My son has a new watch. Every weekday morning before school he declares: “It’s 16 minutes until we have to leave. Now it’s 13 and a half minutes until we have to leave.” It’s very relaxing.
I worry that this obsession with clock-watching is hereditary. He’s only saying out loud what I’m saying in my head. My two main jobs, broadcasting and DJ-ing, share a central tenet; to fill and manage time. Every day for two hours in a BBC radio studio, I talk in time pockets, back-time songs and declare what time it is to the nation. I’m a timekeeping obsessive. I know that I can use the bathroom, make a cup of tea, and be back in the radio studio in the time it takes for an average pop song to play out. I know that it takes 22 minutes to cycle from my house to work, but 24 if I hit every red light on the final stretch. I know that it will take just over two minutes for you to read this article.
My time management is complicated by the fact that I thrive on being busy. I pack my to-do list neatly into my days like songs on a radio show. My friend Alice once read that Jamie Oliver’s time is divvied up into 15-minute slots and she enjoys teasing me about doing this with my own leisure periods. We once went swimming and I scheduled some time for floating after my two laps. She won’t let me live it down.
Time is always ticking in my head. Sometimes, when I ask people how they are, I say: “Give me the headlines!” – as if I’m still on air and our talk time is counting down. And, of course, my anxiety dreams are based on running out of time. Digits counting down on a CDJ player while I frantically look for a song I can’t find. Baying crowds that I can’t satisfy. Running for planes and trains and boats that I miss at the last minute. Always time counting backwards.
Recently, I have been counting down my last radio shows for Radio 1. Last week, after 17 years of clock-watching, I left my job in broadcasting. My final song has been played. There is no plan. My calendar is empty.
This is a new sensation. A slow-sliding panicky feeling, a growing awareness of endless space. I remind myself that this is not an anxiety dream. This is not dead air. I don’t have to fill the space, and for the first time in my adult life, I don’t want to. I have left my radio job to give myself more time with my kids in the evening. To put them to bed and eat dinner with them while they are still young. I have also left radio so I can spend more time working on being a writer, a job that involves sitting in a room by myself with a terrifying lack of structure.
I wonder how I will experience time now that I’m not so beholden to it. When there’s nothing to do, I often suddenly feel anxious, overwhelmed even. I question the origins of my need to do things all the time.
My family are always very busy. There’s a plan for every holiday. On Christmas Day, our tradition is to jump into the sea in the morning and hike up the Dublin mountains after lunch. My husband thinks we’re all mad. His parents can sit around and talk or read for hours without looking at their watches. They relish being idle when they can. The first time I went to his family home in Sheffield for Christmas, the combination of tropical-level central heating and a weighty dinner combined with a lack of plans, meant that I fell into a deep sleep on their sofa. I woke up dazed, having dribbled over their cushions. They were delighted that I felt relaxed enough to do that. I was mortified. I didn’t recognise myself. It went against every instinct. “Relax” is the most-used word-weapon in my husband’s arsenal.
So I’m off the radio and the goal is to relax. The school holidays are here. There will no more morning countdowns from my son. There will be no more producers in my ear telling me: “You have 30 seconds left on this song.” I want to, God forbid, lose track of time. I want to be one of those people who can slide into an empty day and float around in it like a swimming pool. I want to stop being so aware of time running out. Of life hurtling by. Yes, every day is just sand dropping in the egg timer of life but, for heaven’s sake, stop staring Annie. Stop watching the clock.