Time Zone Sucker Punch

Every day, I’ve overslept my life


The world is always on. It’s always been on, we’re just more aware of it now.

So many of us have global dealings with hotspots of family, friends, colleagues, clients, and all kinds of personal and professional interests scattered around the globe.

How do we handle today’s new time-zone-insensitive reality?

For most of this past decade, as the ‘ambient awareness’ of social media has grown, I was an expatriate in Istanbul. People who move around the globe might know that’s Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) — or the more accurate atomic Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) — plus three hours. Globally mobile people start incorporating time zone switching in our brains but it seems we always need more help. (I like this basic visual clock.)

In Istanbul, I was awake before most of my work associates and personal contacts, which made my Turkish time zone ideally civilized for global interaction. I could be dressed, caffeinated, fed and through all my emails before urbane London came online. That witticism-heavy time zone included literary figures, college mates and lifestyle aesthetes in Marrakesh. Yes, I often missed real-time happenings in Asia, where I’d once lived in the ‘90s, but I could still catch up on the headlines, and communicate with my fellow foodies, expats, and culturalists in the Far East before they hit the hay. Then I’d be at my afternoon best when my 20-something homebase of New York and the whole East Coast appeared, ready to Twitter-attend their conferences and swoop into their conversations with a 40-something European knowing. I’d be a well-oiled social being when early morning California finally showed up, including my editors at the publishing house, and family members.

The converse was not true, however. When my earnest, Turkish early morning Twitter path crossed California, I had out-of-sync exchanges with late-night LA snark, a place I once worked in the sharp-elbowed entertainment business. New online connections with mumblecore filmmakers and dyspeptic screenwriters went nowhere fast. Who can build relationships on chronic misunderstandings?

Now that my husband and I have relocated back to my birth zone of California (UTC-7) to pursue tech-related entrepreneurial ventures, I can’t believe how late and lazy and slow this time zone makes me feel.

This used to be my norm. For seventeen years I heard about a world out there that had already happened—life “back East” and “in Europe.” As a native child it was easy to accept that other, less-known places were the past and California was the present.

After 14 years abroad in four time zones, my West Coast home base leaves me perpetually missing the day. I can’t help but feel that I’ve overslept my globally-aware life. Like a particularly undignified Groundhog Day, I awake to a worldwide sucker punch. Friends and colleagues in NYC are already well into their women-in-media power player conferences and soon enough they’re unwinding with cocktails when I’m brewing the afternoon coffee. Talk about tonal misunderstandings. By the time I start firing on all cylinders, the world has slipped into a long night. The empty expanse of the Pacific has never been more palpable since my awareness has become global, and real-time.

Someone suggested to me that we now face a ‘time-zoneless’ world, but that would be a mess of a single time around the globe where we’d never know what it’s time for where. Like, it might be 9 a.m. everywhere right now but we’d have to actually learn during which hours on the 24-hour clock Helsinki does business, rather than make that conversion based on where Helsinki is. Finland might be sleeping at 9 a.m.

Instead, our challenge is to interface worldwide—if we choose to, if we have reason to try—while still getting our recommended daily allowance of sunlight and sleep.

The usual solution is to work with the clock and against your own circadian rhythms, which researchers really don’t recommend. They say it’ll accelerate aging.

Yet, chipper, with-it pros who do business and tend family in far off time zones tell me they get up before dawn and admit to taking phone calls in the middle of the night. Is it a coincidence that they also seem to be the types to enter a triathlon or launch three businesses simultaneously? Gluttons for punishment.

Two years in this sunny twilight of the world and I’m still struggling with how to be the global me. I’m accepting that the optimal daily biorhythm with which I met the world in Istanbul is not yet possible for me to achieve here in California. I’m not drawn to the retrograde way of dealing with a too-big planet by losing sleep.

If actually being always-on means operating more hours in the dark, to do that I’d be courting a seasonal affective disorder year-round.

Instead, I’ve been liberating myself both from time AND space, by being more than ever virtually always-on.

As I edit my Twitter subscriptions so my timeline reflects my current interests in entrepreneurship, women’s leadership, and new media plays, I try to resist Bay Area myopia by limiting my local follows to discrete San Francisco Twitter lists. I’ve now got 1,500 SF accounts kept at bay. That’s how I tap into what’s happening here without losing sight of what else I care about. I also curate lists to follow fresh socio-political developments in Turkey and happenings across the region.

Part of being virtually always-on is being reachable or findable in more places. That might mean I hear from my contacts and sources more hours of the day on more devices in more places. But, most importantly, the trail of messages we drop like crumbs behind us enables our global contacts to keep up with us on their own time. Much like I used to scrawl messages on slips of paper in my childhood bedroom and deposit them in my sisters’ wooden mailboxes and then wait for a reply, now I act during my hours of operation in as many places I am connected to my world-flung people. Then I wait.

In these instantaneous days, I find I’m relying more on asynchronous communication to connect to my wider sphere.

It may stretch brief conversations for months, and prolong misunderstandings with LA filmmakers and boozed-up New Yorkers, but the turning of the world takes time.