Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

In most parts of North America and Europe, among other regions, this weekend marks the last day of Daylight Saving Time, sometimes called “summer time.” On Saturday night we will all set our clocks back, enjoy an extra hour of sleep (or partying, depending on one’s disposition), and wake up to a slightly brighter morning. We will all be 3% happier, offsetting the 3% loss in happiness we experienced when we had to set our clocks forward and lose an hour of sleep back in the spring.

Two Steps Forward, One Hour Back

The mnemonic “spring forward, fall back” is meant to remind us which way to set our clocks for a given season (assuming they don’t have the intelligence to figure it out themselves, as they increasingly do). But this trick works well only in North America. In British English, the word fall is rarely used to mean “autumn.” And of course, outside the English-speaking world, where the homonym “spring/spring” does not exist, other memory aids must be employed. Although I find “spring forward, fall back” helpful, an even more useful mnemonic would be one that reminded us when these changes happen. I’ve never managed to internalize the pattern; last week I mistakenly sent a bunch of people an email message reminding them to change their clocks, only to issue a retraction minutes later when someone pointed out my error. The sheer arbitrariness of it all trips me up; it took me years just to get that “30 days hath September…” thing straight.

I could go into a long discussion about this time change: the argument over whether it should properly be called “Daylight Savings Time” instead of “Daylight Saving Time”; the history of its implementation and the various dates on which it has started and ended; the reasons places such as Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Saskatchewan, and most of Arizona choose not to observe it; the variations between “summer time” as observed in other parts of the world and Daylight Saving Time in North America; and so on. But such a discussion seems more appropriate at the beginning of Daylight Saving Time, when we adopt the fiction that the next seven months are a mere temporary variance from the “standard” time we observe during the other five. In the spring, we can ponder why we do not “spring forward” from the aberrant “winter time” into the normal reckoning of time.

Be that as it may—and despite this season’s association with ghouls, tricksters, and also matters unrelated to elections in the U.S.—I often find this artificial ritual of clock adjustment an occasion for reflection on progress, opportunity, and priorities.

Fall Guy

The phrase “falling back” can mean several different things depending on the context of its use, and I was just reflecting on the fact that most of them could apply to me right now. There’s the literal sense of falling backward, which may occur to someone who has spent quite a few consecutive near-sleepless nights working on various urgent projects, as I have recently. Falling back could be construed as “falling behind,” which can come from insufficient progress during the aforementioned sleepless nights. In a military or police operation (or even some sports), “fall back” can mean “retreat” (in order to regroup, preserve one’s safety, or simply find a more strategic position)—just as I may do when feeling overwhelmed by too many different demands. This, in turn, is closely related to the “fall-back plan,” a backup strategy for when one’s primary course of action is not viable. My fall-back plan for when I have too few functioning brain cells to research a proper article is to write about things that require little thought.

Although I always try to avoid making overt political statements in this forum, allow me humbly to propose a modest exercise. On this date when most of us undertake a minor change, consider whether there are features of your customary routine that might also benefit from a small change—things you have become, perhaps, slightly dissatisfied with. In my case, certainly the change of a few less calories ingested and a few more burned through exercise would yield welcome results. A wee bit more sleep; maybe a wee bit less TV. Fewer projects, more time socializing with friends. These are not huge, New-Year’s-resolution kinds of changes, just small ones to offset the small damages done in recent months or years of slight excess or laziness. And then, gentle reader, if you also find yourself slightly dissatisfied with the quality of life or the priorities of government in your city, state, or nation, make yet another small change on Election Day. The merest swipe of a pen, flick of a switch, or tap on a screen—perhaps in a spot just slightly different from where habit may tempt you—could be that little change that produces the most meaningful and beneficial results. —Joe Kissell

UPDATE: Until April 2005, only parts of Indiana observed Daylight Saving Time; now the whole state does. Later in 2005, the U.S. Congress passed a bill extending Daylight Saving Time for an extra month each year. Starting in 2007, DST in the United States begins on the second Sunday of March and ends on the first Sunday of November.

More Information

If you really want to read more about Daylight Saving Time, don’t let me stop you! Here are some useful sites: