Beat the clock

`Hurry sickness' is the malaise of the Nineties. But as a new century dawns, psychologists believe we're finally learning how to cheat time. MARTIN RAYMOND reports
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As the seconds tick by to the end of the millennium, time - or rather the lack of it - is one of the major dilemmas facing us. How to divide our time, how to value it, how to beat it, how to cheat it. The way we deal with every passing second will, say psychologists, be one of the greatest challenges we face in the next thousand years.

The last decade, especially, has seen our attitude to time reach crisis point, according to books like Faster by James Gleick, Blur by Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis, and The Metronomic Society by Michael Young. (How we cope with time has replaced the self-help relationship book as the latest publishing money-spinner). Terms like "hurry sickness", "acceleration disorder", "compression tiredness" have entered general conversation and all translate as the same thing: we're run ragged.

Once the idea of a breakfast meeting was seen as the epitome of the time- poor exec. Now real New York operators do the Double Deal Lunch: you close the deal by the first course, then move to a new table, a new client, and a new deal for the second. And so on. In Hollywood, they've gone even further. Harassed power brokers attend dream-solve classes, where experts in REM sleep help them troubleshoot while they are dreaming.

With everybody from think-tanks like Demos to the Department of Trade and Industry telling us that we are overworked and time-poor, experts believe that if we don't radically change our attitude to time we're heading for emotional burn-out. According to The Future Foundation's Melanie Howard, we've got to become more flexible. Our traditional Monochronic Culture (when tasks are done in a linear way, one after another) must become Polychronic, which means that we'll become better at being flexible. Thus, time-honoured ways of measuring the day will become defunct. So no more elevenses or lunch-hours or tea-times. "No more time-windows," she says, "or jammed schedules or getting worked up about people being late for an appointment."

Sean Pillot de Chenecey of lifestyle agency Informer agrees. "We will work to rule, our own rules. This isn't flexi-time but fulcrum time, ie the world revolves around your needs and your responsibilities - family, friends, leisure, work - rather than everybody else's."

The onset of multi-tasking, flexecutive living and a worldwide web that never sleeps has contributed to the notion that time is no longer linear and segmented, but multi-directional. Soon we will "plough time" rather than surf it. In other words, instead of talking on the phone then sending a fax in linear time (one task coming after the other), personal digital assistants (PDA's) such as Nokia's 9110, or Alcatel's One Touch, or Ericsson's MC218, now permit you to take a call while you are sending a fax; or receive an e-mail while you are downloading your bank statement.

In a world where we can log on and log off at any time, the decision to work or play becomes more a matter of choice than necessity. Swatch has just launched the first 1,000-byte watch that keeps Biel Time (the meridian in Switzerland along which the manufacturer is based) as an Internet Standard so that everybody using the net, no matter which time zone they are operating in, can work to the same virtual or online time.

This wiring-up of society, the way it has become interconnected - there are 17 million mobiles in the UK at the moment, a figure set to double over the next three years - has had a profound effect on how we "work" time. "Connectivity" is how Blur authors Christopher Meyer and Stan Davis describe this new time-state we're accelerating into. "What you will see," says Davis, "is a meltdown of traditional boundaries. In the Blur world, products and services are merging. Buyers sell and sellers buy. Homes are offices. No longer is there a clear line between owning and using, knowing and learning, real and virtual. Less and less separates employee and employer." All of which means a shift of power from companies to consumers, from corporations saying these are the hours we open to consumers who can demand service any time, anywhere.

Many Stateside economists, including Meyer, who is a director of the Ernst &Young Center For Business Innovation, say that the future won't be about how well a company is performing on the Fortune 500, but how well it is faring on the Value 500 network. This will be a league table of the top 500 consumer groups a company will have to please in terms of its ethical, social and flexitime approach to trading and accommodating consumer desires.

According to Pillot De Chenecey, companies in the future will actually pay us for our time. "We will see the emergence of "commodity time" - the time we charge out to companies for wasting it by making us queue, putting us on hold, or watch their advertising. You can see it happening already with `permission' marketing."

The premise is simple, he says. "An advertiser sends you an e-mail and in return for doing so, they will add time credits to your telephone bill. If you send the e-mail or advert onto a friend, they will double and triple your payment. Essentially they are recognising the fact that time really is money - your money."

As more of us log on, time as a negotiable currency becomes even more of a reality, according to author Bernard Lietaer, whose book, The Future of Money, is essential reading for economists and netizens (citizens of the net) alike. Lietaer argues that current monetary systems fail to take into account the changing social patterns of our lives, and as a consequence believes that financial markets will crash within 50 years. In their place, he says, local time-based currencies will emerge as sustainable and realistic alternatives, as many are already doing on the net.

Here you decide how many hours your talents are worth, post these details and then wait for the required response. And with 40 per cent of households in the UK netted-up at the moment, and a projected 70 per cent (via TV, and mobiles) being able to receive e-mail or carry out e-transactions by 2005, time based currency exchanges are set to become a significant trend.

A word of warning, however. Even if we wish to think in 24-hour time, one clock, the Circadian clock, the one that governs our wake and sleep cycles, is determined to keep us functioning as day and night creatures. "The 24-hour society is all very well in theory," says Simon Folkard, professor of psychology at Swansea University and chairman of the International Commission of Occupational Health, "but our bodies are not biologically suited to it. Our Circadian clock is timed in such a way as to switch off at night, and while we can resist going to sleep, research has shown this puts immense pressure on our metabolism.

"At one end of the scale, defying the passing of time increases the risk of heart disease and increases stress." And at the other? "Let's just say Chenobyl and the Union Carbide explosion in Bhopal, India, all happened at night."

Indeed the total worldwide failure of the 24-hour society currently runs at $377bn a year, says Folkard. And yet even he still believes that our move into a non-stop culture is inevitable.

"Whether or not we can be more flexible in our use of time is going to be one of the great cultural fights over the next decade," agrees Pillot de Chenecey. "We've had direct action against companies for their abuses of the environment. In future it will be for their inability to work time to our advantage rather than theirs. We hear about wars breaking out over water. But the Time Wars are going to be just as significant and profound."

Martin Raymond is editor of `Viewpoint Magazine', a bi-annual journal covering new trends and culture.

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