WELLNESS
10/13/2014 10:15 am ET Updated Oct 15, 2014

How Clocks Could Be Harming Your Health, Happiness And Productivity

Anthony Harvie via Getty Images

The speed of life, it seems, is always increasing. Our to-do lists get longer, our deadlines loom closer, and constant access to digital devices means few idle moments. In the workplace, this time pressure can be particularly acute: a survey conducted last year found that more than eight in 10 Americans are stressed about their jobs, with an unreasonable workload being the top stressor.

But one researcher is arguing that workplace stress brought on by deadlines and time crunches -- and the resulting harm done to our health, happiness and productivity -- is exacerbated by an unlikely element: clocks.

Running on "clock time," as opposed to a less time-focused way of managing our lives, fundamentally alters our worldview, according to Anne-Laure Sellier, an associate professor of marketing at HEC Paris business school.

"When you rely on the clock, you put control of your schedule outside of yourself," Sellier said in a 2013 TED talk, citing research she conducted with Tamar Avnet, associate professor of marketing at Yeshiva University’s Sy Syms School of Business. "And we know from psychology that when people do that, they tend to believe that things happen in the world as a result of fate, chance and powerful others... [Since] we increasingly relied on the clock to schedule our activities, we also started to perceive the world as a more and more disconnected place."

This is only one of many psychological impacts of the way we run our lives in time slots, which Sellier refers to as "clock time." She explains that there are two ways that human beings, historically, have scheduled their daily activities: "clock time" and "event time." Clock time involves mapping out independent units with a defined start and finish time, that can be moved and rearranged as necessary. Event time, on the other hand, makes the task primary -- we do one thing, and then move on the next thing as soon as we're done the first one, allowing events to take as much time as they require and to unfold in a sequential order.

In industrialized nations, clock time dominates. We schedule our days into tightly-packed time slots -- demarcated by gray blocks on a Gmail calendar and the buzzing notifications on our iPhones -- and rush from one deadline (real or imagined) to another.

What's more, in our increasingly digitized lives, the physical presence of the clock is inescapable. According to one estimate, we check our phones every six minutes, or 150 times a day. That means 150 times that we check the clock on our phones alone -- not to mention constantly seeing the current time on the upper right-hand corner of our laptop screens, and on the clocks displayed around our homes and offices.

In some ways, this is not a bad thing. Deadlines and time crunches, within reason, can give us the push we need to get things done and to make time for all the things we care about. But what happens when we're living in a chronic state of rushing through our to-do list items?

"We are not going to eliminate watches, appointments, and deadlines, although it's worth remembering that the word 'deadline' has its American origin in Civil War prison camps; instead of a physical perimeter, there would often be an imaginary line -- the deadline -- that the prisoners were not to cross," Huffington Post editor-in-chief Arianna Huffington writes in Thrive. "Our current use of the word isn't too far from its origin. Today we often use deadlines -- real and imaginary -- to imprison ourselves."

Though we'll likely never do away with clocks and deadlines altogether, there are some measures we can take as individuals to develop a healthier relationship with time.

Here are five things you should know about "clock time" -- and why sometimes it's healthy to break free from it.

Constant time awareness can make us less productive.

Sellier, with conducted an experiment on participants in a Bikram yoga class -- a demanding hot yoga practice in which 26 poses are performed twice each over the course of 90 minutes. She compared two groups in Bikram yoga classes, one with a clock on the wall, and one without.

What she found was that people who had a clock in the room reported feeling less inspired after the class. They also gave up on the task more often -- sitting down and not performing the poses -- than those who did not have a clock in the room to check.

"Just contextually reminding people of the clock was enough to hurt their performance," said Sellier. "So the clock can make us perform more poorly."

For tasks that require focus and control, Sellier concluded, the clock can be detrimental to productivity and motivation.

Clock-based schedules can make us less happy and creative.

Running our daily lives according to the clock puts control of the day's events outside of us, explained Sellier. This can make us less clued in to our emotional state, and as a result, less happy.

"Clock timers don't need to attend to their emotions because they surrender to the clock," she said. "The problem is, psychologists now know that in order to be happy, we need to be attuned to our emotions, and particularly, we need to be able to savor positive experiences."

But unfortunately, research has shown that clock-timers are less able than event-timers to savor positive experiences. This holds true across all kinds of positive emotions, including joy, excitement and gratitude.

"All across the spectrum, we find that clock-timers immerse themselves in the moment less, they display their emotions less, and they share their emotions less with others on the spur of the moment or later," said Sellier.

Several studies have found that clock-based work schedules and excessive time pressure may also hinder creativity.

Being too future-oriented can have negative effects on our health and well-being.

Focusing too much on meeting that next deadline, knocking the next item off of our to-do lists, and accomplishing future tasks actively pulls us out of the here-and-now, and can have profound implications on the ways we think and behave.

Our time orientation affects every decision we make, according to psychologist Philip Zimbardo -- but we're rarely aware of it. Zimbardo's research has found that we all have a fundamental time orientation -- past, present or future, that can play out with either a positive or a negative bias.

"Time has a powerful effect on our lives that we're unaware of," Zimbardo told The Huffington Post last year. "I argue that it's the most powerful influence on everything we do. It's so powerful because we get programmed very early in life to be in one of these 'time zones.'"

People who are overly future-oriented tend to sacrifice family time, friend time, self-care, hobbies and sleep for success. "They live for work, achievement and control," Zimbardo explained in a 2009 TED talk.

Research has linked this sort of workaholic behavior with reduced physical and mental well-being -- and it's not difficult to see how stress, sleep deprivation and a lack of time with friends and family could contribute to lower levels of life satisfaction and personal fulfillment in the long tun.

Let go of deadlines once in a while, but be careful about creating extensions.

Under the right circumstances, letting go of deadlines and saying "I'll get to it when I get to it" can be profoundly liberating. But simply pushing back deadlines could just increase anxiety and excessive fixation on the future.

Extending deadlines can work against us by making us more stressed out, according to social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson. Instead of giving ourselves a proper breather and then getting back on track, as we should, we tend to just continue worrying about the deadline and procrastinating until it arrives.

If you want to keep from losing motivation and prevent yourself from procrastinating -- the two most common roadblocks to effective deadline extensions -- try breaking the task up into smaller, short-term goals that allow for a sense of achievement, Halvorson suggests. Then, if you must make a particular deadline or extended deadline, you can at least make sure you don't spend unnecessary time worrying and procrastinating.

Slow down and get off the clock to expand your sense of time.

If you're constantly rushing and feeling overwhelmed with a sense of "time famine" -- also known as "hurry sickness" -- it may be time to stop and reassess. Chances are, the increased stress and anxiety your relentless lifestyle creates is counteracting any progress you're actually making when you try to accomplish an inhuman number of things in a single day.

It's a cruel paradox: The more aware of time we are, the more quickly it slips through our fingers. In other words, the busier we are, the faster time seems to fly. Fortunately, there is a science-backed solution to that awful feeling that life is passing you by so quickly that you wonder what happened to the past month, or six months, or year. The trick is, simply, to pay attention. Savor experiences. The more present you are, the more information your brain is taking in, and the more stretched-out and luxurious time feels.

"Mindfulness allows people to appreciate their surroundings and can lead to the feeling that time is passing more slowly," Dr. Steven Meyers, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago, told The Huffington Post last year. "Paying attention to events that are pleasant or interesting certainly can enhance our mood and allows us to savor positive experiences."

Another way to combat time famine? Try giving some of your precious time away. A 2012 study published in the journal Psychological Science found that spending time on others could increase an individual's sense of "time affluence."

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