Do you have time? Our approach to time management is determined by culture and our internal clock
In Germany, good time management means getting a lot of work done in a short time – and meeting your deadlines. Yet clocks don’t mean the same all over the world, and perceptions of time differ from one individual to the next. There are many different ‘time cultures’ and ‘time types’.
‘I just don’t have time these days’ is a commonly heard complaint, especially from those living in the industrialised countries. Many such ‘time-poor’ people seek a solution to their problem by attending time management seminars, where – they hope – they will pick up tips on how to reduce the pressure on their time and manage it better. But why do so many of us want to squeeze the most out of every single second and manage our time with such precision? Why, for example, is punctuality so important for a German? Many Germans get annoyed if someone is five minutes late and become stressed when they don’t complete a task ‘on time’.
Hede Helfrich, professor of cross-cultural communication at Chemnitz’s Technical University, thinks that ‘the way we deal with time originates in our relationship with religion.’ For example, she says, Protestantism has traditionally laid great emphasis on what we achieve during our lifetime, and ‘that has to do with our image of God and the afterlife: our success at work points to what God has in store for us when we die.’ In other words, if we achieve great things in life, it will be to our advantage in the hereafter. And in Protestant-influenced societies, this has created a work ethic that persists in the shape of our ideas of good time management and punctuality.
However, argues Helfrich, societies with a history marked by poverty have a very different perception of time: ‘If you have no prospects and don’t even know if you will live to see tomorrow, your situation forces you to focus on managing the current moment.’ Things that will happen later today, let alone tomorrow, just aren’t relevant.
Calls for time management policy
So when will time management make it onto the policy agenda? As the pace of our lives accelerates, especially in large towns and cities, it’s unfair not to give people support with managing the pressure, thinks Hamburg-based political scientist Ulrich Mückenberger. He sits on the board of Germany’s Institute for Time Policy and wants to know how we can stop people having time ‘stolen’ from them in their daily routines or at work. After all, he argues, we have an entitlement to leisure time, but our ability to exercise the entitlement is hampered by a number of factors. For example, why are libraries closed in the evenings, when people have time to read? Why do many nurseries have such short opening hours? ‘People should be able to organise their daily lives according to their own needs’, argues Mückenberger. And that’s where time policy comes in.
A time-type approach to time management
There’s little point in forcing people to conform to a time schema that is at odds with their own ‘time type’. Chronobiologists have discovered that bodily processes follow a rhythm but that the rhythm varies from one person to another. Biological time is largely genetically determined, and it would be advantageous to gear our time management to our internal clock. That’s not always possible, though. ‘Working hours and the school day frequently ignore people’s internal clocks’, argues Chronobiologist Till Roenneberg from Munich’s Ludwig-Maximilians University. German schools and workplaces are geared primarily to the internal clocks of early risers, with the result, he says, that ‘many people live with something like permanent jetlag.’
Which ‘time-type’ are you?
Tell us what kind of time rhythm you function on and how you have been influenced by cultural perceptions of time. How well do you think you manage your time? What about time management in your home country? How important is punctuality, for example? Follow the community discussion about time management in the ‘Working environments’ group!
In addition to that you can find some tips on more effective time management on our website.