Last year I made a list of my recurring negative thoughts. Topping my list was: “There’s never enough time.”
As a freelance writer, I lead a life of frantic multi-tasking, each month peppered with deadlines and to-do lists, newsletters to send out and a website to maintain. Like everyone else, I balance work commitments with family responsibilities, household tasks, critter care, exercise and fitness, and spirituality. How can I get all this stuff done if I dare take the time to meet my friends for lunch or go somewhere fun with my husband?
Add the crunch of a struggling fiction market. These days, it’s not enough for writers to simply write – we also have to market and publicize ourselves, otherwise we might not sell enough copies to get another contract. New and aspiring authors also feel the pressure to create a massive social media following just to sell their first book and get their foot in the door. All this, of course, creates a vicious circle as writers and other creatives feel the obligation to spend an increasing amount of time on social media hyping ourselves. The end result is that we have precious little time left over to actually write. Writing of any depth demands hours of uninterrupted time.
Too many of us have been brainwashed by dictum of Western linear time and our dysfunctional global work ethic of cramming as much as we can into every single day so we can be a “success.” Even our leisure must somehow be constructive or morally improving. We live in a culture where it’s considered indulgent or even heretical to just be.
Add smartphones to the mix, Big Tech’s greatest weapon of mass distraction, and you get a culture of smombies (Smartphone Zombies–the Germans actually invented the word) staring at their screens while shuffling robotically from one task to the next. More and more people can’t even sit through a family meal or a movie without checking their phones. Meanwhile Facebook and Google, et al, gleefully mine our data while hypnotizing us with Fake News that can swing national elections, thus putting our democracies at risk.
We weren’t meant to live this way. Our workaholic, screen-centric lifestyle is plunging us into depression and burn out to the point where we even forget we’re human. Perhaps the most poignant piece of writing I’ve read on this subject is Andrew Sullivan’s searing essay, “I Used to Be a Human Being.”
If we’re chained to the soul-destroying hamster wheel of busyness, time flies all too quickly. I began to despair as the years started slipping away like sand through open fingers. More than anything I wanted to stop the clock and jump off that wheel. To truly live my life instead of watching it go by while I was too busy to enjoy it.
Some world cultures never stepped on that wheel to begin with. My friend, the writer, artist, and Yoga teacher Stephanie Renee dos Santos, told me she once lived with tribespeople in Niger, West Africa, where linear time as we know it did not exist. Throughout most of human history, we thrived without clocks to measure our time. Instead we looked to the natural cycles of sun, moon, and seasons.
Joan Lindsay (1896-1984), author of Picnic at Hanging Rock and the semi-autobiographical novel Life Without Clocks, embraced the Australian Aboriginal People’s belief of Dreamtime. In this worldview, the mythic beginning of creation never ended. Past, present, and future exist as a continuum. Lindsay, in a 1975 video interview with the Australia Council, described time as being all around us, not linear: “I always felt that it was something that was all round one, not just a long line in a calendar. I feel that one’s in the middle of time and that the past, present and future is really all round.” She lived without clocks and claimed that if she wore a watch, it would stop.
The closest I’ve come to escaping the constraints of Western linear time was while camping in the Namibian desert in the 1990s. The campground generator–and thus all electricity–went out at 7:30 pm, plunging me into the velvet darkness of the African night, free from any light pollution. In the African desert, I caught my first glimpse of the Milky Way. After stargazing, I went to bed and woke up at sunrise, living in sync with nature rather than numbers on a clock.
So how can we slow down time while still functioning in the modern Western world?
Reclaim the Day of Rest: Set aside one day a week as your holy day, reserved for being, not doing. Go offline. Don’t work. At all. Immerse yourself in your spiritual practice without watching the clock. Connect with nature, animals, and the humans you love. Be present, here and now.
Embrace Digital Minimalism: I took a break from social media for the entire month of March and literally had the time of my life, basking in the liberated hours I had suddenly regained. I also deleted all social media apps from my phone.
Take Refuge in Nature: Connect with the natural world every day, even if it’s “just” walking through a city park or down a leafy street. Be present. No earbuds. Switch off your phone. Lose yourself in the sensory experience of birdsong, sunlight, grass beneath your feet, the wind on your face, the wonder of the changing seasons. Florence Williams, author of The Nature Fix, says that awe in the beauty of nature creates a perception of an expansion, or slowing down, of time.
Mary Sharratt is on a mission to write women back into history. Her novel, Ecstasy, about composer and life artist Alma Mahler, is now out in paperback. Learn more at her website. If you enjoyed this article, please sign up for Mary’s newsletter.