Are You on ‘Clock Time’ or ‘Event Time?’

What happens to your creative work when you redefine your relationship to the clock

Multicolored clocks falling against a yellow-green gradient.
Multicolored clocks falling against a yellow-green gradient.

Before moving to Colombia, I spent my first winter here. Once I arrived, I quickly found just how different the pace of life is compared to Chicago. People talk slower, walk slower. The U.S. custom of standing on the right side of the escalator so people can pass you on the left? Yeah, that’s not really a thing. People stand wherever they like. It’s rare to see someone in such a hurry that they’d want to climb an escalator that’s already moving, anyway.

In my first few weeks here, I chafed against the unfamiliar lack of urgency. But as I adjusted to my new surroundings, I noticed something happening to me. My writing was becoming more focused. I was coming up with new ideas left and right. And I was suddenly calmer. Months’ worth of pent-up tension melted away from the muscles in my neck and back.

I talked to other American expats about this phenomenon, and they all reported something similar. When you first come to Colombia, a few of them told me, it takes a while to get into the rhythm of life, but once you’re in that rhythm, you’re more relaxed, more laid back, happier. I believe this has a lot to do with cultural differences in the way we perceive time.

In his global research on attitudes about time, the social psychologist Robert Levine identified two distinct social constructs of time: “clock time“ and “event time.” People in cultures that operate on clock time schedule their lives according to, well, the time on the clock. Lunch is at 12, this meeting will end at 2, and the next meeting will begin at 2:30.

Those who work on event time, on the other hand, run their days by responding to what’s happening: When I’m hungry, I’ll eat lunch. This meeting will end once we’ve met the objective, and if that doesn’t take all afternoon, we’ll have this other meeting. Here in Colombia, I’ve observed, people tend to live more on event time.

In a 2014 paper, researchers Tamar Avnet and Anne-Laure Sellier studied the two different scheduling styles and found that both clock time and event time have their strengths. If your priority is to be efficient, clock-time is the way to go. Say you’re procrastinating on writing an easy email, for instance — giving yourself a hard deadline to hit send will help you be done with it faster. However, if your priority is to be effective, having an event-time lens is key. Imagine you want to buy the perfect gift for your partner for your 10th wedding anniversary. Making sure it’s thoughtful and meaningful is more important than getting your shopping done quickly.

Avnet and Sellier’s study showed that clock-time and event-time approaches aren’t strictly cultural. Most of us smartly change our approach based upon what we’re trying to accomplish. But sometimes, we opt to use a clock-time approach when an event-time approach would be better — and that’s when we get ourselves into trouble.

Specifically, when people try to do creative work on clock time, they often set themselves up to fail. Consider this study on creativity from Stanford University: Researchers found that the busier knowledge workers were, the less creative they were. The more they struggled to fit their work into the time available, the more they let creativity fall by the wayside. That’s because creative work is not methodical. Ideas arrive unpredictably. If you try to produce results on your specific timeline, you become stressed, which lowers your creativity.

Obviously, if you can’t do anything on time, you’re going to have problems. You’ll miss deadlines and disrespect people by showing up late. The key is knowing when to listen to the clock, and when to disregard it. Avnet and Sellier found that people who depend too much on the clock to dictate their schedules are less present, less able to savor positive emotions, and less open to the unpredictable opportunities that come with creative work.

If you’re trying to absorb a book chapter in the next 10 minutes or come up with the perfect company strategy before your meeting ends at noon, you probably won’t find much success. Conversely, if you decide to read every night before going to sleep, over time, you’ll become more informed and engaged with the world. If you meditate every morning, you’ll be more present. And if you have a problem but give yourself the time and space to think it through, the solution will present itself. With this approach, time doesn’t control you — rather, your life improves because you consistently put in the work. Keep showing up and things will work out, in their own time.

Author, ‘Mind Management, Not Time Management’ Former design & productivity advisor to Timeful (Google acq’d).

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