Clock time is very much a feature of industrialisation. It goes with shift work, and the need to have workers in the right place at the right time. Regular working life gives us little to no scope for improvisation, flexibility, time off when ill or when needing things. For most of human history, we haven’t had clocks. We’ve had sun time, and operated in small enough communities that organising without clocks has been just fine. It’s notable that industrial towns and cities tend to have clock towers so that people too poor to have their own watches would know the time.
When the schools closed in 2020 for the pandemic, we no longer needed alarm clocks. Both Tom and I are self employed and can work when we choose. With study moving online, James’s start time was a lot later – he’d been getting to school by bicycle and needed to get up early for that. Suddenly we had a lot more flexibility. This was as well because pandemic stress played havoc with my ability to sleep. I slept when I could, and got up when I couldn’t sleep, and paid little attention to the clock.
We’ve stayed that way. James has continued studying from home and is old enough not to need any help with that. He’s also not faced with an early morning bike ride, so does not need a hearty breakfast, so we can leave him to it. In practice I mostly still get up early, but it’s nice not having to.
Last winter was the first winter I can remember of being free to wake with the light. It was lovely, soothing and restorative. I find winter difficult. Not having to get up in the dark helped me emotionally.
It’s also great having the freedom to sleep in a bit if I’ve had a bad night. I take sleep seriously, I go to bed at sensible times, I drink soothing tea, I am mindful of screen use and over stimulation etc. But, sometimes I get hit by insomnia. Sometimes the anxiety gets me, or the depression, or the menopausal weird night events – sometimes all of these things together, which means failing at sleep. The freedom to wake when I do has brought a lot of health benefits and greatly reduced my stress. Insomnia is much worse when you know how many hours you have left when you could sleep and you can see the next day falling apart before you’ve even got to it. The freedom to sleep in changes everything.
I’m not convinced that the way we currently organise our lives is necessary. With increased automation, we aren’t going to need people in factories working to clock time. Clearly there are some jobs – medical and emergency especially – where you have to be able to count on other people being there. But what if other work and activities were organised in more flexible ways? What if we had more scope to negotiate, or respond to the situation on the day? It would be a much kinder way of interacting. It would be interesting to see how much work doesn’t really depend on clock time, because my suspicion is that many things could be done more flexibly and much more comfortably than they currently are.