The Fallacy of Time

Look at your watch.

Right now.

And if you don’t wear a watch, look at some nearby clock (even the one on your screen will do). 

What is it doing? Other than ticking or blinking or whatever. What is it doing?

The most common answer is “marking time” or “measuring the passage of time”. Really? Is it? 

Isn’t “time” just an arbitrary, but agreed upon, fiction? Something we invented to segment our existence and organize our passage through this world?

Scientists versed in the workings of the human brain have indicated that our perception of time – particularly the passage of time – is a neurological artifact. Our brain is capable of perceiving reality only in piece-by-piece bits.


“The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we can imagine.”

J.B.S. Haldane, geneticist


And yet . . . 

And yet we – in this case meaning modern Western culture – more or less worship time. We’re concerned with being “on time” and we talk about completing tasks in a “timely fashion.” We discuss being “on the clock” (an idea I’ve always found to be profoundly uncomfortable when you think about it visually). Famously, Doc Brown’s license plate on that glorious linear-time-defying DeLorean simply said, “Outta Time.”

Why do we do this to ourselves?


An Alternative

Albert Einstein once wrote to the family of his late friend and colleague Michele Besso, “…for us physicists believe the separation between past, present, and future is only an illusion, although a convincing one.”

What would happen if we treated time as an illusion? Okay, old Albert has a point. Existing construct is a convincing illusion, but it’s still an illusion.

Or if that bothers you, how about hanging your time-perception hat with the Maori?

In New Zealand, there is a slur used by non-Maori folks referring to “Maori Time.” It’s a perception on the part of non-Maoris that the Maori people have no respect for timeliness and are lazy. They’re not lazy. They just treat time differently. So differently that it’s quite a challenge for non-Maoris to wrap their heads around it.

Maori academic and commentator, Ranginui Walker, once wrote in the New Zealand Listener magazine, “Measured time becomes meaningless as the values of relating to people, discussion, and the arrival of consensus take over.”

That’s huge.


Read it again:


“Measured time becomes meaningless as the values of relating to people, discussion, and the arrival of consensus take over.”


So Really, Time Is About Communication

Part of casting off the illusory vision of time is to cast off the over-developed sense of urgency so many of us in the Western world have created for ourselves. This sense of urgency has led many of us to lead unfulfilled lives of quiet despair.

It’s time for that to stop.


If you choose to center your life (and your livelihood) on crafting - because it is an art form – excellent communication with your clients, your family, your friends, and pretty much everyone with whom you have occasion to communicate, things will shift. 

You will likely find that your ability to hear others is improved. I mean really hear what it is they’re trying to communicate to you. Now that you’re driving time instead of it driving you, it’s easier to be patient with what is being communicated to you. You can pause to let it sink in. Give yourself a moment to set aside your filters, biases, and agenda to receive the communication stream as noiselessly as you are capable of receiving it.

You will likely find that your ability to craft an effective communication for your audience will also dramatically improve. You now have the time to consider their biases, filters, and agenda sufficiently to work with, through, and around them to get your point across. 

The Point

When I returned from my sojourn in the Middle East, I stopped wearing a wrist watch. That watch quite literally drove my existence . . . and nearly drove me mad. I still own it, but I no longer wind it as it sits quietly in its drawer. I do own an old fashioned pocket watch for those times that I want to have access to this illusory tracking system, but when it’s safely in a pocket, I have to actually complete a series of actions to access it. It’s not just a twist-and-a-glance away.

Releasing the fear and worry and pressure surrounding our made-up perception of time is a powerful action. It’s radical. And some of you no doubt think I’m insane for even suggesting it, because obviously it’s totally impossible.

Maybe it is. 

Maybe not.

You won’t know unless you try.

I’m certainly not perfect with the idea I’ve put forward here. But it is an ideal to which I strive. Slowly but surely, I’m getting there. 

Want to join me?

6 Responses to The Fallacy of Time
  1. Emma Newman
    April 2, 2009 | 10:34

    YES! I do! I hate clock watching and I hate timesheeting. Bleurgh, all nasty. Love the Maori quote, it rules.

    Emma Newman’s last blog post..Neutering my narrator

  2. christy
    April 2, 2009 | 11:20

    Fantastic! One on board! Who’s next?

  3. James | Dancing Geek
    April 2, 2009 | 20:39

    Maori time. I like it. And not just as an excuse to be non-punctual. :)

    James | Dancing Geek’s last blog post..Fear of biggifying

  4. Graham Storrs
    April 3, 2009 | 01:25

    Maori time? What about agent time? Or publisher time? (Perhaps agents and publishers are just an illusion too. It would explain a lot.)

    But seriously, forgetting that time is, in fact, a real and measurable property of our Universe, isn’t time for us a useful social construct? Isn’t it a way of making all the many parts of our society work better together? And I don’t just mean trying to get the gas man to call when the company says he will, or knowing when your train will leave the station so that you can be on it. I mean things like agreeing with your spouse when you’ll have dinner because, otherwise, you’d sit in your room writing all night and forget you have other people to consider.

    Isn’t that why ‘Moari time’ is an insult, because it suggests people neglecting your needs and rudely reneging on promises they’ve made you?

    Graham Storrs’s last blog post..Agents Failing Authors

  5. christy
    April 3, 2009 | 08:34

    Agent time … snort! :)

    I hear what you’re saying, but would ask you to consider that the approach you outline … measuring time as an aspect of respect for another person … is based on a different worldview.

    Would you rather: a) have your time respected or b) be respected yourself for who you are?

    The difference may be somewhat subtle, but it is important.

    Also … Einstein (and many quantum physicists) might argue that our perception of time may be measured; not time itself. Because space is inextricably linked to time, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle comes into play when trying to measure what we call time. Just something to consider.

  6. Diana
    April 11, 2009 | 11:16

    My favorite subject! I am obsessed with time and the shortness of my life. Since I retired early, I have no set schedule and work from home. Don’t envy me, it’s disconcerting. I have plans but execute them willy nilly. I like the flow of my days now but it’s very difficult to accept the lack of pay in exchange for freedom, but I must. I can no longer tolerate control of my time.

    I work in my studio when I am ready. I eat when I’m hungry not at the lunch hour. I often forget to do things “on time” and then feel like I’m springing apart, or becoming forgetfully middle-aged. But really I am just living. Those things I forget are not important at the moment.

    I make no plans with others that I don’t have to – see this can really take hold if you let it – because I dread having to fulfill them (plans). I may be in the mood, or not. This speaks to Graham’s comment. It’s not that I don’t want to see friends and family. It’s that I wish there were some way to make that process more instinctual. In the old days, people dropped by when they wanted to see you. This modern age of having to arrange to speak to someone is unfortunate. Our needs have gotten mixed up. Money, work, GTD. ugh.

    As for the perception of time, my distant past is in many cases fresher in my mind than yesterday. It’s like it all happened at once, but some of it (the future) hasn’t come into view yet.

    Diana’s last blog post..All wells eventually run dry in the desert, cont.

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