Clock-time vs. Event-time

Solo Travel Diaries: 3-Weeks in Malaysia

Writing has become my preferred thinking tool

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What day is it today? A simple question with a telling answer. In quarantine, a popular meme theme that has surfaced is around this idea. Many are unable to recall what day of the week it is given that the days no longer matter. There is no way to differentiate a Monday from a Friday, or a Saturday or a Sunday. We are living in event-time to cope with quarantine. Life outside quarantine, you ask the following questions:

What is your least favourite day of the week? Probably Monday
What is your favourite day of the week? Probably Friday or Saturday

Mondays suck for most because they have to go back to work. While Friday and Saturday are filled with anticipation for the weekend. 

Quarantine has eliminated this arbitrary construct of the working week and in many ways offers immense potential for insight. As of my writing of this article on 19 April, 2020, I am unaware of any academics taking advantage of this quarantine. It would be an unparalleled opportunity study the effects of artificially removing constructs like weekdays and weekends. 

Where does the work week even come from? It seems to have its roots in Judaism as a means to allow them time to not work on the Sabbath and was popularised by Henry Ford when he decided to shut down his factories on Saturday and Sunday. Almost 100 years later, we have only recently started to experiment with this idea. France famously reduced their working hours to 35 hours a week in 2,000. Some companies have transitioned into a 4-day work week led by Perpetual Guardian. Even the most valuable company in the world, Microsoft, trialled their idea in Japan to try combat the chronic-overworking culture in that part of the world. 

So what exactly is clock-time and event-time?

To illustrate the difference between the two, I’ll offer an example of a workday for Bob. Bob has to get the following things done: 

  • Clean the kitchen
  • Finish a proposal
  • Call the plumber
  • Buy gift-wrapping
  • Help his children with their science project

If you operate on clock-time, you schedule each activity to a time in the day and an estimated duration. For example: 

  • 9am – 10am: Clean the kitchen
  • 10am – 11am: Finish proposal
  • 11am – 11:15pm: Call the plumber
  • 1:30pm – 2pm: Buy gift-wrapping
  • 4pm – 6pm: Help his children with their science project

Given that clock-timers assigned time units to each activity, they treat each time unit as being independent. This means that they can re-arrange the order of the activities depending on if there are some new circumstances to take into consideration. For example, if at 9am Bob feels like he is inspired to finish his proposal, he will easily just do that first. 

Bob is allocating a specific duration and time for each activity. The control of his schedule is relinquished to external forces.

Event-time considers time-units to be interdependent. This means that Bob would think about the things he would have to do that day sequentially. For example, he would wake up, and in his head have a schedule of what he needs to do. First is clean the kitchen, then after that is done, he will work on the proposal. Once the proposal is complete, he will call the plumber, then buy the gift-wrapping, and then help his children with their project. Event-timers do not wait for an arbitrary time to complete their tasks, they just do it, and move on to the next. 

Why does it matter?

Clock-time has been the modus operandi for the majority of workers for the last 100 years since Ford popularised the 40-hour working week. We have been implicitly taught to adjust to clock-time through school. My high school, similar with most, would look like the following a typical school day for most would like the following: 

  • 8:30am: School starts – Go to homeroom
  • 9:00am: Period 1 
  • 9:55am: Period 2
  • 10:40am: Morning Tea
  • 11:05am: Period 3
  • 11:50am: Period 4
  • 12:30pm: Lunch
  • 1:25pm: Period 5
  • 2:20pm: Period 6
  • 3:10pm: School ends

Just look at how regimented and structured this day is. Not to mention the fact that there are penalties for students that don’t adhere to this schedule. If you are late to school, you get a detention, if you are late to class, you could get a detention if you didn’t have a valid excuse. I haven’t even included here extra-curricular commitments like sports or music that would add to this schedule after school ends. While I may have despised it at the time, I get why the structure was in place and was needed. 

The main reason clock-time has persisted was because it aligned with the principles of working outlined in [[Getting Things Done]] by [[David Allan]]. He advocates for being organised when it comes to work: identify your action points, review your progress, and ensure that you capture every action, etc. This all presumes that you are able to identify and prioritise all of your work to be able to effectively schedule and plan your day or your week.

Throughout the industrial revolution, most worked in jobs where you could apply his method e.g. standardised jobs like labourers across any industry. But since the dawn of the the current technological age, the number of knowledge workers have increased exponentially. Knowledge workers are cannot easily apply this method because sometimes it is impossible to estimate and identify how long an action will take e.g. non-standardised jobs like researchers, programmers, consultants, etc. These are the cases where clock-time becomes a detriment, and event-time is better suited to enable success. 

