About a year ago, when I came across Oscar Wilde’s quote: “Punctuality is the thief of time”, I had, what I would call, a counter-epiphany. I have always been fascinated by quotes – I’d feast in secret on these delicious sound bites – but all the while remained cynical about their real-life applicability. By age seven, most of us know the saying “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me”, and by age eight, know this to be ostentatiously untrue. But I found something marvellous and wholesome in this idea that punctuality was the bad guy – suddenly, I had a philosophical mantra to purge myself of any guilt I felt over my inability to leave on time.
The truth of it is, I’m very rarely late. I’m at the table when the food’s ready, I have my page open as the lecture slides begin, I’m in the waiting room when the doctor calls my name – I’m not late, per se – but that podium moment of self-righteousness – “I’m here!”, I chime – disguises the accelerated, farcical efforts it took to make it just in time.
Chasing the clock is thrilling, and recovering lost time delivers an exorbitant sense of accomplishment. Believing punctuality “robs” me of precious time has fooled me into characterising the clock into a larcenist villain who owes me compensation. In reclaiming these lost minutes, I feel I’m “winning at life” – but at what cost?
Because I cross the finish line, score the goal, bring home the bacon, whatever analogy you want to apply (though I’d argue these goal-focused idioms are symptomatic of our cultural conditioning to make ends meet without paying attention to the process), to all appearances, I have it all under control. But often I find myself missing out on the process. I admit to haring up Cardiac Hill with the people and buildings around me blurring into long colour morphed streaks. “No time to chat” streams on accelerated auto-cue through my mind, let alone makes it past my lips, as I hustle through crowds of people who, for all I know, could be flatmates, course mates… people I should be able to spare a minute to say hello to. If only I could see out of entirely self-constructed tunnel of vision.
I’m also increasingly aware that this confrontation with the clock is a bad attitude to have full stop. In an age where time is being compressed and contracted to increase productivity to the point where people are lumbered with unrealistic demands, unattainable goals, uncompromising deadlines, I need to stand up to this. Time does not sit in a personal bank account acquiring interest just because you’ve pocketed it; no, time is to be spent. Profit isn’t to be found in the accumulation of reclaimed minutes; profit is maximised in the careful harvesting of those minutes so you reap the greatest experience out of them. Walking into campus with a clear head and a sense of engagement with your surroundings gives greater return than the minutes hoarded up in your bedroom beforehand.
And fundamentally, I don’t want to be someone reliant on deadlines or high-pressure environments -addicted to adrenalin – to rally me to action. Self-motivation, productivity and the ability to pace myself, to prioritise and achieve balance, are skills I want to hone in for life. So if that means leaving 5 minutes earlier for lectures, I’ll start today.
I was thinking of ending this by saying something profound about how life is short and therefore I won’t delay to set this vice straight before it’s too late, but therein lies the irony. Life isn’t all that short, time is there at our disposal, but it’s our responsibility to spend it creatively, meaningfully, valuably and notice it’s passing not as the regrettable connection between one thing or another, but as something to be enjoyed in and of itself. Cracking this habit is going to be a tough one, but without a doubt, I’m going to think twice before running late.