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“A turning point in time scheduling” Anne-Laure Sellier at TEDx HEC Paris

13 October 2013

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, Anne-Laure Sellier, HEC Associate Professor in Marketing, made a presentation at the TEDx HEC Paris event on October 18th 2013 (watch the video). In a deep and effective speech, she shared with us her research with Tamar Avnet (Yeshiva University) on how the way we schedule our lives influences our thoughts, our emotions, our decision-making, and even our performance.


Professor Sellier mentioned that there are two main styles that humans around the world rely on today to schedule their activities – either following what the external clock dictates (e.g., shop for groceries from 10 to 12, go have lunch with a friend until 2, work in meetings from 2 to 4, and alone from 4 to 7), or following an individual’s sense that it is time to move from one activity to the next (e.g., shop for groceries until you feel you have enough for the week, and proceed to having lunch; once that feels over, join your business meeting, and work until you feel the meeting is over; then work alone until you can call it a day). We refer to people who predominantly follow the former style as clock-timers, and to people who predominantly use the latter style as event-timers.

Clock-timers unarguably enjoy the considerable advantage of being able to flexibly schedule and reschedule their activities. However, research from Professor Sellier and Professor Avnet shows that there are deleterious influences of the clock on the extent to which people relying on it feel in control of their lives, as well as to which they feel happy. In particular, the researchers find that clock-timers perceive the world at large as a more disconnected, a more chaotic place; they are also less able to savor positive emotions than people relying on event-time – knowing that savoring is a key antecedent of happiness. In fact, this means they do not manage to immerse themselves in a positive experience as much as event-timers; they don’t display their positive experience (i.e., they don’t act it out) as much; and they don’t share it with others as much. A third finding is that clock-timers seize exploding opportunities less than event-timers. Finally, and critically, clock-timers also have lower levels of performance than event-timers on non-standard tasks requiring the exertion of personal control and the ability to sense the moment. This means that relying on the clock can prove counterproductive when working on non-standard tasks. 

Why are these findings important? 

In 2010, IBM did a poll of over 1,500 CEOs worldwide, most of whom are presumably clock-timers. The poll mentions that over 60% of the CEOs interviewed perceive the current business environment as more complex, volatile, and uncertain than ever before, and over half of them doubt their ability to handle it. In other words, the environment seems to have taken control, which is consistent with the researchers’ finding of a world perceived as more chaotic. Another critical insight is that CEOs agree that the one key leadership quality to navigate this complexity is creativity, the ability to find new ways of solving tough problems. They notice that companies that fare better than others today are those making decisions faster, those that better grasp exploding opportunities. Finally, many of these successful companies stopped reconceiving their strategies as per the clock, such as via quarterly updates, to continuously revise their market approach. In summary, it seems that the successful companies in today’s environment have an event-time, rather than a clock-time market approach. 

The clock has been a pillar of the economic system that we put in place to accompany the industrial revolution. Thanks to it, we have reached an unprecedented level of human coordination in history, resulting in massive efficiency gains. However, if there is one thing we know today, it is that this economic model is obsolete, and that we need a new paradigm to address the current issues we’re confronted with, such as ensuring sustainability with soon 9 billion humans on the planet. 

If we reinvent our economic system, the pervasive presence of the clock in our industrialized societies should also be questioned. Professor Sellier’s research suggests that while clock-time clearly benefits standardized activities, it may not be the optimal scheduling style for breakthrough creative work. Maybe it is time to transform our universities and our companies to allow more event-timers to participate in our economy?


Anne-Laure Sellier, Associate Professor in the Marketing department, and member of the GREGHEC is the winner of the 2013 HEC Foundation award for Teaching Innovation. The teaching and pedagogy committee of the HEC Foundation has distinguished Professor Sellier for her course "An approach to (what kills) creativity".

Her current research interests are in the area of time perception influences on decision-making, creativity, self-regulation, self-control, consumer happiness and, more generally, how emotions and cognitions interact in judgment and decision-making. 


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