It’s Not the Clocks That Are the Problem

cogsworth and lumiere

How often do you look at the clock?

How often do you feel like you have to beat the clock, as in “if I get this done by 4 p.m. I’m on target, but if I’m still working on it at 4:15 I have to readjust my entire evening?”

I know that I am constantly feeling as though I’m fighting against half-hours. A single surprise email that requires a thoughtful response can, in fact, throw off my entire day.

But it’s not the clocks that are the problem.

The Atlantic has a new story stating that clocks make workers both less creative and less happy. Let’s start with the big question: are you a clock-timer or a task-timer?

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 the [sic] accomplish. They work down the list, each task starts when the previous task is completed.

If you read that paragraph and got echoes of Paul Graham’s famous essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, it’s no surprise. The “manager” is the person working under clock time, with something new every hour, and the “maker” is the person working under task time. As Graham writes:

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

The Atlantic, citing research by Tamar Avnet and Anne-Laure Sellier, expands on this idea that “a single meeting can blow an entire afternoon” by noting that the real issue is whether people feel like they have control over how they get things done:

In their experiments, they had participants organize different activities—from project planning, holiday shopping, to yoga—by time or to-do list to measure how they performed under “clock time” vs “task time.” They found clock timers to be more efficient but less happy because they felt little control over their lives. Task timers are happier and more creative, but less productive. They tend to savor the moment when something good is happening, and seize opportunities that come up.

When I first read Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule years ago, I made the goal to find a job where I could be a maker. I’m happier in this role, but not because I get to work on a task-time schedule; I mean, I still essentially start one task and work on it until it’s done, but I’ve always got one eye on the clock. (And according to the clock, I have nine minutes in which to finish writing this, including finding the header image, or I’ll start falling behind schedule.)

Instead, I’m happier as a maker because I’m working jobs where I am not necessarily indispensible, but I am valued for my unique abilities. And people who are managers are equally happy when they’re working in jobs where they’re valued for their unique abilities, I suspect.

So it’s not the clocks that are the problem. It’s never been the clocks. It’s been the amount of control we allow people over their own workday, and whether we let people work in jobs where they feel like their contributions are valued.

(And I finished this piece one minute ahead of schedule.)

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