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reject squirrel time, embrace slug time
“Having ADHD makes other people so irritating to me,” begins this TikTok by user ritalinprc. “I’m on, like, squirrel time, I’m so scattered around, and then people are just so slow.”
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She proceeds to joke about how excruciating it is to watch people ring up her groceries too slowly, and as someone who’s worked plenty of jobs behind a cash register, I did not find this bit very cute at all!
Your impatience with service workers is not a neurological disorder, and I think it’s far more informed by your culture than your diagnosis. But ADHD is fast becoming the universal scapegoat for all that ails us, from heart attacks to hoarding, a simple internal answer to bigger, more difficult questions.
In the interest of good faith, it’s possible ritalinprc was talking about fellow customers at self-checkouts (she does not explicitly say she’s referring to workers), but still, this impatience with others points to a worldview that is aggressively individualistic.
As Jonathan Crary writes in his book on the politics of sleep, 24/7:
The problem of waiting is tied to the larger issue of the incompatibility of 24/7 capitalism with any social behaviors that have a rhythmic pattern of action and pause. This would include any social exchange involving sharing, reciprocity, or cooperation.
Ritalinprc describes how frustrating it is for another person to pass her an object, demonstrating how she would bruskly snatch it from their hand, saying, “Give me that shit.”
She fails to see herself as a product of her culture, instead ascribing this behavior to an inner clock on “squirrel time”1. But who taught your clock to run so frantically? Is squirrel time not the capitalist’s favorite kind? Rushing from place to place, consuming and producing in a frenzy so scattered, you have no time for anything resembling personal contemplation or social cooperation?
I don’t deny that some people have internal rhythms dissonant with the world around them — I have plenty of my own struggles with a mind that races and constantly skips ahead. But I think we should question how much of that rhythm has been instilled in us by our social conditions, and if it’s truly good for us to embrace it.
I found this article from 1997 that reads a bit like an ancient text now, or an eerie prophecy. It’s called The Tick-Tock Syndrome, and it’s about a doctor named Larry Dossey who proposed something he called time sickness:
Time sickness, says Dossey, is nearing epidemic proportions today as people deploy state-of-the-art weaponry like fax machines, cellular phones, and power PCs in their efforts to beat the clock. Victims of time sickness, he adds, are obsessed with the notion “that time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up. The trouble is, the body has limits that it imposes on us. And the body will not be fooled if we try to beat it into submission and ask more of it than it can deliver in a 24-hour day. It will let us know.”
ADHD influencers often describe the popular notion of time blindness this way, too — a constant sense that “time is getting away” and “there’s never enough time”. The difference, though, is that time blindness locates the cause within, and time sickness acknowledges how the pressures of clock time make us ill.
..the pace of life feels faster and time more scarce in cultures where time is viewed as a straight line along which one progresses and where individuals typically let an external clock dictate when tasks begin and end.
In contrast, life tends to feel less rushed and time more abundant in cultures where time is viewed as a circular system in which the same events repeat according to some cyclical pattern and where tasks are planned relative to other tasks (and people transition from one to the next when they internally sense the former task is complete..)
The common symptoms of Dossey’s time sickness were “migraine headaches, irritable bowels, sleep disorders and low-grade depression,” and the article notes:
What sets time-sick people apart, according to Dossey, is that when stressful conditions are removed, they continue to race the clock. They find it agonizing to wait, because waiting means that precious seconds are slipping away.
This sounds more like a kind of anxiety than an innate sense of time — an anxiety instilled by the ticking hands of the 24-hour industrial clock, exacerbated by an app literally called TikTok that shapes the worldview and internal clock of its users, creating an “algorithmized self”.
In a 2021 paper, Aparajita Bhandari and Sara Bimo explain this concept:
The user is forced to negotiate identity not by connecting to the outside world through the mechanism of the machine, but rather by engaging with “machinized” selves: the curated algorithm that presents their interests, personality, and identity to them, and the original content they create that is processed by the machine that is Tiktok. In Tiktok, the boundaries between user and platform are intentionally blurred; here more than ever do we see a restless machine, one with as much of a “life” as its human user.
If the primary interaction happening on the app is between you and the “restless machine”, there’s no waiting on TikTok. Machines can be instantaneous in ways that other humans cannot — you can swipe to the next video, but you can’t skip a checkout line if it’s not fast enough.
Tech writer Nicholas Carr wrote on his blog in 2012 about studies that show the faster internet connection speeds get, the less patience people have. In 2006, internet users were willing to wait four seconds for a page to load. By 2012, another study found that four seconds had become 250 milliseconds. Carr wrote:
One thing this study doesn’t tell us — but I would hypothesize as true (based on what I see in myself as well as others) — is that the loss of patience persists even when we’re not online. In other words, digital technologies are training us to be more conscious of and more resistant to delays of all sorts — and perhaps more intolerant of moments of time that pass without the arrival of new stimuli.
Lest you begin to think I’m saying technology causes ADHD, I’m not. (That’s a take I find equally as reductive as saying ADHD causes time stress.) But we can’t deny that our experience of time is shaped by a culture that prioritizes speed, efficiency, and instant gratification, and sometimes, those things make us sick.
If you’re interested in my critiques of timeblindness, I’ve been working on an audio series that paid subscribers can access: