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Why you should stop looking at the clock so much.

October 16, 2014

Time management is one of those dry skills you really only talk about during job interviews. Surely, you've written to a potential employer about how easily you "delegate tasks" and how well you "prioritize." These are without a doubt important skills at the office. But for too many of us, well, let's just say we take our time management abilities home with us: We're slaves to the clock, scheduling and prioritizing every hour of our day. And forthcoming research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests the mere presence of a clock may be seriously putting a damper on our overall happiness, and still interfering with our productivity and creativity at work.

How so? It all boils down to the two main styles of plotting out your day: event-time versus clock-time, explains study author Anne-Laure Sellier, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at HEC Paris. "Event-timers are people who pay less attention to the clock, and care more about making to-do lists and completing tasks in the moment. They finish things when they feel intrinsically that the task, like a work project or a workout, is finished. Whereas clock-timers are people who schedule and plan out their days based on segments of time: it's 10:30 so it's time for my meeting or I'm going to see a movie with my children from 6:30 to 9:30."

Steve Jobs is probably the best example of an event-timer; He was notorious for caring little about launching new products on time, choosing to push his developers to work and work on the product until he felt it was truly done. But culturally, Americans are clock-timers (as are, famously, the Swiss and the Germans); we like things to happen according to our daily plans. In fact, we like it so much, you probably have calendar event after calendar event scheduled just for today, and you can probably tell time by looking in any direction: your phone, watch, laptop, and even your fitness tracker can all function as clocks.

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"This isn't the best because we've shown that even just the presence of a clock and knowledge of clock time can mess you up," Sellier says.

In one experiment, Sellier and her research partner Tamar Avnet, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Yeshiva University, took 90 adult men and women to Bikram yoga and separated them into two groups. The first group did the class with only the instructor guiding them. But before the second group did their class, the researchers added a clock to the wall and told the study participants that some poses are held for 20 seconds while others might be held for a full minute. Interestingly, the second group had a much harder time getting through the class. "They fell more, they sat down more and skipped more postures," Sellier says. "They couldn't stay in the moment."

Of course, it's not like you can totally ignore the clock: you have to pick the kids up from school on time and you have to meet your deadlines at work. "The clock is a phenomenal invention. It made humans efficient and it's why we can accomplish so much," Sellier explains. "But at some point, our reliance on the clock becomes toxic. It disconnects us from the world around us because we're too focused on keeping pace."

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The best advice, then, is to look at your life and find the areas in your day where you need the clock (setting up work meetings, doctor's appointments and the like) versus times when you don't (family time, meals, creative projects at work or at home, making a big decision and so on), and only dole out deadlines when you must. In short, make to-do lists, and don't worry so much about exactly when things will be done.

"Ultimately this will make you more productive because the more you rely on the clock the less you can rely on your gut feeling. This has implications for every part of well-being because staying in the moment and not rushing things helps you make better decisions," Sellier says. "This can save you time at work because you make fewer mistakes, which you inevitably have to go back and fix. But it can also help you eat better, for example, because you're taking the time to eat and listen to your inner hunger signals. Not constantly checking the clock can also boost quality time with your loved ones."

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