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The Diminishing Returns of Calendar Culture
Or, The Misery of Monochronic Time
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Time zones are unnatural. Growing up where I did in North Idaho — in the Pacific Time Zone, but just a few hours east and north of Mountain Time — I took that weirdness for granted. When my family drove south to ski at the little two-chair-lift mountain, we passed an area we referred to as “Time Zone Creek,” and then, just like that, you lost an hour. Earlier this week, a subscriber described a restaurant in Indiana — which has largely switched to Eastern Time, save 18 hold-out counties — where every time you call and make a reservation, they remind you of their time zone. Newfoundland operates on a half time zone.
There are a handful of states and nations with bifurcated time, running along rivers or mountain ranges or county lines. They make little sense to us now, but they were drawn with purpose: to keep the trains running “on time,” but also to make time itself organizable from afar. To coarsely summarize: before standardized time zones, noon was when the sun was highest in the sky. When clocks became available and affordable to the masses, you could set your (analog) clock by it, but clocks and other timepieces also unwound, went slow, ticked fast. Plus noon in, say, Havre, Montana would’ve been different than noon in Whitefish, Montana, around 200 miles West. That’s just how the sun works. But if every town’s noon is kinda different, how do you make a train schedule? How do you make time rational?
You make it (somewhat) arbitrary. Divide the world into 24 time zones, and slowly force people — often through colonial might — to abide by one, standard time for an entire wedge. Do it in the name of commerce, of travel, of ease of communication, of ease. Fast-forward a century and a half, and this rational/irrational time is just the way things are, so accepted as to become invisible, but with very real everyday effects on our lives: a sun that sets earlier or later, depending on your location in the time zone, or a legislative body that operates on a different schedule than half the state (see: Idaho).
We live with these realities because they make the rest of our lives feel manageable. But time did not have to be arranged that way. We have imagined time, at least in Western countries, as subservient to commerce, and attempted to export or forcibly impose that understanding worldwide. And just as there’s nothing “natural” about eating with, say, a fork, there’s nothing natural about the way we’ve organized time. It is ideological, which is to say, it is also political — and a means of imposing a particular type of order on others.
To illustrate this idea, I want to talk a little about academia (trust that even if you’re outside higher ed, you’ll recognize the dynamics at play here).
Earlier this month, academic Twitter was overwhelmed with debate over calendar use, sparked by this tweet (which I also used as our discussion starter about calendar use last week, if you missed it)
…and also this one:
In short: a lot of academics are resistant to using the digital calendars and calendar invites that have become the norm in many industries. As McMillan Cottom notes further down in her thread, male academics are significantly more resistant; others have told me that people with tenure and/or who are more senior are also allergic to any form of digital calendaring.
You could say it’s simple resistance to new technology, but that’s a cop-out. Resisting new technology is, itself, a power move: a way to make other people do more work to compensate for the work you’re not doing. If refuse to google the simple steps to save a file as a PDF, for example, and keep sending a file as a Word document, then someone else is spending their time downloading your file, saving as a PDF, and resending it. Not using a digital calendar is a way to communicate your position of perceived power over other (more junior) faculty, over students, and over staff — all of whom (in many faculty members’ minds) are subordinate to themselves.
But there’s another layer here, too. Many senior faculty, particularly faculty who entered academia before, oh, 2000, entered the institution (both actual institutions and the institution, writ large, of academia) with an understanding of their time as their own. Yes, they’d need to teach some classes, and attend a faculty meeting, and put out a sign on their door listing their three mandated office hours. But otherwise, they were in control — and able, at least theoretically, to “live the life of the mind” promised by a career in academic study. Importantly, the ability to live that life was facilitated by a variety of support staff: personal and departmental secretaries, but also, in many cases, their spouses.
