Photo by Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum


Is it better to live in ‘clock time’ or ‘event time’?

Photo by Chien-Chi Chang/Magnum

by Shayla Love + BIO





Do you stick to a set schedule, or have a looser relationship to the clock? It can affect more than how you plan your day

If Tamar Avnet asks her two sons to have lunch with her, the eldest might reply: ‘Sure, let’s eat at noon,’ while the younger might say: ‘OK, I’ll let you know when I’m hungry.’ Her older son lives his life predominantly in clock time, a scheduling style based on what time it is, or how much time has passed. Her other son lives in event time: for him, what happens when, and for how long, isn’t dependent on the clock. ‘It’s about an internal sense of what’s moving you forward,’ says Avnet, a professor of marketing at Yeshiva University in New York.

Clock-timers rely on an external cue to tell them when to start and finish work, a hobby or a social engagement. If you are a clock-timer, you may wake up every day at 6:30 am, start working at 9 am, eat lunch at noon, go to the gym at 5 pm, and sleep at 10 pm. An event-timer might wake up when they’re no longer sleepy, eat when they’re hungry, and work on a project until it’s done – ending at no predetermined time.

Avnet and her collaborator Anne-Laure Sellier, a professor of behavioural sciences at HEC Paris, have been studying clock time and event time for more than 10 years, inspired by the differences in their own preferences. When the two met, they struck up a conversation about being late, and what time meetings start at conferences. They slowly realised that the way they organised their lives was completely different.

Avnet, like her older son, relies on the clock to structure her day. If she has to complete a number of tasks, she divides out chunks of time she will dedicate to each one. When the time allotted for a task is over, she moves on to the next one. Sellier found that mysterious: she ended a task when it was completed and not before. ‘I’m completely event time,’ she says.

We often plan our activities based on the clock out of necessity, so that we can coordinate with friends or show up at the right time to a dentist appointment. But when it comes to how you would ideally plan your days, the research suggests that people differ, with some more drawn to clock time and some more to event time. ‘We’re all born with a tendency to be one more than the other,’ Avnet says. This relationship with the clock affects more than just your to-do list; it may also be connected to how you experience your agency in the world and your emotional experiences in the moment.

Clock-timers rely more on external cues (such as calories) for deciding what to eat

To assess whether someone is more of a clock-timer or event-timer, Avnet and Sellier will ask them about how they manage their schedules and tasks, including how much they agree with statements such as: ‘When I make a timetable for a task, I usually stick to it’ (a sign of being a clock-timer) and ‘I don’t mind how long it takes to complete a task as long as it is done well’ (an event-time attitude). One way of managing your time is not necessarily better than the other, but there are differences associated with each. Efficiency drives clock people, meaning they say their goal is to complete tasks in a set amount of time, and they say they value getting it done. If a clock-timer gives themselves two hours to finish a task, when the two hours are over, the work is over. For an event-timer, effectiveness is more the stated goal: they will finish working on a task when it feels like it’s completed. They value doing the job well, not finishing it at a certain point.

When a person relies heavily on the clock to determine what to do and when to stop, research suggests they might also have a looser relationship with their own sense of control. This is because they look towards an external cue to guide their actions, according to Sellier, and that external cue, rather than something within them, is what seems to control the world around them. Event-time people appear to believe, more than clock-time people do, that their actions make a meaningful difference in determining what happens to them.

Using the clock to guide what one does has also been linked to a lower inclination to savour positive feelings such as joy, gratitude and excitement. Avnet and Sellier have even found that clock-timers rely more on external cues (such as calories) for deciding what to eat, compared with event-timers. Avnet says this is probably because clock-timers look outward to understand what to do next, and so aren’t as tuned in to their inner feelings.

In one study, people did a hot yoga class where poses were either held for a certain number of minutes, with a clock in the room, or held for an undetermined amount of time without an external cue. The people who did the clock-time yoga class reported less positive emotion, and also struggled more with the poses.

In event time, ‘you feel more harmony with the world around you,’ Sellier says. You are likely to be more deeply engaged with what you are experiencing if you’re not regularly looking to the clock to see if ‘time is up’.

