Clocks Make Workers Less Creative

And less happy, too

Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

I love the phrase "It's 5 o'clock somewhere." For most people, the saying conjures up an image of an over-eager happy-hour partaker, but it's always made me think of someone, somewhere, leaving their office after a hard day's work. The length of the workday, for many workers, is defined by time; they leave when the clock tells them they're done.

These days, the time is everywhere: not just on clocks or watches, but on phones, computers, stamped on every email. And that may be a bad thing, particularly at work. New research shows that clock-based work schedules hinder morale and creativity.

The research of Tamar Avnet and Anne-Laure Sellier focuses on the differences between organizing one's time by "clock time" vs. "task time." 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 to accomplish. They work down the list, each task starts when the previous task is completed. The researchers say that all of us employ a mix of both these types of planning.

They wanted to know, what are the effects of thinking about time in these different ways? Does one make us more productive? Better at the tasks at hand? Happier? 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.

The researchers argue that task-based organizing tends to be undervalued and under-supported in business culture. Smart companies, they believe, will try to bake more task-based planning into their strategies: for example, looking for long-term profits rather than just something impressive for a quarterly earnings report.

This might be a small change to the way we view work and the office, but the researchers argue that it challenges a pervasive characteristic of the economy: work organized by clock time. While most people will still probably need, and be to some extent, clock-timers—task-based timing should be used when performing a job that requires more creativity. It'll make those tasks easier, and the task-doers will be happier.

If you're interested to hear more about this research, check out this TED talk by Sellier: