure would struggle. I still use ‘Railway Time’ but (now I’m retired) I rarely wear a watch, my cellphone has a cover, and I rarely worry about the accuracy of the other gadgets (including clocks, duh!) that show time. About the only time I wear a watch is when I travel on holiday which is an inversion of the typical use…

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:57 am

Damn railroad tycoons! Capitalism has definitely been the major force behind our over-awareness of minutes. It’s just too profitable not to measure productivity in dollars per hour/minute. But now I don’t work for tycoons anymore, so I can let go of some of those conventions.

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Luisa September 8, 2017 at 5:31 am

Even though I think it is a nice concept, I really don’t think it is very practical in our day-to-day lives, depending on what kind of job you have (among many other factors). I mean.. I could and actually do sometimes forget about time during the weekend. But from monday to friday, my husband and I need to take the kids to daycare and school, as well as drive ourselves to work. I can’t tell the teacher ‘I’ll be bringing my kid somewhere around 9 am’ or tell my boss he shouldn’t be too aware of the time.
Also, I don’t think being aware of the time is necessarily hindering our productivity, though I can definitely see that the day would probably flow better if we weren’t so aware of it all the time.
I understand what you mean and I think it’s amazing that you get to live like that.

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Ani Castillo September 8, 2017 at 9:37 am

You know? I thought about this too… I guess having kids makes life a tiny bit more complicated!

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:58 am

You definitely need to do it in a way that suits your schedule and obligations. I’m not suggesting you remove clocks from your life, only reducing the number of times you accidentally see clocks while you’re working. This principle isn’t only applicable to certain lifestyles.

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Rakesh Horkeri September 8, 2017 at 6:27 am

This serves as a timely reminder for me at least, since it rings with what I had observed and written about a year earlier.
https://rakeshhorkeri.wordpress.com/2016/01/30/timeless/
But somehow the ebb of life brought back things to square one.
I am taking the first step. Disabling the clock on my desktop. :)
Also it shows how good of a writer you are. It is basically the same idea what I had wrote. Mine seems like a 10th grade student’s draft in comparison to yours. :D

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David Cain September 8, 2017 at 11:59 am

The desktop clock is huge. We can always check the time easily enough, but it has never served be to see it fifty times an hour while I’m trying to write.

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Abhijeet Kumar September 8, 2017 at 9:42 pm

Time is a crazy thing. As you mentioned in another blog of yours, it elongates, shortens based on what is going on inside us (and vice-versa?). I haven’t tried taking a break from clock watching. But this is an interesting idea.

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You're wrong! September 9, 2017 at 8:04 pm

You’re wrong!

It’s the earth that moves, not the sun. ;)

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Burak September 12, 2017 at 5:19 am

Thanks Copernicus! ;)

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David Cain September 12, 2017 at 2:11 pm

haha

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Anagha September 11, 2017 at 5:58 am

Loved the idea!!!of making the visible clock dormant which keeps the brain ticking four times more than needed and brings in fifteen more subjects we rush through in our brain before realizing we lost the track or time for the one we were working on…

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David Cain September 12, 2017 at 2:13 pm

Exactly… when you think about it, it’s not a small difference. If you glance at the clock only five times an hour, that’s still five more moments per hour when you zoom out from the task at hand. I don’t know how many kinds of work could be go on just as smoothly with that as without.

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wellrichk September 11, 2017 at 5:27 pm

The invention of ‘digital’ clocks has led to a false sense of accuracy and precision of time. The numeric value is absolute and the interpretation is that it must be correct, leaving no room for variance. The ‘analog’ clock or watch with sweep hands allowed the brain to interpret the time visually and provide less precision. Ask a child to tell time from the analog device and they get lost in time!

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David Cain September 12, 2017 at 2:09 pm

That’s a good point… analog clocks give you a sense of greater or lesser swathes of time remaining in the day. Digital clocks give you a sense of rank, or numerical position in the day, which sends our brains into calculation mode.

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Melissa September 12, 2017 at 9:30 am

After reading this I didn’t think to much of it until I got home and began studying for the CPA exam. With my new found perspective on time (due to your blog) I realized that a large portion of my study time is wrapped up in when it’s going to end and anxiety about how much studying I’m getting in.

I applied the novice level of your technique. My goal being just to focus on the concept I needed to learn and ignore what time it was, how many more days until the test, how many chapters I have left to learn etc.

The result was I was able to focus longer, getting further into the chapter than usual and when I stopped for the evening I didn’t have that sense of the session being inadequate.

I need more practice in this skill but I appreciate you bringing this to my attention.

I enjoy reading your blogs because I feel like you are not only instructing on how be a better human, but also how to make being a human easier. Enjoy your day.
Now I have some studying to do :)

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David Cain September 12, 2017 at 2:11 pm

That is the primary change I’ve noticed… I didn’t zoom out into time management mode nearly as often. I just stayed with the task.

Happy studying!

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KG September 15, 2017 at 5:52 pm

Great insights about time. Time is a totally man-made concept, not natural to life’s way of being at all. I’ve never worn a watch and trust my intuitive sense of timing most often. There’s a lot more sense of freedom and space in my day for creating. Thank you!!

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