Significant Results

Using research findings to tell a more positive story.

The Hidden Cost of Punctuality

You were taught that punctuality is a virtue. You were taught wrong.

Cultures around the world have many views on and phrases about time. In East Africa you might hear a person yell "pole kazi" to a laborer by the side of the road, meaning--in essence—“work slowly.” In Trinidad people commonly say "Any time is Trinidad time." And in the United States, of course you can frequently hear utterances of "time is money." From "time flies" to "I don't have time for this" people obviously have an intimate relationship with this important concept-the measure of our moments. In fact, life tempo-the pace at which we live-is directly correlated with health factors such as heart disease within a society. More importantly, the perceived slippage of time during a day or a week is likely one of your greatest causes of stress and the perceived slippage of time across your life can send you into an existential tailspin. In this, the first of several posts on the psychology of time, I hope to present important information about time that challenges you to think about this concept in a new, and maybe even healthier, way.

 

In 1983 a researcher named Hall came up with two distinctive approaches to actually living within the stream of time. He termed these monochromic (M-time) and polychromic (P-time). People from monochromic cultures think about time in terms of discrete tasks and sequences. The day is, in essence, a to-do list, and the successful completion of one task leads into the next, with a person completing one activity at a time. You are already familiar with this approach: breakfast, drive to work, meeting with client, do e-mail, lunch, another meeting, another client, run an errand, dinner, family, bed.

 

P-time approaches, on the other hand, there is less emphasis on the completion of a task. A person might work until he or she is simply inspired to move on to something else. Lest you think we are describing Attention Deficit Disorder we should say more. People from P-time cultures are heavily invested in social, rather than task, interactions. People engaged in a gripping conversation would view that momentary interaction as more important than other obligations. In fact, if a client called during the conversation, or if one of the conversant had a meeting to attend, both people would be willing to be late. A ringing phone or a meeting deadline would generally be viewed as less important-in the moment-than the current social interaction. There is a trade-off between these two cultural approaches: punctuality versus connection, and efficiency versus fluidity.

 

Because they are culturally ingrained it would be hard to ask you to shift from a punctual, efficient focus toward a fluid, connected one. Even so, you might experiment with a middle ground to see how it affects your level of stress and quality of life. As you go about your day see how you can play with these concepts.

Robert Biswas-Diener is a happiness researcher and adventurer.

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