Killing time: Do more by ignoring the clock

The industrial revolution made us slaves to the clock. New apps can set us free. It's about time

Twitpic CTO Steve Corona really knows how to kill time.

He threw his wristwatch in the trash, turned off his microwave oven clock and disabled the time display on his PC. According to a recent blog post chronicling his timeless experiment, he "unsubscribed from the clock."

(My editor might say that I unsubscribed from the clock years ago.)

Corona stopped using clocks, he wrote, because they're stressful and counterproductive. Without obsessing over the time of day, he has become "totally devoured and consumed by creating things."

He says he decides when to stop work and go home by "reading" the sun. (Maybe he needs a wristwatch like this.)

Is Steve Corona nuts? Or is he just ahead of his time?

Why kill time?

Clocks have two basic purposes. The first is to synchronize activity between two or more people. The meeting is at 10 a.m. Let's have lunch at noon. I'll pick you up at 8.

But people are already drifting away from using clocks for this purpose. Instead, we arrange for alerts to sound on our phones and PCs. If we have an engagement, we set it and forget it. When the alarm sounds, we obey.

Theoretically, people no longer need to know what time it is in order to synchronize and coordinate their activities.

The second purpose for clocks is personal time management. Many people take the tasks they want to accomplish, then cram them into time slots. OK, I'll get up at 7 a.m., do email from 7 to 8, drive to work by 9, try to finish my report by 11, return calls from 11 to 12, and so on throughout each day.

This approach is nice in theory, but it gets wrecked on the shoals of today's distraction- and interruption-filled world.

The reality is that when you sit down to do your email, the first message is a link to a YouTube video. The second one is a notification that your friend posted pictures of you and others at his barbecue. Before you know it, you're getting sucked into an Internet black hole of distractions.

By the time you recover and force yourself to get back to your email, you have only 10 minutes left to do it. Then "Rrrrrrriiing!" -- it's your boss calling to interrupt you.

This is why your in-box has 4,391 messages in it. You give yourself an hour a day to do email, but rarely spend the hour actually doing email.

This tug of war between distractions, interruptions and the unyielding fascism of the ticking clock leaves you exhausted by the end of the day with little to show for it.

The universal obsession with the time of day is fundamentally incompatible with human nature. We try to force ourselves into an abstract notion of time, and two things happen.

First, clocks dominate our sense of situation. What's my situation? It's 4:33 p.m. and I'm stressing out about my deadline. I'm supposed to get up because it's 7 a.m. I should eat because it's lunchtime.

The clock overrules the body, which would have you waking up when you're rested and eating when you're hungry. In fact, our name for productivity -- "time management" -- reveals the over-dominance of the clock in our systems for productivity.

Second, forcing yourself to march to the beat of an abstract notion of time causes the mind to rebel. You want to fight it, break it and escape from it. While distractions pull you in, clock rebellion pushes you out.

Now the good news: Thanks to a world of new options, many taking the form of mobile apps, we can kill our clocks and use better alternatives.

How to beat the clock

For personal productivity, people are increasingly turning to timers, rather than clocks, to get things done. They're also focusing on the achievement of goals, rather than just "putting in time" on various activities.

The mobile app stores are jam-packed these days with creative solutions for timer-based productivity. It's worthwhile to spend some quality time browsing through these to find out what works for you.

One of the most powerful and useful apps I've found recently is a free iOS app called 30/30 from Binary Hammer.

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