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Past: Regret. Present: Stress. Future: Worry!

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
–William Blake: Auguries of Innocence

Wasting time and time management, hourly wage, multitasking, deadlines, bank accounts, financial investments, insurance and retirement planning are all facets of the same way of thinking about time. They signify a linear understanding of time: present becomes past and present anticipates the future. The passing of time is conceptualized as the inexorable ticking of the clock, the falling away of calendar pages, the steady progression of weeks, years, centuries.

The Linear Time Trap

HaroldLloyd_Time Our focus on the passing of time has behavioral consequences, in that our choices and preoccupations reflect its linearity. We think of the past with either longing or regret, we are concerned for our individual and collective future, and we seek to squeeze every second of the present time (at the expense of sleep, relaxation, vacations, the view, smelling the roses) in securing a safer and (it is only hoped) more peaceful (and more relaxed) future. It is a quest that never ends, so long as there is a future ahead of us.

How are we managing linear time? Many have observed that many people seem unable to adequately make sense of their past or fulfill their plans and hopes for the future. The missed opportunities or perceived failures of the past, the demands of what appears as a shrinking present, and the worries and uncertainties of the future can manifest emotionally as guilt, regret, stress, anxiety, and unfulfilled expectations. Behaviorally, they may result in often futile attempts to “manage time” (understood simply as ways to cram more activities into our day), attempts to forget about the passing of time (with various pleasure enhancing products and activities), and earnest pursuits of that one thing (or two, or ten) that will insure and ensure a safe future.

The Endless Chase After the Future

Thinking of time in a linear fashion, we can reflect upon the past as well as make plans for the future. The only true reality is the present time and that’s where anything that is going to happen happens, just before it becomes part of the past. It would seem that a focus on the present is our best choice. In reality, however, it is the endless preparation for the future that consumes the majority of most people’s lives. Most human activities are undertaken to help make a better future, rather than as ends in themselves.

While there are clear benefits to thinking of time in a strictly linear manner, with an emphasis on what is yet to happen, this approach is not devoid of problems.  For many, the present is burned quickly by and becomes little more than planning for the future, which, in reality, never exists.

Is There Another Way to Think About Time?

The linear perception of time appears to be more of a Western cultural phenomenon. Larger portions of humanity perceive time as polychronic. Contrary to linear time, a polychronic view of time sees it as more fluid and not as rigid or precise, allowing for plans to be changed more easily and without much trouble. Schedules and timetables are not as important, and lateness is more acceptable. Many actions are performed at the same time, and completion of tasks is more important than preset schedules.

A polychronic perception of time is more prevalent in Latin American, Native
American, and Middle Eastern cultures, as well as in Asian cultures that view time as circular. Nature itself appears to keep a circular rhythm of time, with the return of day after night, warmth after cold, growth after fallowness, in a repeating cycle that seems to know no beginning and no end.

It is not unusual for Westerners accustomed to linear time to feel psychologically stressed when coming in contact with a culture that follows polychronic time. It seems more chaotic, disorganized, and far less predictable. Even leaving aside the fact that these cultures tend to have fewer problems with time-induced stress and anxiety disorders, the alternative of what is now being called “slow” time has an almost magic appeal. Minimalist approaches to life, slow food movements, flexible work time… perhaps an end to the slavery of the clock is near. Happy Labor Day!