Sociologists can rightly be accused of routinely dividing the world into two groups, says Robert Levine, a professor of social psychology at California State University, Fresno. With regards to how humans relate to time, he explains, they’ve done it again: There are people who live by “clock time,” he says, and those who live by “event time.”
Clock time people, as the name implies, run their lives according to an arranged schedule, assigning tasks to interchangeable time blocks of various sizes. They never move on to new activities just because it “feels right,” says Levine, an expert in chronemics, or the study of time. Instead they set time-dependent goals, arrange formal meetings, make detailed dates for dinners and phone calls, and are generally punctual.
By contrast, event time people allow events to dictate the rhythm of their days. When invited to dinner, they feel no pressing need to discuss what time that dinner might be held. Their version of setting up a phone chat might be, “I’ll call as soon as I’ve finished my lunch.” And they’ll eat, by the way, when they’re hungry, not when the clock strikes a particular hour.
With event timers, projects are complete when they feel done. Meetings last as long as they need to and the topic is changed when everyone “decides through some kind of usually unspoken mutual agreement” that the topic has run its course, says Levine.
That might sound like anarchy to their clock-loving counterparts, some of whom go to considerable lengths to instill in their organizations a devotion to schedules. For example, at a recent meeting with a European bank, a Quartz editor noticed with astonishment that the firm’s video-conferencing system automatically shut down the meeting after exactly one hour, cutting off the conversation abruptly. It had been programmed that way by the bank to keep meetings from dragging on, he learned.
Although outliers exist, sociologists also say that most individuals can and do operate on both temporal modes, and will switch mind frames depending on the context. So even if you’re an extreme clock time person, says Levine, “at a social event, you’re not going to see someone on the other side of the room and walk over and say, ‘Can I pencil you in for a chat at 9:12 to 9:15?’”
Importantly, however, individuals and cultures—whether of nations and regions, companies, families, or social stratas— also have a default mode, the temporal model in which they operate most often and feel most at ease. For instance, on vacations, some of us feel safer in the structured order of an itinerary; and some of us can’t relax—and may feel deeply irritated—if we’re expected to follow a rigid agenda.
Most work is on clock time, like it or not
In case it’s not obvious, clock time is the dominant mode in American and European culture, and in other industrialized nations, like Japan. It has become the default system for global business culture, says Levine, who is also the author of A Geography Of Time: The Temporal Misadventures of a Social Psychologist. So, in some countries, like India, he says, young people have learned that “if they want to be part of the international business game, then they need to learn the language of clock time.” Much like bilingual speakers, he explains, the business professionals of emerging economies acquire an ability to seamlessly move between the event time tempo of family life, and expectations at work.
For most of human history, event time was the norm, says Kevin Birth, a professor of anthropology at Queens College (CUNY) in New York. And in most countries it still is, though some cultures have found ingenious ways to combine the past and present.
“A good example of that is if you think about Islam,” says Birth. “One of the five pillars of Islam is the calling to prayer five times a day. Those prayer times are not clock times; after all, the prophet was on Earth before the clock.” In the Koran, all the references to prayer are about particular moments when the sun is in a certain place in the sky; the salah times (prayer times) begin with fajr, between dawn and full sunrise, and end with isha (night, and preferably halfway between sunset and sunrise.) “So you have all these Muslims in the world who are faithfully holding their prayer practice, and that in itself is event time,” says Birth. “But maybe they know when it’s time to pray because they have smartphone apps that tell the clock time.”
Clock time really came into its own, he explains, when wage hours took over as a handy tool that employers used to start standardizing labor costs in the 18th century, when people began migrating for work. Suddenly, a day’s wages could equal a wide range of output depending on the length of “days” in locations at different latitudes. Employers began thinking in terms of wages per hour, and work days came to be demarcated by the clock, not the rising and setting sun. Then, in the 19th century, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, creator of “scientific time management,” came along and fine-tuned each work process to optimize total workflow, changing history.
The logic of clock time revolutionized assembly lines and would eventually give us Amazon’s insanely calibrated logistics, but clock time itself is totally artificial and it doesn’t work for everyone. Writers need time to let an idea expand and take shape. Artists talk about characters in a play or book slowly revealing themselves, and managers who want to take advantage of creative talent during project work need to take this essential way of being into consideration, says Tamar Avnet, a professor of marketing at Yeshiva University in New York.
Do not ask product developers to come up with five ideas by 5 pm, she warns. “They’ll do it because they have to, but they won’t be good ideas.”
And don’t ask people to switch between mental models in one day, either. Professors like her are expected to teach and do research, for instance, but teaching is on extreme clock time (the bell rings and students pack up their laptops and backpacks and move on, often even if the teacher is mid-sentence), and research and writing are—like all acts of creativity—on event time. The mind can’t jump from one to the other, teaching from 1 to 3 pm, and researching from 4 to 6 pm, says Avnet. “Administrators don’t understand it,” she says, “but the brain just doesn’t work that way.”
In some highly critical professions, too, we don’t expect clock time to be the primary concern. As Birth points out, we generally do not expect doctors and nurses responding to a crisis to walk out of the emergency room when the clock strikes a certain hour.
Clock time people are organized, but unhappy
Researchers aren’t sure how our preferences for one model develops. Why do some people live in event time even after spending their formative years in the clock time culture of Western and westernized schools? What’s more, as Avnet has discovered with her sons, two brothers can grow up in the same household and not fall into the same category.
“I ask them, ‘Hey, do you guys want to eat lunch?” she says, “and my oldest son asks, ‘What time is it?’ and my youngest son asks ‘Am I hungry?’”
Sure, external factors like parents or community play a role in these leanings, say both Avnet and Birth, but it may also be a trait one is born with.
Avnet and her research partner, Anne-Laure Sellier, a professor of marketing at the business school Hautes Études Commerciales Paris (HEC Paris), investigated the psychological consequences of both clock and event time for a paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. They learned that clock timers usually feel they have little control over their environment, and that things happen by chance. They reach for the clock as a way to bring order to a random world, but, paradoxically, they tend to become the clock’s puppet instead.
By comparison, those who live by event time tend to feel “they have a very strong control over their life,” she says, adding. “They believe things happen because of their own doing, and attribute very little to luck.”
Such beliefs shape our experience of life, because in order to follow one’s internal cues, you have to be able to “hear” them, to stay in touch with yourself. A clock time person has to ignore what they feel instinctively to serve an external demand on their watch or phone. “They don’t need to be attuned to their emotions because they surrender them to the clock, ” Sellier says in a TedX talk at her school.
The problem with this, Sellier notes, is that psychological studies have established the connection between being able to linger in a moment and feeling greater contentment.
For this reason, Avnet and her husband, two clock timers, have banned the use of clocks or checking smartphones for the time on weekends and vacation. It’s been healthy and freeing for her, she says, though she at first struggled with the urge to check the clock and make plans.
On weekdays, however, to help her young son who’s oblivious to the time and “thinking about stuff” during the morning rush, she breaks down the time he has to get ready into smaller manageable quantities, explaining what needs to be done, and by when, and letting him know when that time arrives. It still gives him some control over how long he spends on required tasks, like tying his shoes.
She has found that change and modifications to one’s temporal setting are possible, to a degree, if someone wants to consciously make the effort. Either way, just understanding the impulses and tendencies of the two modes can be enough to clear up tensions in marriages between opposing types, she says, and give managers deeper insight into the individuals they’re working with.