For all but the highest echelons of faculty, that vision is no longer obtainable. There are more classes to teach, more students’ theses to advise, more meetings and trainings to attend, more mandatory demands on time, more spouses with full-time jobs themselves. Depending on the institution, a lot of those demands have to do with 1) ongoing, chronic, debilitating budget cuts, diminished public funding, and the imperative to educate more students with less; but also 2) the foundational transformation of higher ed into a “business” with corresponding structures and profit imperatives.
To be clear, these changes yield net negative outcomes on the quality of instruction and quality of life for basically everyone in higher ed. They suck; I’ve seen their effects firsthand but also on my friends and family. But instead of, say, supporting union drives by those trying to challenge the model, or advocating for whole-scale academic reform, many in/with power have opted to shore up what remains of it within the changing system. Some become administrators, which is a conversation for another post, and some refuse to use their calendars, to send calendar invites, or to even acknowledge the existence of a shared calendar.
I understand this inclination. There were a lot of parts of academic life that I would’ve wanted to ignore if I had the power to do so with impunity. But exercising your power this way doesn’t change the way things are. It doesn’t slow down the change you’re resisting. It just makes more work for those without the same privileges as you — whether because they’re contingent faculty, tenture-track, staff, students, or anyone else who can’t get away with behaving with the cultural impunity afforded white men.
The meeting starts ten minutes late because no one can find the Zoom link — because there was never a Calendar invite, or the Calendar invite didn’t include the link. You refuse to use Calendly to help your students make set times to meet; they sit outside your office door for hours. You don’t keep an online calendar; others spend hours over email going back and forth to figure out a time that works for all.
Here’s where I admit that I don’t think everyone should have open, accessible calendars, and there’s value to waiting outside someone’s door or even just dropping by, just because, and we have way too meetings, just generally. We’ll get to all that. But right now, the point is: resisting someone else’s understanding and organization of time is a power move.
Power is why, when Fresh Air asked if I would be on the show, but I’d have to do it at 6 am my time — I said yes, of course, yes. The defense of power is why Christmas is a national American holiday, but the High Holidays and Eid al-Fitr are not. But power is also the ability to label certain uses of time as important, or “better,” and others as evidence of poor moral character or straight-up laziness. You often see this sort of judgment in discussions about being late: it “wastes” others’ time; it’s disrespectful; it’s indicative of a lack of discipline.
And yes: that’s certainly how a lot of capitalist cultures think about time — as something that can be wasted or optimized. It’s often predicated on the idea that you should be focused on doing one thing, and one thing only, very efficiently: time is money, etc. etc. But that itself, sometimes referred to as a “monochronic” understanding of time, is no more or less “natural” than other ways of conceiving of time, like “polychronic” culture, which understands time as dynamic, flexible, and filled with several tasks at once, each of which will take the time that they need. Monochronic cultures may be more “efficient” in their use of time, but in their treatment of time as a commodity, they lose the richness that comes with allowing tasks, conversations, and interactions to move forward at a more natural and sustainable pace.
If you’re used to monochronic time, the impatience you perform while someone makes your coffee is incredibly rude — just as rude as you might perceive someone being 15 minutes late to dinner because they were talking with someone else.
Both time cultures understand their approach to time as superior. But because rapid-growth capitalism favors a monochronic understanding, it also favors those who find it easiest to follow those rhythms, or most willing to bend and brake themselves to accommodate them. Of course, monochronic time has some real issues. Just to start —
What the monochronic understanding of time isn’t built to understand:
Any labor that is considered “natural” and thus not paid; any labor that is not paid and thus not valuable
Work that feminized, invisibilized, and/or associated with the private sphere
Anyone with ADHD
Any task that resists optimization (see especially: creativity)
Any interaction that suffers when bound by time
How long it actually takes to have a meaningful, meandering conversation
The importance of meaningful, meandering conversation
The importance of short, less meaningful, but sustaining conversations
Disability, aging, chronic illness
Babies, just generally
Grief, just generally
Feelings, just generally
Rest, just generally
What a monochronic understanding of time valorizes:
Efficiency, no matter the cost
Profits, no matter the effects
Work that is masculinized, visible, and associated with the public sphere
People who are able to treat time as if they have no other concerns other than the work at hand
Treating relationships — with family, friends, colleagues — as transactional
Treating the body’s needs as “hackable”
Neurodivergence but only if it leads to intense focus
“Purging” and home organization
The ability to ignore bodily needs or discomforts
“Short sleepers” (the ~2-3% of the population who need less than six hours of sleep a night)
Authority and hierarchy
Several attributes and practices valorized by a monochronic understanding of time — which we could also call Rapid-Growth Capitalism time, or Productivity Fetishist time, or White Bourgeois time — are objectively in service of efficiency. And yet, big surprise, they are often highly inefficient.
People call too many meetings when they want to feel more in control; those meetings often make you worse at completing whatever task or project you’re struggling to complete, in part because they’re conducted in a mononchronic way, reinscribing systems of authority, obsessed with (inactionable) action plans, and never actually building any sort of consensus about what should be done (or why you are doing it).
Same with fetishizing organizational planning over actually doing, or having a clutter-free house that always feels sparse and uninviting, or a delivery system that makes it possible to have nearly anything on your doorstep the next day but contributes mightily to the ongoing elimination of life as we know it, or sending a quick email to get an email out of your inbox, only to then have a new email asking for further clarification.
The efficiency itself matters less than the perception of the quest for efficiency: an ADHD-specific planner (they are now legion) signifies devotion to monochronic time, no matter how resistant your mind might be to it.
Same with fridges organized by color, Instagrams of Kon Mari’d sweater drawers, very public and very large and very complicated family calendars, and what Virginia Sole-Smith calls “organization as a hobby,” all of which may have some utility within the home, but their larger utility is to document, publicize, and thereby render valuable labor to those observing outside the home.
These public displays of organization are a way of placing devalued work — domestic work, but specifically domestic work performed by mothers — within the monochronic, capitalist, productivity-minded schema. The more you have to organize, the more formidable that labor (and that accomplishment) becomes.
To have a more complicated family life, you can 1) Have more kids, and document that complication (the popularity of big families on TikTok/Instagram is rooted in this fascination/veneration; I swear a solid third of the videos are about groceries and/or meal prep); or 2) purposefully or inadvertently make your family’s life more complicated, usually by adding in activities and obligations that, according to the norms of intensive parenting, feel non-negotiable, but often expand to take up entire mountains of time. (See also: take on more things so that your to-do list is longer, so you can feel the accomplishment of crossing those things off your list, because you never feel catharsis unless it’s framed as a discreet, completable task).
I want to be careful here, because I know all about the conflicted and intense feelings that accumulate around kids’ sports, kids’ spare time, over-and-under programming, what kids’ want vs. what parents want, etc. etc. We’ve talked about that, and we can talk about it again. Right now, though, I’m more interested how having a busy personal or family life — and continually demonstrating the labor to keep it under control — have become one of the primary ways we opt in to monochronic time.
This might seem contradictory, since a simple understanding of monochronic time is doing one thing, not piling several together. But even our understanding of multi-tasking is, in fact, monochronic: to “successfully” multi-task is to perform each task with efficiency and to completion, without being distracted by your actual children’s desire to, say, roll around on the ground and think of words that rhyme with “butt.” And when you treat parenting as something that can be optimized, there is no allowance for butt-rhyming or floor rolling. (Or, if they’re older kids, decompression time, stare at the wall time, listening to music while doing nothing else, not one single other thing time).
There are, instead, schedules. Schedules whose form — particularly when it comes to digital ones — is borrowed from the work day. All events should be set in 15 minute increments. All purposes should be legible. All time is open for colonization by activities intended to make you a better student, a better resume, a better job candidate. All play should be scheduled. It’s not about the quality of the activity but the quantity; it’s not about the effects of doing it all but the fact that you are doing it.
Within these sorts of schedules, there is little tolerance or space for the things we say we want to nurture in children: creativity, imagination, spontaneity, the patience borne of extended boredom, space to really feel your emotions, or any activity that can’t be boiled down into a potential line on a future college application. (There’s also little space for acknowledging the actual paid labor of those essential to making those schedules possible: babysitters, nannies, tutors, and housecleaners).
We create these types of schedules for our family, but we also create them for ourselves. I was struck, browsing the most popular browsing digital planners on Etsy, by just how many of them were, in fact, multiple planners: Meal Planning, Workout Planning, Calorie Tracker, 30 Day No Chocolate Challenge, plus Budget Planner, Cleaning Planner, Reading Planner, Wellness Planner — all of those plans, all promising to “organize your life,” for one person. Or more specifically, (at least the way these planners are gendered and marketed on Etsy and elsewhere) for one woman, whose value only emerges when her life is confined and contained. (Are straight men busy? Sure, and some even use their family’s calendars. But the primary responsibility for nurturing family “value” vis-a-vis plans almost always falls to their partners).
Through the commitment to busyness and its organization, we inscribe and reinscribe a certain understanding of time onto our children, onto each other, onto ourselves. We discipline our messy, distracted, inquisitive, emotive selves into the most valuable possible forms of human capital possible. We suggest that sort of regimentation is not only possible (just organize harder!) but aspirational.
And I get it: a periodically full schedule can be exhilarating. But a consistently overflowing one is misery. It’s also, I’d argue, unsustainable, and anyone who argues that they’re thriving is telling themselves a misleading story about the lived experience of their so-called calendar mastery.
This particular organization of time is currently dominant — but it is also a construction, normalized in obedience to our current structures of power. These people have miserable calendars too! Their wealth just slightly obscures some of the misery! Which is also why it’s worth imagining how we could conceive of time differently — starting with our calendars.
What would a calendar look like that prioritized and protected caregiving? What about one that understood crip time, or different types of relationships and the soft but consistent focus they demand? That understood creativity, and children, or grief? What would a family calendar look like that made its primary steward and their needs as visible as others? Kids make weird and wondrous calendars all the time; why don’t we ever try them? What if the stubborn professors making power plays with their resistance to digital calendars were trying to preserve something worth preserving — but going about it in a way that just made everyone even more reliant and insistent on calendars. How, in other words, would you make a calendar that accommodated “the life of the mind” but also respected and equalized that work with those who foster the environment that makes that life possible? What about a calendar rooted in solidarity instead of individuality, or community instead of the family unit?
Or what about a calendar that was simply, as one reader imagined, oriented around protecting time, instead of filling it? What would an un-calendar be?
Our current calendars are so dominant that it’s difficult to even begin to visualize what any of those alternatives would look like — but that doesn’t mean they’re impossible. It just means that we haven’t thought to innovate in a direction that isn’t ostensibly oriented towards rapid-growth capitalism and profit. There’s a reason why some people glom to Katherine May’s Wintering, which positions certain seasons of life as time for retreat, rest, and contemplation; why others find orienting themselves around the Hebrew Calendar, or a lunar calendar, far more centering. I’m drawn to Ross Zurowski’s articulation of long calendars and short seasons as a way to think through periods of waxing and waning intensity and focus, particularly when it comes to episodic/project-based work.
We are starving for ways of conceiving of time that have nothing to do with mastery or optimization. They exist now, they preceded us, and they will follow us. They will not fix anyone’s life. They just promise to orient it around a different axis, with different priorities, that might not match our current understanding of “success,” but might also decouple time management and optimization from “success” altogether.
I’m not saying you should ditch your calendar tomorrow. I can’t; I don’t have enough power, or, more precisely, I don’t have the means, in this moment, to do it in a way that won’t just make more work for others. But I am asking myself questions, and you might too. My calendar makes me feel in control. But of what, exactly — and to what end? And what understanding of my value, but also the value of others, am I sustaining with it?
The Diminishing Returns of Productivity Culture (I like re-using title phrases to make a point!!!!)
“How Silicon Valley Sets Time” (paid subscribers, email me for a PDF)
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