Our society loves to commodify time. Time is money. Time is a resource. Time has to be managed. You have to make sure your time is spent productively. But maybe we're looking at time all wrong. And maybe our notions of productivity aren't actually so productive.
Dr. Dawna Ballard is a professor of chronemics at the University of Texas at Austin, meaning she explores how time affects communication. As Forbes contributor Jane Hervey reports, Dr. Ballard has found that two concepts of time influence our concepts of work and productivity. A monochronic society views time as a resource; a polychronic society views time as fluid and informal, wherein schedules honor as emotions and relationships. Unsurprisingly, the United States falls into the former category.
And because we put such high value on long hours, workers often become overworked and burnt out. In her latest study, Dr. Ballard and her co-researchers studied employees at children's advocacy centers in Texas, workers whose jobs have critically high stakes. The research team found these employees are extremely under-resourced and overworked, and thus their productivity and success take a hit. And these workers are allotted little time for rest and recovery from burnout.
What many employers don't realize is that longer hours do not necessarily drive higher output as they did in the Industrial Revolution, when output was much simpler to quantify. As Dr. Ballard points out, there's now a U-shaped relationship between time and productivity: "More time spent working equates with productivity up to a point and—after that point, time spent working hurts productivity."
Plus, there's no guarantee that an employee working long hours and producing much output is doing quality work. "Productivity is not the ultimate measure of greatness in post-industrial work," Dr. Ballard stipulates. "Excellence and innovation are arguably the foundation of our greatest contributions."
In addition to putting in long hours, workers in modern-day corporate culture are also expected to quarantine their "work" from their "life"—another idea left over from the Industrial Revolution, when work really did entail a different physical and mental space than home. But now, "since our lives are more intermingled, it is hard for us to figure out how to 'balance' something that doesn't seem separable into parts," Dr. Ballard says. "Even if we could, it's usually hard for people to figure out how to quantify these two things so that they can be weighed against each other, which is necessary to balance anything. So, instead, we are attempting to complete some kind of magic trick—balancing two things that we don't know how to separate or measure."
As we reframe our ideas about time and productivity, Dr. Ballard notes it's important to focus less on managing our time—since "unexpected life events make that impossible" she—and more on managing our attention. "Managing our attention can yield lots of rewards and translate to greater productivity," she explains. "Managing our attention involves being mindful of what activities, events, emotions, and people drive our lives."
She also recommends being "opportunistic" about four different types of time: creation time, cultivation time, concentration time, and commotion time. "In a nutshell, commotion occurs naturally and populates our work without any help from us. But if we look for the best times to do the rest—including planning regular activities (i.e. cultivate) and charting new territory (i.e. create) and focusing without interruption (i.e. concentrate)—we have a lot more leverage over our day, week, month or year than we realize."
At Werk, we believe that an adaptive workday can help workers put boundaries between maker and manager time, and indeed, Dr. Ballard puts a big emphasis on flexibility in this monochronic society. "Flexibility is the most practical advice for accommodating the inconveniences of life while still valuing productivity," she says.
TimeShift, MicroAgility, and PartTime, all time-based modifcations, can help workers optimize their work schedules. These modifications allow workers to capitalize on their peak hours of productivity, to stop minor interruptions from becoming major disruptions, and to make life and work more compatible.
As we venture into the Human Era, it's crucial to make sure our work parameters—and our ideas of time and productivity—aren't stuck in the past.