Simple Manifesto: Break Free from the Tyranny of the Clock

“But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day.” – Benjamin Disraeli

By Leo Babauta

For tens of thousands of years, human beings didn’t have clocks. They lived, amazingly, by the sun and the moon and seasons and the needs and rhythms of their bodies.

The clock is a very very recent invention, and even more recent is our modern society’s slavish adherence to the dictatorship of the clock.

Only very recently have we been forced to work from 8 to 5, and to go to school and follow a very rigid class schedule. Only very recently have we become obsessed with tracking and making use of every minute, so that we have things to do when we’re waiting for other things to happen.

Only recently did we begin to lose our humanity, begin to lose the art of conversation and the art of listening to our bodies, begin to lose sight of what’s really important and begin to become robots.

I’m as guilty as anyone else, but as I simply my life I begin to question the culture that surrounds me and wonder why it is that I feel so pressured to do things so quickly, by a timeline or schedule set by others, to be so productive when what I really want is to be happy.

Have you ever felt that way? I know I’m not alone.

I have a solution, and it’s not original I’m sure but it surely isn’t as common as it should be: break free from the clock. Get in touch with the rhythms of life, of your body and of nature. Be more relaxed and reject the notion that time rules us.

The Benefits of Being Free of Clockhood

Now, I’m not saying that we should throw our clocks and watches away (though I don’t own a watch) … I’m not saying we should all quit our jobs and go live in the woods. I know that my reality is different from most people, as I’m my own boss — but ask yourself, is it possible for you to be your own boss? And if not, is it possible at least to find a job where you can set your own schedule? For many people, it is possible. For others, you won’t be able to live all the tenets of this manifesto, but you can change smaller things, here and there.

Why should you change things? Because the clock is meaningless — we follow it without really realizing why. We follow it because we’ve been raised to believe we should, and because those who control us (bosses, corporations, schools, etc.) set schedules we must follow. The clock, then, is a means to control us — and that, in my book, is as good a reason to break free from it as any.

Beyond issues of freedom, breaking free from the clock is healthier. It’s healthier to follow your natural sleep rhythms, to eat when you’re hungry rather than when it’s time to eat, to live a more relaxed schedule rather than to be stressed out all the time trying to meet deadlines and follow artificial schedules.

How to Break Free

It’s probably not advisable to try to change your life drastically, if you are interested in breaking free of the clock’s tyranny. Change things a little at a time. Below are a few things I’ve been doing, or that I’m trying to do, that you might consider. You don’t have to do all of them — pick one and give it a try, and see if it is useful. The list, of course, isn’t comprehensive, but I hope it helps you spark some ideas of your own.

  1. Don’t eat on the clock. Why do you think we’re taught to eat “three squares a day”? In human history, this is a very strange concept. People used to eat when they were hungry (or at least, when the food was available), not at predetermined times of the day. The answer, of course, is that it is a better structure for industrialized corporations — people, in the early days of working in factories, had to be broken from their natural eating patterns and only given one meal break a day. Too many eating breaks means lost profits! So we learned to eat before work, then once during work, then after work. Partly as a result of that, we’re ravenous during lunch and dinner times, and we overeat. And we eat unhealthy stuff because of our ravenous hunger, and we get fat. Instead, learn to listen to your body, and eat when you get a little hungry. Grazing is a good thing, actually. Eat healthy stuff if you can, and don’t eat beyond what it takes to satisfy your body’s hunger. Don’t eat if you’re not hungry just because it’s time to eat. Learn to trust your body’s hunger signals, and you’ll become much healthier.
  2. Don’t work on the clock. We work on set schedules for the same reason — for corporations to maximize profits. But we don’t need to be controlled by corporations. If you have the chance to set your own schedule, learn to find the times when you have the most energy, and do your important work at these times. Learn to follow your passion, and do work that gets you excited, and you’ll do a better job. Many companies these days allow people to change their schedules and work from anywhere — these are the companies you want to work for (unless you can find a way to work for yourself). These are the companies of the future, that recognize that people aren’t robots and need to be able to work whenever they want, as long as they get the work done.
  3. Do fewer things. This is a maxim of Zen Habits, of course — do the important stuff, not just busywork. Do less, but focus on the high-impact stuff. I’m repeating it here because it’s an important cornerstone of the clockless method: if you do fewer things, you can do them at a more relaxed pace, instead of rushing to try to do everything within a set schedule. This rule applies not only to your work life, but to your life in general — do fewer errands, chores, civic activities, etc. in order to have a more relaxed schedule.
  4. A more relaxed schedule. Once you’ve learned to do fewer things, and to work when your energy is high, you can learn to structure your day at a more relaxed pace. Leave lots of space between appointments so that you have transition time to get ready, to get to where you need to go, to finish up what you were doing, without having to rush. Or better yet, avoid making appointments. Know what you want to do today, but do them in any order you like and at whatever time works best for you.
  5. Meditate and/or exercise. These two related activities allow you to get more in touch with yourself, you inner mind, and with the world around you. If you sit in an office all day, when will you get outside to breathe fresh air and see what the sky looks like? If you don’t stop doing the million things you do every day, when will you be able to close your eyes and listen to what is happening within you? While you don’t need to meditate or exercise every day, I highly recommend it.
  6. Take naps. Naps have been given a bad name (though they seem to be making a comeback), mostly because people who take naps are seen as lazy. Yet in many countries outside the United States, people take regular naps in the afternoons (think siestas) and in my opinion, this is a more enlightened way of living. Since working from home, I have discovered the power of the nap, and have come to look forward to it almost as much as I look forward to exercise. When you find yourself getting tired in the middle of the day, listen to your body and sleep.
  7. Learn to listen to your intuition. We have become out of touch with our intuitions. Now, I’m not a new-agey hippy type (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I do believe that listening to our bodies and our non-rational minds has a lot of value. It is healthier and saner. However, it’s not easy to learn — it takes time, and it takes listening. Try it today, and see if you can stop resisting your intuition and live more in tune with yourself.
  8. Take time to talk and connect. How many times have you run into a friend or family member, said a quick hello, and then moved on because you were in a hurry? When did we lose touch with our fellow human beings? I believe that this is a key to our dehumanization, to our becoming robots: we no longer connect with other people as much as we used to do. We’ve lost the skills necessary to have an enjoyable, relaxed conversation. We’ve lost the institutions that encourage discussion and debate and thinking and participation. Instead, we watch TV and stare at the computer and sit in our cubicles and our one-person cars and rarely if ever make human contact. This separation disempowers us (if that’s even a word, but it should be), and makes us powerless and inhuman. Instead, next time you see someone you know (or even if you don’t know them), stop, breathe, smile, relax, talk, listen.
  9. Spend time on the important things. Another maxim of Zen Habits, of course: learn to step back and think about what’s important in your life. Learn to spend time doing these things instead of the things that have naturally come to fill your life. Forget about schedules and clocks and instead focus on what’s important. You’ll be glad you did.
  10. “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” – Henry David Thoreau