Off the clock: How our perception of time can affect productivity

Off the clock: How our perception of time can affect productivity

Watching the clock drags performance down, and optimism about the future does the opposite. Managers who understand this can help boost engagement.
18 September 2023

I am a Beaver leader, as in the Scouts. Every Monday evening, I lead 14 boisterous 6- to 8-year-olds in various character-building activities: trying to cook pancakes over tea candles or making baking soda and vinegar explosions. We frequently totter on that thinnest of lines that separates order and chaos; that’s why one of my favorite activities is playing “How long is a minute?” The kids sit (quietly) and then, when they think a minute is up, stand up (quietly). Simple, right? Except that some kids stand up after about 30 seconds; others after two minutes. Turns out, accurately determining how long a minute is can be difficult, which is how I often get much more than 60 seconds of quiet.

This exercise is a perfect demonstration of what psychologists and neuroscientists call time perception. Clocks keep objective time, but people measure and value it—and often live—by a completely idiosyncratic perception. Our personal, internal, and utterly subjective experience of time is pieced together by cooperative neural and perceptual systems that are no less intricate than a finely crafted watch. This internal construction is important. The way we think about the time we’re passing and how we orient ourselves in relationship to the future, present, and past have demonstrable impacts on our well-being, memory, cognition, attention, and engagement. And it probably goes without saying, it also impacts our performance at work.

The good news is that our perception of time is shockingly easy to manipulate. So how can we use knowledge of how we perceive time to our advantage, and be happier and more productive?

Minute by minute

A minute isn’t a long time. But it can feel like forever when you’re counting those minutes down, one by one, during a slow workday. One of the most classic time distortions, the feeling that time is dragging by, is linked to monotony or boredom.

“Time perception is quite closely linked with what are often seen as two of the core cognitive abilities and cognitive functions: attention and working memory,” Dr. Devin Terhune, experimental psychologist at King’s College London, told me. When we’re bored and time slows down, we become disengaged, and our ability to pay attention to and remember what we’re working on diminishes, leading to more errors and less productivity.

Boredom also promotes mind-wandering, which can impair task performance: “The way they study mind-wandering in cognitive tasks is by counting how many errors you make. It’s almost how mind-wandering is kind of operationally defined,” said Terhune. Of course, mind-wandering and its close relative, daydreaming, can be important release valves for boredom and can drive creativity, but mind-wandering has also been linked to generally impaired perception and to time contraction—that is, losing track of time and realizing with shock that your deadline is suddenly a whole lot closer.

Teasing out the cause and effect of time distortions, Terhune cautioned, is difficult and poorly understood: are we bored because we perceive time as slowed down, or is time moving more slowly because we’re bored? Certain conditions—such as depression, ADHD, and some neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease—can produce dyschronometria, the clinical term for dramatically altered time perception.

It’s also possible that aspects of our personalities can affect how we perceive time passing. In 2007, two University of California–San Diego researchers theorized that individuals who are prone to impulsivity perceive time differently than others, and it could have measurable effects on their decision-making: “Impulsive individuals will opt for smaller and immediate rewards more often than for delayed but higher rewards because they estimate duration as being subjectively longer than do more self-controlled individuals,” they wrote. “The perception of time as lasting too long is associated with too high of a cost, which leads to the selection of alternatives with more immediate outcomes.”

Give them a break

As tied as time perception is to some deeply rooted psychological factors, it’s easy to influence. The quickest fix? Take a break. Injecting a moment of change or novelty is the best way to combat boredom and mental fatigue, to correct temporal distortions, to reset our cognitive load, and to come back to productivity. In a widely reported 2022 meta-analysis, researchers concluded the best solution to the “human energy crisis” facing “always on” employees today was to enable short “decoupling” activities, noting, “The data suggest that micro-breaks may be a panacea for fostering well-being during worktime.”

Even a break as short as ten minutes can do the trick, and here’s where employers can get creative. Terhune’s suggestion? Puppies. Recently, his university brought puppies to campus for stressed-out students to pet during breaks from their work. “What’s better than that? Employers should clearly just have puppies in the workforce,” he joked. Though others agree, there are less disruptive (and less adorable) ways to take useful breaks, such as going on a walk, drawing or painting a picture, or even taking a nap.

Future perfect

Time perspective—how we orient ourselves on a longer scale—can also impact productivity and engagement. Philip Zimbardo, one of the most influential psychologists of the past 50 years, is best known for the Stanford Prison Experiment, a controversial research project that had college students playing prisoners and guards with devastating consequences. But in 1999, he turned his attention to understanding how people think of themselves in time, designing the Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory. This widely used series of questions assesses an individual’s time perspective, or how they feel about the past, present, and future. The assessment plots a person’s temporal outlook into one of six types: past-negative, past-positive, present-fatalistic, present-hedonistic, future-positive, and future-negative.

Understanding how you and the people you work with see themselves in time is important because reams of research suggest that being optimistic about the future contributes to productivity. In 2016, for example, researchers in the Netherlands found that employees who skewed toward future-positive were more likely to actively engage in “job crafting,” actively working to shape their roles to their skills and needs, while also seeking out new knowledge. Ultimately, these future-positive employees were more satisfied and engaged with their work.

Understanding how you and the people you work with see themselves in time is important because reams of research suggest that being optimistic about the future contributes to productivity.

There’s more: a 2018 study found that college students’ future-positive perspectives uniquely predicted their intended academic engagement and grade point average. And a study of 200 workers, published in Current Psychology in 2019, found that even when controlled for personality traits, a person’s time perspective played a significant role in work-related outcomes. Individuals who were more future-positive tended to enjoy higher job satisfaction and work engagement, and demonstrate fewer counterproductive work behaviors. Among those who were more present-fatalistic, meaning they took a dim view of their ability to affect their present, and future-negative, the opposite pattern of associations was observed.

This doesn’t mean that management needs to start performing time perception assessments on employees or even asking them how long they think a minute is. (That would be weird and not very useful.) But as employers try to figure out the best way—and place—for employees to spend their working hours, they might consider investigating how their workers think about time. Considering time perception and perspective is another way of getting to understand how people think and what they value, and therefore, how they can do their best work.

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