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Is ‘Clock Time’ Making You a Less Creative Worker?

Employers tend to organize work around blocks of time: the morning meeting is from 10 to 11, the orientation lunch is from noon to 1, and so on. There's nothing inherently wrong with that -- throw out the schedule entirely, and workers lose the pressure and relief of knowing exactly when their part of a project needs to be completed. But recent research suggests that concentrating on the clock at the expense of the task might make workers less happy and creative in the long run.

Employers tend to organize work around blocks of time: the morning meeting is from 10 to 11, the orientation lunch is from noon to 1, and so on. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that — throw out the schedule entirely, and workers lose the pressure and relief of knowing exactly when their part of a project needs to be completed. But recent research suggests that concentrating on the clock at the expense of the task might make workers less happy and creative in the long run.

clock 

(Photo Credit: Nomadic Lass/Flickr)

“The research of Tamar Avnet and Anne-Laure Sellier focuses on the differences between organizing one’s time by ‘clock time’ vs. ‘task time,'” writes Bouree Lam at The Atlantic. “Clock-timers organize their day by blocks of minutes and hours. For example: a meeting from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., research from 10 a.m. to noon, etc. On the other hand, task-timers have a list of things they want to accomplish. They work down the list, each task starts when the previous task is completed. The researchers say that all of us employ a mix of both these types of planning.”

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To find out which type of planning was more efficient, and which was more conducive to creativity, and so on, Avnet and Sellier asked subjects to perform a series of tasks ranging from project planning to holiday shopping using either blocks of time or a to-do list as a guide. They found that while using blocks of time made participants more efficient, the to-do list made them feel happier, because they were more in control of their time. In addition, “task timers” were more creative.

Clock Time or Task Time?

The answer is pretty clear: companies would do better to use a mixture of the two different working styles, where appropriate. Task time — otherwise known as event time, in the researchers’ forthcoming paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology — is currently undervalued at many companies, who focus on blocks of time for reasons of expediency and corporate culture.

The other consideration is that some people take better to a certain style. Drake Bennett at BloombergBusinessweek describes this as yet another way to divide the human race into halves, introverts and extroverts, Mars and Venus, and clock timers and event/task timers.

“Clock-timers, as the term suggests, schedule their days by hours and minutes,” Bennett writes. “They give tasks, errands, and even pastimes an allotted hour and a time limit, and they stick to the schedule. Event-timers, on the other hand, schedule serially: They work on a task until it’s finished or they reach a natural stopping point, and then they move on to something else. Some of the difference, the researchers say, is contextual, some of it is cultural, and some may be genetic.”

In a perfect world — or at least, a Results Only Work Environment — companies would focus more on productivity, including creative leaps and the innovation that results from them, rather than on getting everyone facing the same direction at the same time, and working in exactly the same way. In reality, of course, that’s a tough sell. But research such as this might help convince managers and their organizations to consider adapting processes to make the most of workers’ abilities.

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Jen Hubley Luckwaldt
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