Women's Wellness Series The Western Notion of Time

The Western Notion of Time

Recently, at Black Lives Matter protest in Nowra, I watched as a First Nations Uncle walked slowly up to the podium to speak his piece.


It was a sunny day, and there was thankfully no police presence (bar one car hiding behind a hill). He apologised for arriving late and explained he was running on ‘blackfella time’. The crowd laughed warmly, and I noticed a sense of acceptance all around me. If we were at a conference, I suspect he would have been reprimanded for his timing.


The concept of time is a colonised thing. Earlier this year, Professor Rangi Matamua, Māori astronomer, spoke about decolonising time for the web-series Accessing Deep Indigenous Knowing Amidst COVID-19, stating, “Time is political … wrapped up in all these time-keeping systems are certain ideologies, certain belief systems, certain approaches to how you should live.”


Here, Matamua explains how European colonisers imposed the seven-day calendar and 24-hour time on Indigenous peoples, and how the Western notion of time is linked to a capitalist economic structure and to Christianity.


“The difference between [Māori] polychromic and [European] monochromic time is that [the latter] breaks down time into parcels; it breaks down time into small, measurable units. And it likens time to money, really,” Matamua says.


Lately, I’ve been thinking about my capacity to fit into Western notions of time as a worker. I write this as a White person who manages multiple chronic illnesses that affect my ability to make a profit.


My compromised immune system often takes me out of the workforce every two months, sometimes landing me in hospital if I’m pressured to work while ill. I run on ADHD-time, which, personally, means I’m consistently inconsistent. I live to meander, to dillydally, to dawdle. I agonise when my wandering attention is forced into a nine-to-five rhythm.


If you look up the UK Wellness Movement’s website, on the page where it lists its core mental health values, the first thing mentioned is the financial costs of a worker’s ‘unwellness’ on businesses. This so-called movement is rooted in productivity and in maintaining disparities in wealth distribution.


As a freelance writer and editor, when I can, I opt to leave my days and weeks fairly open and spacious, allowing room for attention-lags. ADHD coaching is often geared towards pushing neuro-diverse persons to be more profitable.


By taking on more work, I might be financially better off, but, as I work slower than most neurotypical people, I’m often left feeling spiritually unwell; like an untreated infection, the work takes over everything.


“I’m a writer. But often writing doesn’t really pay, or rather, the type of writing that’s worth doing tends to pay poorly, slowly, and irregularly, if at all,” explains Jinghua Qian.


The COVID-19 pandemic has gifted some of us with a sudden abundance of time. Now that I’m on a liveable amount of welfare, I can allocate my energy to writing that serves.


“The [COVID] crisis poses more starkly than usual the value and meaning of how we spend our time; what we are devoting our lives to,” writes Nick Southall, an activist in the Illawarra who has devoted much of his life to advocating for the un- and underemployed. 


But, despite having time to stop and think, living on welfare comes with stigma. I feel devalued by some of my peers, my family members, my country, because useful unemployment – or: work that doesn’t involve the exchange of currency – is perceived as ineffectual idleness. I’d be lying if I said this stigma doesn’t affect my self-esteem.


The truth is, some paid work is useless and harmful and directly opposes wellness. My work at a traditional magazine publisher was largely detrimental: it was environmentally damaging and its purpose was to sell flights to middle and upper class readers. I’m able to do more useful work for my community when I’m considered unemployed, and yet my full-time editorial title was more likely to be met with respect.


When I worked in-house at a music media publisher, I quickly succumbed to the pressures of a fast-paced environment, a pace that distorted my writing and my values. There were TV screens that ranked writers, showing us who was getting the most clicks. I began to feel competitive, rather than contemplative. In haste, I wrote articles and headlines that, today, I feel ashamed of.


“Media companies [try] to keep up with each other create a kind of ‘arms race’ of urgency that abuses our attention and leaves us no time to think,” writes Jenny Odell in her recent book How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. “The logic of advertising and clicks dictates the media experience, which is exploitative by design.”


The pressure to make a profitable living from storytelling often inhibits my ability to lead a comfortable life, to tell stories with care. This pressure can lead to reckless, rushed and unethical resolutions in order to increase clicks. Often, letting my attention wander leads to insight and clarity, whereas trying to rein it in and behave as if I’m neurotypical leads to exhaustion.


To decolonise wellness, perhaps we need to think about how we move through space and time and how that same movement is influenced by Western colonialism. What would the world look like if we were allowed more time for stimulating, pleasure-inducing aimlessness? What would happen if we had the means to support neuro-diverse folk who worked slowly?


I’d like for us to dream up a world where we can work in a way that feels useful, in a way that feels good.


Together. In one’s own time.



Belinda Quinn

Belinda (they/them) lives on the lands of the Yuin peoples on the South Coast of New South Wales. You can read more of their writing at belindaquinn.com.

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