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About Being On Time

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by Sherry L. Ackerman, PhD

In his classic existentialist novel, The Stranger, Camus wrote, “I’d read, of course, that in jail one ends up losing track of time.” He then has his protagonist reflect upon how much “time” had governed his life before he had become incarcerated.

This is interesting – and relatively recent as the whole concept of linear “time” is a construct of modernity.

Before the 1870′s the colloquial phrase “on time” was non-existent. The industrial revolution, which brought the railroad out West, also brought us to the point of declaring a worker or a train to be “on time”. Earlier, folks simply “passed time” in their various vocations. Then along came the modern dictum that we “save”, “spend”, and “keep track of” time.

How often have we heard the phrase, “time is money”?

For most people, the clock can be a good servant, but a pretty poor master. Striving to work efficiently is a good thing in any endeavor, but approaching a task with the pressure of having to “get ‘er done” in a short amount of time….well, good luck with that! I can remember my Grandmother saying that “the ‘hurrieder” I go, the ‘behinder’ I get”.

When a job requires creativity and problem solving, worries about how much sand is left in the hourglass can be stifling and paralyzing.

Another pitfall of hurrying things along is the tendency to think about what we need to do next or, worse yet, what we should be doing instead. When this happens, we are not present in the moment. All of the pleasures of fulfillment and enjoyment slip from our grasp when we are thinking about so called “obligations” other than the matter at hand.

The Chinese pictograph for “busy” is composed of two characters: heart and killing. When I first learned this, I thought about all of the people who are “too busy” to return a phone call; the many children who get money instead of their parents’ time; and the many times that any of us has an opportunity to touch someone’s life with kindness but we are “too busy”. Life is moving way too fast: more and more people are becoming stuck in the stress of excess, which begins with possession overload and ends in time famine. It starts with choosing “stuff” over time.

Glossy, multi-colored advertisements for sleep products are regularly found in most major magazines. People just aren’t sleeping like their grandparents did. Some even claim that they don’t have time to sleep – that they are “too busy”. The sale of pre-packaged and take-out foods has increased as people claim to be “too busy” to prepare food at home. In 1900, the typical American household spent six hours a day in food prep and cleanup. Last year, Americans averaged 31 minutes a day. We have been culturally conditioned to believe that ‘time is money’.

The philosopher Heidegger explored the meaning of being as defined by time. He thought that an analysis of time gave us insight into our nature, our being. Can something as important as our nature, our very being, be defined by money? Is our life measurable in dollars and cents?

One answer to these questions is offered by voluntary simplicity. “Voluntary simplicity” describes a process whereby people opt out of the harried life of modern day living, and choose to live a more frugal, simple life. Frugality in this sense doesn’t mean poverty. Rather, it means getting good value for every minute of your life energy and from everything you have the use of. And, it frees up time!





  1. I agree, Rollo. This should be a requirement for everyone to read. When we went down to one income – the family slowed down. We were never much for going here and there and lived fairly simple (in modern western culture). The hubby still reports to work, but he has more time to relax with the family. We have had a waste not, want not attitude for quite some time – but we are beginning to see more value in that than ever before. It is not just the things you need to get by… it is our time. There are 8 times a week I worry about a clock – mornings to get kids ready for school and 3 nights of martial arts. I cannot wait to get it down to 3 and let us eat, sleep, and breathe in our own time – naturally – without worry of time. It is an amazing difference. It is healthy – physically, mentally, and emotionally.

  2. I agree Heather..I recently had some extended time off and combined with the home schooling, my daughter and I both started living a different, more detached from the world schedule. We reconnected with each other and disconnected from “the norm” It was much needed for both of us. Some clarity and peace of mind :)

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