As time goes by

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Did I grab this from Flickr in ten seconds flat? Yes. Yes I did.
Late again? Maybe you're just not cut out for a monochronic time system.

(NUW) — During some grand bout of insomnia, I began to ponder my own concept of time; how I perceived it, and why I perceived it in that particular way. Attempting to logically analyze all of this at 4:00 a.m. probably wasn’t the best idea, and only succeeded in keeping me up the rest of the night. But as it turns out, I’m not the first person to be kept awake by questions of how different people perceive time differently.

Anyone who has taken an intro communications class should be familiar with Edward T. Hall and his works concerning monochronic and polychronic concepts of time, in which he identifies Western society as being almost exclusively celebratory and rewarding of a monochronic lifestyle. His theories fit under the umbrella of a wider field of study known as chronemics.

Chronemics studies the way we perceive and structure time, especially as an element of nonverbal communication. Basically, how you associate with time says a lot about you as a person — kind of like how a potential employer will assume you’re irresponsible if you show up to the interview late. Monochronic time refers to a system in which things are done one at a time within a strict schedule. Once the time allotted to one task is done, work will not continue on that task.

The concept of time becomes something that must be managed, as opposed to polychronic time where time becomes more fluid and adaptable.

In a polychronic system, multiple tasks can be performed at once, and rather than a strict schedule, you simply devote as much time as necessary to each task. That way, if you finish a simple task early, you can apply that extra time to a more difficult task later on, or vice versa.

The polychronic concept of time is where we get the term multi-tasking from. For example, some people like to play music while they study or work on an essay, in order to reduce stress and be able to concentrate. These people are naturally more productive under a polychronic time system, as opposed to monochronically inclined people who prefer to work in complete silence.

In his book The Dance of Life: The Other Dimension of Time, Hall wrote, “By scheduling, we compartmentalize; this makes it possible to concentrate on one thing at a time, but it also reduces the context. Since scheduling by its very nature selects what will and will not be perceived and attended, and permits only a limited number of events within a given period, what gets scheduled constitutes a system for setting priorities for both people and functions.”

Put simply, the monochronic system requires you to prioritize what’s more important to you: the people you love, or your schedule. For most, putting aside a simple schedule in order to be there for someone who needs you from time to time takes priority without a doubt, which is why there are no true binary examples within chronemics. No one person is exclusively devoted to either the polychronic or monochronic system. We usually live our lives in a mixture of both, with either one taking precedence based on the situation.

You may be scratching your head, pondering why this matters. Chronemics is important because it isn’t just applied to individuals; entire societies tend to perceive time within these particular systems, and this works in much the same way as it does for individuals. What does change is the adaptable nature of switching between the two systems — people can set priority based off of emotion, but society cannot.

Canada and the United States are seen as monochronic societies, obsessed with schedules. Because of the need to prioritize economic tasks on a grand scale, little regard is paid to the individual. This has gotten better in recent years, with ‘stress’ being a more widely accepted and valid reason to take medical leave, but as a society, we still pay little attention to the needs of the people around us in a non-generalized sense.

To sum it up, the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few, especially where deadlines are concerned.

Not all societies are like this. Latin American and some Asian societies run on a polychronic system. These societies prioritize tradition and social relationships as opposed to the almighty schedule. Time is dictated by a rural clock of work or community life, and sometimes religious festivities; less focus is paid to the arbitrary division of hours, and more to how long something will take in order for it to be done right.

An employee or business owner is not seen as responsible if they show up for work every day at exactly 9:00 a.m.; instead, they’re expected to maintain a good working relationship with their colleagues and customers. Personal reputation plays a big part in how successful you are professionally, so any misdemeanour or lapse in judgment is taken far more seriously.

As members of a society that values the monochronic system, we have been raised to believe that working hard will result in economic gain, which is good. But by placing priority on work and career schedules, we tend to isolate ourselves from those around us. Hall refers to this as the “anti-human aspect of [monochronic time].” We deny our natures in favour of being pack animals, and alienate ourselves to better focus on time management and extract every cent out of the time we are allotted.

Hall’s essay on polychronic and monochronic time was published in 1984, well before the technological boom of the smartphone — it doesn’t take into account the isolating nature of modern technology, which has been blamed for rising rates of mental illness and suicide. It’s hard to argue that Canada’s focus on monochronic time, or our generation’s dependence on Facebook and text messaging, are exclusively responsible for these issues — however, I can say with confidence, that it’s certainly not helping.

As an individual with a hectic schedule myself, I think it’s important to take time back. Maybe you can’t become polychronic in nature, but you can place a greater priority on maintaining personal relationships face to face, rather than through email or chat logs. In the end, it all becomes about the balance of the personal and professional. Even if you don’t think you need it, those around you might.