People perform better when they are able to adhere to the scheduling style that works for them

Humans have always had to devise ways to navigate time. There are calendars that link time to which flowers are blooming or which vegetables are in season. In ancient Egypt, a ‘nilometer’ was used to track time based on how high the Nile River was. ‘There’s nothing special about clock time, per se,’ says Kensy Cooperrider, a cognitive scientist at the University of California, San Diego who has studied different frameworks for keeping time. ‘It’s just the uber-quantitative version that modern industrial societies have kind of settled on, and is shared.’

When a scheduling style becomes shared, it can take on a moral quality. In a US schoolbook from 1881, students were forced to read stories about the extreme consequences of tardiness: a train conductor crashes because he is late, or a man’s business fails. The lesson concludes:

The best laid plans, the most important affairs, the fortunes of individuals, honor, happiness, life itself are daily sacrificed because somebody is behind time.

Since going by the clock is widely the prevailing mode at workplaces and schools, if you’re an event-timer, it can feel like you’re failing to match up with the world around you.

But when people ask Avnet which kind of scheduling is best, she responds that neither is superior. What’s helpful is to recognise your own preference and to make use of that as best you can. Avnet and Sellier’s work suggests that people perform better when they are able to adhere to the scheduling style that works for them.

In one study, Avnet and Sellier gave participants test questions to answer after gauging their preference for clock time or event time. Some of the subjects were given time limits for finishing their tests, with the timers on display, while others were told they could take as long as they needed. Everyone finished the test at about the same time, but those who were clock-timers did better when they had a set timeframe, while event-timers did better when there was no time limit.

In his book A Geography of Time (1997), the social psychologist Robert Levine explained that, in many parts of the world, it is event time, and not clock time, that rules work and social settings. At a wake held by the Mi’kmaq Indigenous peoples in Canada, there are times for singing, prayer, and eating. ‘The mourners simply move from one time to another by mutual consensus,’ Levine wrote. ‘When do they begin and end each episode? When the time is ripe and no sooner.’

Event-timers can be perfectionists, which contradicts the view that they are easy-breezy, free-floating people

In Sellier’s home country, France, an event-time style is relatively prominent, she says. When there are research seminars in Paris, and the Americans come to visit, Sellier says many of them are jumpy about what time the talk should be starting. ‘Because we never start on time,’ she says. But this is typical for an event-time culture: they start when it feels right to start, after everyone has settled in and had some time to chat.

When I worked in an office in the US with a traditional 9-to-5 schedule, I struggled to work at the designated times. I preferred to write earlier in the mornings and take a break for yoga or a walk at the time when everyone else was starting to work, and I was supposed to be logging on. Sometimes a task takes me an inordinate amount of time, sometimes I complete it very quickly. Event-timers can be perfectionists, Avnet says, which contradicts the view that they are easy-breezy, free-floating people who live outside conventional rules.

‘I know that today I’m going to end my day at 6 pm, but my event-time colleague might work until 10 pm, or she might end at 4 pm,’ Avnet says. Event-time people don’t need the time to motivate them to do a job, but sometimes they overdo it. ‘They don’t know when to stop,’ she says.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people, suddenly working from home, were thrust into a situation that was more conducive to event time. They could manage their schedules more flexibly and do their tasks when it felt right, and for as long as needed. Sellier thinks that this is one reason why many people are resisting going back to the office full-time: they were event-timers all along. (This applies only to people whose schedules actually became more flexible. A day full of Zoom meetings at designated times is still quintessential clock time.)

Sellier hopes that one takeaway from this period is that, while clock time is useful, it’s not the only way to structure your time. Most people already blend both scheduling styles to some extent, but Sellier believes (with a little bias) that we could all use a bit more event time in our lives.

Avnet and Sellier prove that a clock-timer and event-timer can work well together. ‘The clock person keeps pushing the event person because there is a deadline at the end,’ Avnet says. ‘On the other hand, the event person will sometimes say: “Wait, this is not ready, we have to go back and rethink some stuff.”’

Knowing that one style isn’t superior to the other, you can try to fit your work and social life to the approach that suits you best. You could even experiment a bit with the alternative style. For a more creative approach to a work problem, try tackling it in event time – where there’s no strict cut-off, and more solutions might emerge in the hours (or even days) past what would have been your deadline. If your to-do list is getting out of hand, dedicate a clock-time period to it, to check items off your list that have been languishing a little too long. And, of course, there are non-work situations in which giving yourself flexibility in scheduling can be a boon. ‘When I’m on vacation,’ Avnet says, ‘I try not to be a clock person.’





30 April 2024