“A good example of that is if you think about Islam,” says Birth. “One of the five pillars of Islam is the calling to prayer five times a day. Those prayer times are not clock times; after all, the prophet was on Earth before the clock.” In the Koran, all the references to prayer are about particular moments when the sun is in a certain place in the sky; the salah times (prayer times) begin with fajr, between dawn and full sunrise, and end with isha (night, and preferably halfway between sunset and sunrise.) “So you have all these Muslims in the world who are faithfully holding their prayer practice, and that in itself is event time,” says Birth. “But maybe they know when it’s time to pray because they have smartphone apps that tell the clock time.”
Clock time really came into its own, he explains, when wage hours took over as a handy tool that employers used to start standardizing labor costs in the 18th century, when people began migrating for work. Suddenly, a day’s wages could equal a wide range of output depending on the length of “days” in locations at different latitudes. Employers began thinking in terms of wages per hour, and work days came to be demarcated by the clock, not the rising and setting sun. Then, in the 19th century, mechanical engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, creator of “scientific time management,” came along and fine-tuned each work process to optimize total workflow, changing history.
The logic of clock time revolutionized assembly lines and would eventually give us Amazon’s insanely calibrated logistics, but clock time itself is totally artificial and it doesn’t work for everyone. Writers need time to let an idea expand and take shape. Artists talk about characters in a play or book slowly revealing themselves, and managers who want to take advantage of creative talent during project work need to take this essential way of being into consideration, says Tamar Avnet, a professor of marketing at Yeshiva University in New York.
Do not ask product developers to come up with five ideas by 5 pm, she warns. “They’ll do it because they have to, but they won’t be good ideas.”
And don’t ask people to switch between mental models in one day, either. Professors like her are expected to teach and do research, for instance, but teaching is on extreme clock time (the bell rings and students pack up their laptops and backpacks and move on, often even if the teacher is mid-sentence), and research and writing are—like all acts of creativity—on event time. The mind can’t jump from one to the other, teaching from 1 to 3 pm, and researching from 4 to 6 pm, says Avnet. “Administrators don’t understand it,” she says, “but the brain just doesn’t work that way.”
In some highly critical professions, too, we don’t expect clock time to be the primary concern. As Birth points out, we generally do not expect doctors and nurses responding to a crisis to walk out of the emergency room when the clock strikes a certain hour.
Clock time people are organized, but unhappy
Researchers aren’t sure how our preferences for one model develops. Why do some people live in event time even after spending their formative years in the clock time culture of Western and westernized schools? What’s more, as Avnet has discovered with her sons, two brothers can grow up in the same household and not fall into the same category.
“I ask them, ‘Hey, do you guys want to eat lunch?” she says, “and my oldest son asks, ‘What time is it?’ and my youngest son asks ‘Am I hungry?’”
Sure, external factors like parents or community play a role in these leanings, say both Avnet and Birth, but it may also be a trait one is born with.