Time Sickness

My family took an actual vacation last week. My wife, daughter and I flew to Florida. We spent three days at Walt Disney World, three days at Madeira Beach with an additional day at both ends of the trip for travel. It was all the things vacation should be: fun, relaxed, and restorative.

I love to travel , but we don’t get to travel a lot. Traveling is an adventure and a challenge. Traveling disorients all the senses and makes it easy for me to pay attention to the kinds of things I normally don’t notice. I had a lot of great moments along this trip and more than a few realizations. The most powerful had nothing to do with travel. It was about stepping outside my routine. It was about realizing the core affliction of my life. I suffer from time sickness.

I was floating in the Gulf of Mexico, watching the sky as groups of pelicans descended, coasting a few feet above my head, skimming the water for fish. It was fascinating. I’m not a great swimmer but the salt water carried me like a mattress. I was able to relax and watch this completely commonplace yet unfamiliar thing happen around me. I watched and drifted. After a while, I realized I had no idea how long I had been watching the pelicans. It may have been minutes. It may have been hours. I had lost my unit of measurement.

Two days later, I was checking out of our hotel and realized I had no idea what the date was. I joked with the clerk about it, then realized I had no idea what actual day of the week it was.

I had become completely unmoored from the clock and the calendar. The feeling that came with this realization was very much like the feeling I have had after the flu passes and I am able to stand out of bed for the first time and feel hungry and rested and curious about what’s been happening in my house.

I get this feeling from time to time. It doesn’t require travel. It happens when I take more than a week off from work. It is a powerful, healthy feeling. It is a feeling of recalibration, a new relationship with time.

Most of my life is spent in close observation of time. The clock and the calendar organize my days. When people at work need me, they send requests for my time. These requests appear simultaneously on my computer, phone and iPad. Just to be certain I notice.

I am pushed through my day by reminders, flags and alerts that move my attention from one event to the next. My schedule for next month begins to fill early in the current month. An event like faculty in-service happens and it is immediately time to begin planning the next semester’s in-service.

This isn’t complaint. This is how life works. This is how we are able to accomplish things. We manage our time. We parcel and divide it into focused, discrete segments so we can move forward toward a goal. We schedule things with people so we can all move forward together.

At some point, the routine of scheduling and tracking time captures more of our attention than the things we are actually doing with that time.

This is, I think, the definition of time sickness: when the awareness of the tools and units used to measure time receive more attention than the activities we are trying to use that time to accomplish.

When that happens, it is time to step back. You don’t have to get on an airplane or go to the beach, although I can personally recommend both as a likely remedy. When you first diagnose the symptoms of time sickness, you’ve got to take a step back. Change your relationship to time.

Take time off. Take a walk. Disable all notifications, alerts and messages. Watch the pelicans. They are always doing their routine. You just may not have let yourself notice.

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