Emma is a poster girl for Newton’s first law of motion: Once she starts doing something, she just keeps doing it until acted upon by some external force. Each day when Emma’s alarm clock rings, she drowsily hits the snooze button several times. The shower, when she finally gets there, is so steamy and fragrant, she lingers twice as long as strictly necessary. She dresses hurriedly, only to check the mirror and change. And so it goes: Coffee savoring takes 15 minutes; lipstick experimentation, five minutes; car key searching, another 10. Emma often arrives at the office late—but that’s okay, because once there, she works into the night, until an external force in the form of her frustrated husband calls to see if she’s alive. Emma stays up late to offer compensatory companionship, ensuring that in the morning, when the alarm clock rings, she’ll be too tired to get up.
People either think Emma is an inconsiderate laggard or they shrug off her chronic difficulty making transitions, give her lavish time cushions, and judge her based on anything but punctuality.
There’s a key difference between people who become irritated with Emma and those who share Emma’s inability to segue from one thing to the next. The first group has what is known as a monochronic time sense. They see time as fixed, rigid and absolute. On the other side of the spectrum, folks who are polychronic see time as loose and elastic. Any moment, to a polychrone, is capable of holding many things. Which of these descriptions (borrowed from anthropologist Edward T. Hall) fits you best? See below!
- Do one thing at a time.
- View time commitments as critical.
- Are committed to jobs (projects and tasks).
- Adhere religiously to plans.
- Emphasize promptness, always.
- Are accustomed to short-term relationships.
- Do many things at once and are highly distractible.
- View time commitments as objectives.
- Are committed to people and relationships.
- Change plans often.
- Base promptness on the significance of the relationship.
- Have a strong tendency to build lifelong relationships.
Entire cultures can be polychronic or monochronic. In a polychronic country, dinner may continue throughout the night, and appointment times are suggestions, not space-launch absolutes. But First World cultures (except maybe Mediterranean ones) are extremely monochronic. Our high-tech society requires human synchronization on a massive scale: Huge numbers of us must show up at precisely agreed upon places, at precisely agreed upon times.
As we’ve used technology to cram our schedules with more things to do, shaving away ever-slimmer time margins, we’re reaching extremes that test the mettle of even thoroughbred monochrones. The slamming thud of the seconds passing on the TV series 24 could be our anthem of angst. It’s gone so far that one expert calls First World countries chronocracies, in thrall to rigid scheduling. And for people like Emma, this can be disastrous.
Each of us is capable of functioning in either a polychronic or monochronic way. A New Yorker in the South Seas might gradually slow down and learn to enjoy telling time by the position of the sun. By the same token, a Polynesian working on Wall Street must adapt to strict timing. I’m not quite as polychronic as Emma, but even for me, life in America feels like perpetually rushing to five-alarm emergencies in an ambulance pulled by stoned cats.
We polychrones can’t help that our attention wanders off in random directions, or that we focus on interesting sensations to the point of total amnesia and blithely forget birthdays and deadlines. We get into every known species of trouble: Colleagues bristle when they’re kept waiting, family members wonder if we’re lying dead in a ditch. Losing awareness of time seems bizarre to more formally structured minds, and claiming “not guilty by reason of polychronicity” just doesn’t wash with, say, the IRS.
The solution to this problem isn’t to do away with polychronic tendencies altogether. That would leave the world a poor place indeed—we’d have to eliminate all 2-year-olds, not to mention poets and snowboarders. I personally think our whole society could use a more laid-back approach, but a massive cultural shift doesn’t appear to be imminent, so we polychrones have to find some way to be ourselves without losing our jobs, offending our associates and yammering a constant stream of half-baked apologies. How? We must learn something I call the art of the dismount.