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Time Sense:
Polychronicity and Monochronicity

(March 27, 2005)

Are you a polychron or a monochron?

My guess is you have no idea what I am talking about. And yet, this is one of the most important questions you can ever ask yourself. Knowing if you are a polychron or a monochron will help you understand a lot about yourself, including how you fit into the world and how you get along with others.

The terms monochron and polychron have to do with our time sense: how we perceive and manage time. To a polychron, time is continuous, with no particular structure. Polychrons see time as a never-ending river, flowing from the infinite past, through the present, into the infinite future.

In the workplace, polychrons prefer to keep their time unstructured, changing from one activity to another as the mood takes them. Although polychrons can meet deadlines, they need to do so in their own way. A polychron does not want detailed plans imposed upon him, nor does he want to make his own detailed plans. Polychrons prefer to work as they see fit without a strict schedule, following their internal mental processes from one minute to the next.

Monochrons see time as being divided into fixed elements that can be organized, quantified and scheduled.

Monochrons relate to time differently: to them, time is discrete, not continuous. Monochrons see time as being divided into fixed elements — seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, and so on — temporal blocks that can be organized, quantified and scheduled. Monochrons love to plan in detail, making lists, keeping track of their activities, and organizing their time into a daily routine.

Monochrons prefer to do one thing at a time, working on a task until it is finished, then, and only then, moving on to the next task. To a monochron, switching back and forth from one activity to another is not only wasteful and distracting, it is uncomfortable.

Polychrons are different. They love to work on more than one thing at a time. To a polychron, switching from one activity to another is both stimulating and productive and, hence, the most desirable way to work.

Can you see yourself in here somewhere?

I bet you can and, once you do, you can see how easy it would be for a monochron and a polychron who live or work together to butt heads frequently, driving each other crazy without even knowing what is happening.

Here is a common example. Because of the way polychrons see time, they are often late. This only makes sense because, to a polychron, exact times (and even exact dates) are not really meaningful and, hence, are not all that important.

To a polychron, exact times are not really meaningful and, hence, are not all that important.

Try telling this to the monochron who is kept waiting for that polychron. While the polychron was finishing a couple of last- minute chores at home, the monochron was at the appointed place five minutes early, anxiously looking at his watch. To a monochron, time is exact and, as he sees it, being late is both rude and disrespectful. To a polychron, any time — even an exact time — is just an approximation. If someone keeps him waiting, he doesn't really care. He just figures that something must have happened to hold up the other person, and it's not that big of a deal.

In order to keep the peace, polychrons do learn to be on time when they really need to be. However, if you can get them to talk truthfully, they will tell you that they don't really understand why so many people feel that punctuality is a virtue.

The important lesson here is that, when it comes to organizing time, we all think that how we do it makes the most sense. The hidden assumption is that there is only one right way to understand time (our way). The truth is there is more than one way to think about time and neither extreme is right or wrong; they are just different.

Of course, this is not to say that, in a particular society, it won't be more advantageous to be either polychronic or monochronic. Indeed, the terms "polychronic" and "monochronic" were first used to describe whole cultures and not individuals (by the anthropologist Edward Hall in his book The Silent Language, 1959).

According to Hall, some cultures are traditionally monochronic. In such a culture, time is thought of as being linear. People are expected to do one thing at a time, and they will not tolerate lateness or interruptions.

In polychronic cultures, time is thought of as being cyclical. In such cultures, it is not important to be punctual, and it is acceptable to interrupt someone who is busy.

If you live in the United States, Canada, or Northern Europe, you live in a monochronic culture. If you live in Latin America, the Arab part of the Middle East, or sub-Sahara Africa, you live in a polychronic culture.

If you are a monochron living in a monochronic culture, you fit in without knowing it. But what if you are a polychron (as I am) living in, say, the United States? You will find yourself at odds with the work habits of most of the people around you, perhaps even disagreeing regularly with family members or spouses.

I have already mentioned that, to a polychron, it is acceptable (and even desirable) to be late, but there is a lot more. Polychrons consider a schedule to be less important than interpersonal relations. So they will, for example, be glad to stop what they are doing to talk to someone, or take a phone call, or to send email. Although polychrons like to handle more than one task at a time, they won't care if someone interrupts them during their work time or even during their break time. To a polychron, all time is the same, and they tend not to separate their work time from their personal time.

Although I live in a monochronic country, I know many polychrons. To my eye, they seem to enjoy their lives a lot more than the majority of monochrons, who live in a highly demanding world that rarely seems to let them relax and just be who they really are.

Perhaps being a polychron in a monochronic country isn't all that bad. You get to watch all the busy bees around you, planning, scheduling, and working hard, making sure that the many things that need to be done are done and done on time, which means that you get all the advantages (and there are many) of living in a monochronic society.

Moreover, as long as you can finesse your way around the demands of punctuality and mandatory deadlines, you can work when you want to, on whatever it is that interests you at that moment. Since you don't need to make an artificial distinction between your work and the rest of your life, you have no need to separate what you think from what you feel. Thus, you can live your life with a great deal of passion, much of which will find its way into your work.

No wonder I feel as if I am always on vacation!


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