Entire cultures can be polychronic or monochronic. In a polychronic country, dinner may continue throughout the night, and appointment times are suggestions, not space-launch absolutes. But First World cultures (except maybe Mediterranean ones) are extremely monochronic. Our high-tech society requires human synchronization on a massive scale: Huge numbers of us must show up at precisely agreed upon places, at precisely agreed upon times.

As we've used technology to cram our schedules with more things to do, shaving away ever-slimmer time margins, we're reaching extremes that test the mettle of even thoroughbred monochrones. The slamming thud of the seconds passing on the TV series 24 could be our anthem of angst. It's gone so far that one expert calls First World countries chronocracies, in thrall to rigid scheduling. And for people like Emma, this can be disastrous.

Each of us is capable of functioning in either a polychronic or monochronic way. A New Yorker in the South Seas might gradually slow down and learn to enjoy telling time by the position of the sun. By the same token, a Polynesian working on Wall Street must adapt to strict timing. I'm not quite as polychronic as Emma, but even for me, life in America feels like perpetually rushing to five-alarm emergencies in an ambulance pulled by stoned cats.

We polychrones can't help that our attention wanders off in random directions, or that we focus on interesting sensations to the point of total amnesia and blithely forget birthdays and deadlines. We get into every known species of trouble: Colleagues bristle when they're kept waiting, family members wonder if we're lying dead in a ditch. Losing awareness of time seems bizarre to more formally structured minds, and claiming "not guilty by reason of polychronicity" just doesn't wash with, say, the IRS.

The solution to this problem isn't to do away with polychronic tendencies altogether. That would leave the world a poor place indeed—we'd have to eliminate all 2-year-olds, not to mention poets and snowboarders. I personally think our whole society could use a more laid-back approach, but a massive cultural shift doesn't appear to be imminent, so we polychrones have to find some way to be ourselves without losing our jobs, offending our associates and yammering a constant stream of half-baked apologies. How? We must learn something I call the art of the dismount.

The Art of the Dismount

Emma has spent most of her life trying to force herself to be on time. This rarely works, because it addresses the wrong aspect of the problem. Like most polychrones, Emma isn't reluctant to start Thing #2 but to stop Thing #1. Disengaging from a given activity is the key to living on schedule. By choreographing and practicing the skill of ending, even polychrones can stay (roughly) on schedule, no matter how much we want to linger. I've found the following steps essential to a successful dismount.

Accept Transition Trauma
"Parting is such sweet sorrow," said Juliet to Romeo, "that I shall say good night till it be morrow." Romantic, yes—but please recall that both star-crossed lovers bought the farm before reaching legal drinking age. The moral: If you can't stand making the little transitions, you may end up making big ones you don't like. Although disengaging feels to us polychrones like having our molars pulled, transition trauma is brief (it goes away as soon as you're engaged with the next activity), and it's much better than most alternatives. Decide right now to accept the sweet sorrow of parting, rather than the bitterness of being fired, dumped or wage garnished.

Plan Your Dismount Backward
Polychrones make vague, hopeful estimates about the speed at which we can get things done. We fail to plan for mistakes, distractions, traffic jams. Backward planning with worst-case scenarios can solve this problem. For example, Emma might plan her morning transition from home to work by beginning with the time she plans to walk into her office (say, 8 a.m.), then thinking through her morning in reverse, adding up the maximum time it might take her to ride the elevator, negotiate traffic, locate her keys, tinker with her makeup, bask in the shower, etc. Writing down this schedule and posting it somewhere visible will annoy Emma intensely but will help her stay on track in the morning.

Say Goodbye Before You Say Hello
If solitary activities are hard for polychrones to end, social events can be absolute nightmares. Thinking you'll figure out how to disengage from a gathering when it's already in progress is like a gymnast planning to come up with the idea for her dismount halfway through an Olympic routine on the uneven bars.

Before you enter social situations, I suggest that you write yourself a little "dismount script," and rehearse it. Remember that you may have to say goodbye in several different ways before the tentacles of connection actually break: "Listen, this has been terrific, but I've got to run." "I'll give you a buzz next week, right?" "Okay, see you then!" "Take care!" Practice standing up and walking away as you recite these farewells. By the time you reach the door, even other polychrones will have resigned themselves to the fact that you're leaving.


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