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.
The Art of the Dismount
Emma has spent most of her life trying to force herself to be on time. This rarely works, because it addresses the wrong aspect of the problem. Like most polychrones, Emma isn’t reluctant to start Thing #2 but to stop Thing #1. Disengaging from a given activity is the key to living on schedule. By choreographing and practicing the skill of ending, even polychrones can stay (roughly) on schedule, no matter how much we want to linger. I’ve found the following steps essential to a successful dismount.
Accept Transition Trauma
“Parting is such sweet sorrow,” said Juliet to Romeo, “that I shall say good night till it be morrow.” Romantic, yes—but please recall that both star-crossed lovers bought the farm before reaching legal drinking age. The moral: If you can’t stand making the little transitions, you may end up making big ones you don’t like. Although disengaging feels to us polychrones like having our molars pulled, transition trauma is brief (it goes away as soon as you’re engaged with the next activity), and it’s much better than most alternatives. Decide right now to accept the sweet sorrow of parting, rather than the bitterness of being fired, dumped or wage garnished.
Plan Your Dismount Backward
Polychrones make vague, hopeful estimates about the speed at which we can get things done. We fail to plan for mistakes, distractions, traffic jams. Backward planning with worst-case scenarios can solve this problem. For example, Emma might plan her morning transition from home to work by beginning with the time she plans to walk into her office (say, 8 a.m.), then thinking through her morning in reverse, adding up the maximum time it might take her to ride the elevator, negotiate traffic, locate her keys, tinker with her makeup, bask in the shower, etc. Writing down this schedule and posting it somewhere visible will annoy Emma intensely but will help her stay on track in the morning.
Say Goodbye Before You Say Hello
If solitary activities are hard for polychrones to end, social events can be absolute nightmares. Thinking you’ll figure out how to disengage from a gathering when it’s already in progress is like a gymnast planning to come up with the idea for her dismount halfway through an Olympic routine on the uneven bars.
Before you enter social situations, I suggest that you write yourself a little “dismount script,” and rehearse it. Remember that you may have to say goodbye in several different ways before the tentacles of connection actually break: “Listen, this has been terrific, but I’ve got to run.” “I’ll give you a buzz next week, right?” “Okay, see you then!” “Take care!” Practice standing up and walking away as you recite these farewells. By the time you reach the door, even other polychrones will have resigned themselves to the fact that you’re leaving.
Set Up Redundant Reminders
Polychrones need redundant “Stop!” reminders the way airplanes need multiple engines, each of which can fly the plane solo should the others fail. I set my alarm-clock watch to go off 15 minutes before I need to stop doing something. The alarm sounds every five minutes until I deactivate it, letting everyone know I need to leave (although one polychrone friend, hearing the beep-beep for the third time, burst out, “What does that thingwant?“).
If you’re a true polychrone, get backup support from human beings to supplement mechanical reminders. I explain to everyone I deal with—co-workers, children, friends—that I’m transitionally challenged and they should call me on my cell phone if I’m even a few minutes late. Such calls often come in when I’m happily writing or rearranging the furniture. The monochrones in my life are so organized, they have no trouble remembering to remind me to show up.
Give the Dismount Half the Energy
Gymnasts who fail to “stick the dismount” get lower scores than those who muff a move earlier in their routines. Because endings are so memorable, they deserve about half the total energy you spend on any given activity—that’s right, half. This doesn’t mean someone with transition anxiety should sprint off midway through lunch or a business meeting. Setting up your dismount means that you stop beginning new tasks or raising another idea, and begin moving toward closure. Start winding up your conversation, tidying the kitchen, organizing your documents, putting things away. Say, “So, what do you plan to do next?” or “Let’s summarize our ideas for finishing this job.” At the halfway point of writing an article, perhaps, stop describing the problem and start herding up solutions. (That’s what I did here, and, believe me, it hurt.)
I need to repeat: Wrapping up an event and getting comfortable closure requires about 50 percent of the time and energy you’ll put into any given project, from a chat to a championship. Just as judges are impressed by a double-twisting forward layout finale, people will remember your performance fondly if the dismount has lots of energy.
Emma and the rest of us can start improving our lives simply by recognizing that we were born with looser internal clocks, which is a little like being left-handed in a world of right-handed can openers—not a huge disability but one that requires a little forethought, many Post-its, and, for key appointments, a marker that shows up well on skin. This acceptance allows us to begin dealing effectively with life in our local chrono-cracy. We can design, rehearse, and enlist help to master the art of the dismount. Then we can add our polychronic charm to the manic madness of modern society, without missing any crucial appointments. Which reminds me, I have to scoot, or I’ll be late for a meeting.
That wasn’t so hard, was it?