You’re Telling Time Wrong

How our obsession with time is actually changing the way we live.

Photo by Sonja Langford on Unsplash

On April 22nd, in one day, a city was built. At that time, there was an area circling 300 miles of unclaimed territory. It had no defined owner, so people from all over were coming to make their rightful claim. The presiding government of the land decided this: that on April 22nd, everyone who wanted some parcel of this land would come stand at the invisible edge of the 300 mile circle and at 12p noon, the line would be broken and anyone and everyone could run into the territory and personally claim their land, up to 160 acres. Sounds like a pretty great set up for the average person looking to gain some land!

However, as expected, people quickly realized that there were a lot of problems within this absurd plan, the foremost amongst which was that the men and women around the circle had no way of knowing when it was exactly 12 o’clock noon for the land rush to begin. So people left early. Those on one side of the circle didn’t know the other side was running in. There are accounts of people actually dying as they fought and fled into the hope of this new land. By the end of the day, the city was outlined, order was abandoned, and chaos ensued.

Although this sounds almost unbelievable, this is the origin story for Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The land-rush plan was put in motion by the U.S. Government. And this took place in 1889.

I first heard this story on the podcast 99% Invisible with Roman Mars. For more information on Roman Mars, check out this awesome Medium post by the Adaptive Path. This particular story on his podcast was fascinating and captivating. After listening, one small detail stayed with me far beyond the 20-minute episode. How did men and women only 130 years ago not have consensus knowledge on when 12 noon was? Curious, I began to look into the history of telling time and how we as humanity have experimented and created brilliant ways to master the minutes of our lives.

As I researched, I began to get more intrigued by the various methods and moments when time apparatus were created or generally accepted in the larger society. Below is a list of some of the great mile-markers throughout the history of “telling-time.”

  • 1500 bc— Sundials are used in Egypt.
  • 400 bc— the water clock is built by the Greeks.
  • 980 ad— Burning candles are used to tell time.
  • 1400’s — First mechanical clocks are created.
  • 1583 — Galileo Galilei realizes time can be measured with the pendulum.
  • 1657 — First pendulum clock created (this is where the second was created).
  • 1759 — John Harrison builds the first marine mechanical clock.
  • 1884 — 25 countries accept Greenwich, England as the prime meridian (basis for time throughout the world).
  • 1914 — WWI makes wrist watches popular due to soldiers in combat.
  • 1949 — First atomic clock is constructed.
  • 1967 — For the first time ever, the societal standard of time is not defined by the movement of astronomical bodies, but rather by science.
  • 1998 — Almost a half a billion watches are sold each year. This compares to 2 million watches in 1875 and 12 million in 1900.
Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

My takeaway from this progression: we are obsessed with time.

When I started to think through this lens, I began to think on things in my daily life that are extremely dependent on accurate time-tracking. Take a moment and stop to think about all of the things around you that are tracked down to the minute? Think about how different our lives would look if we were not able to track time the way we do currently.

Here is a short list of things that are incredibly dependent on specific time-tracking.

  • The Olympics (or any sports for that matter).
  • New Year’s Eve and the now-famous Ball Drop.
  • Science equations like velocity — velocity = distance / time.
  • Trains, Transportation, Taxi rides, etc and especially how you ride and or pay for those activities.
  • Ceremonies such as weddings.
  • Messages or speeches and their specific duration.
  • Social Media which reflects down to the minute your posts, likes, comments.

With our smart phones, smart watches, computers, tablets, and clocks in every room, it feels like we are truly surrounded from all angles. Time is constantly around us, pushing in from every direction.

This Changes Everything

The 20th century was really the first century in the history of mankind to experience this kind of escalation in our obsession with time. In the 19th century, time-tracking became a much bigger deal as it was interwoven in many aspects with the industrial revolution and the expansion of the locomotive and automotive industries. But really over the past 100 years, time has become something that we lived with to something that a lot of us live under.

This has led to many amazing outcomes within society, technology, and innovation, but when it comes down to how it is affecting each of us personally, the results are less than glamorous.

  • Over the last 100 years, stress and its effects on health and growth have skyrocketed.
  • Depression and anxiety in the U.S. are “substantially higher” than they were in the 1980s, according to a 2014 study.

Not only have we seen physical consequences, but relationally, we have been impacted by this shift towards time-tracking.

  • We have shifted to results based thinking over relationships.
  • We have shifted from optimization often at the expense of enjoyment.
  • We have instituted many rules for our daily lives that are structured completely around time, including when it is appropriate to communicate, purchase something, give feedback, down to the day, hour, or minute.

“Lost” Time

In light of this, my question to you is “when was the last time you lost track of time?”

Up until the last 100 years, people could claim this activity — losing track of time — with some frequency. But we’ve shifted that mentality. It’s almost egregious now if we don’t have an exact grasp on time and how it is affecting us every single minute of every day.

However, I firmly believe that it is becoming incredibly important to remember that this is a new zone for us. This is not the way it has always been.

“How we view and treat time today is not the way the majority of human history has viewed and treated time.”

Even the fact that we’ve coined the phrase “telling” time is indicative of our current situation. In reality, we don’t tell time anything. Time tells us.

But we live in this day and age. We can’t just pretend to live in a different world and never care about when a meeting starts or when a restaurant closes. Time and how we “tell” time has effects us whether we choose to play by the rules or now.

Yet, if we are to truly lead to the best of our ability, we must remember that we weren’t meant to thrive with every single second of every single day carved out and accounted for.

The great theologian Dallas Willard has a quote that I have on a post-it note on my desktop computer at work. As soon as I heard his words, I knew that this phrase was going to need to become a capstone in my life, an anchor that I build around and continually fall back on. He said

“You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”

It is literally impossible to escape time, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ruled by it. Time is something to be respected, maximized when possible, but it is not something that should be worshipped.

Together, let’s be people who commit to losing track of time more often. Because if there is one thing I know for sure about time… it will be there when we come back.

Written by

Creative Engineer writing working hypotheses. Husband. Dishwasher. I write what I wish I could have read when I was younger. For more visit

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