Given that more than half the world is on quarantine, event-time is slowly replacing clock-time as the typical modus operandi for many. Perhaps this is an opportunity to catalyse a re-calibration into the working world. In order to investigate this, we will look into the characteristics of clock-time and event-time and why this shift may be for the best. 

Characteristics of clock-time vs. event-time

We have established that clock-timers relieve themselves control of their schedule to external forces like their calendar or to-do list. Event-timers own control over their schedules in their heads. There is an interesting psychological impact in the two approaches related to the [[Locus of control]]. The implication for clock-timers of relieving control is that they are more likely to believe things happen due to fate or chance. Event-timers have stronger beliefs in free-will, ownership over their actions. 

A consequence of this difference manifests in they ability to identify causality in the world. In France, Anne-Laure Sellier polled clock-timers and event-timers about there is a causal relationship between François Hollande gaining the presidency and Gérard Déparidieu becoming a Russian citizen. 

What do you think the result was? Which group had a higher rate of identifying causality? Before I let you know, it is important to understand that Dépardieu’s becoming of a Russian citizen is objectively caused by Hollande’s presidency. This is an undisputed fact. If you picked event-timers as the group more likely to identify it as being a causal relationship, you are correct. 

While this example was innocent enough. A weaker ability to identify causality has more serious implications. For example, what does an alcoholic attribute their alcoholism too? You would want them to take ownership over an issue like that, right? 

Relying on the clock is likely to impair your performance on non-standard tasks. Anne-Laure Sellier conducted another study in which she studied people taking a class on Bikram Yoga. For context, Bikram Yoga is an intense experience because the room in which the class takes place is a cool 40 degrees Celsius. When you add in the fact that the class involves holding 20-30 intricate yoga poses, the hour duration becomes quite intimidating. The variable Anne-Laure Sellier controlled for was whether the class had a clock or not in their room during the session. 

The group with the clock tended to attribute their bad performance onto the instructor instead of themselves. This suggests that the clock served to remind the class of how much longer they had to endure the heat. Those without the clock attributed their performance on themselves. Again, this idea of fate vs. free-will, and chance vs. ownership crops up. 

Clock-timers find it more difficult to savour experiences. When you are operating with clock-time, it is easy to forfeit time to idleness and procrastination yet call it productive. For example, if you are in a meeting scheduled for 1-hour but it happens to finish early. What do you do with the extra time you have been gifted? Most would use it to get a coffee, or chat with colleagues. On your calendar it would remain as a ‘1-hour’ meeting. When you reflect at the end of the day, it will be easy to think you were productive. The time-boxing often makes it feel like you are doing the activity such that you can fulfil the expectation you have of yourself doing that activity for the time you allotted.

Completing that activity can be difficult to prioritise over the satisfaction of knowing you ticked it off your schedule. What does it remind you of? A robot, that was what I was thinking too. Event-timers don’t run into this issue since they work sequentially. They will do one activity to completion (if possible) and then move onto the next. This approach makes it easier to savour the experience because your attention is likely more on the activity than looking at your calendar for how long you have left until you have to do the next thing. Why is savouring important? It is a habit of happy people. [[Laurie Santos]] explains the research and evidence behind savouring in [[The Science of Wellbeing]] – a course on happiness.

For the same reason as to why clock-timers find it more difficult to savour experiences, they also find it more difficult to take risks. The reliance on structure, and relinquishment of control over their schedule do not make it easy to adapt. Whereas event-timers are more willing to grab opportunities and take risks. 

Final thoughts

So what does this all mean? Should we welcome this transition into event-time and see it as a silver lining of this quarantine? 

In 2010, IBM polled 1500 global CEOs on the state of business. They identified the same characteristics I discussed above as being essential for their workers going into the future. These include taking risks, being comfortable with working on unconventional and non-standard problems, and ultimately a move towards taking ownership over one’s work. 

It would be interesting to see the medium to long term impacts of the quarantine. I hope there are academics around the world that can take this opportunity to study this phenomenon. 

It is easy to say clock-time works great for standardised work, and event-time for creative work. But how should we mediate the negative impacts of clock-time on our personal lives? The answer is a mix of both. But how exactly to optimise the mix something I have yet to consider. When I do, I will append it to this bottom of this article. 

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