Time: Larks and Owls and Waiting Forever

Psychology 101: The 101 Ideas, Concepts and Theories that Have Shaped Our World - Adrian Furnham 2021

Time: Larks and Owls and Waiting Forever

The future is not what it used to be. (Anon)

The present is only an imaginary dividing line between the past and the future. (E.H. Carr, What is History? 1961)

How we look at and experience time depends on many things. First, the country we come from.

All travellers are very aware of the fact that people think and talk about time differently. Some countries are time-bound (Germany, Britain, Switzerland, Scandinavia), whereas others are time-blind (Spain, Portugal, Greece). Time-bound societies emphasize schedules, deadlines, time waste, time-keeping, a fast pace of life. Time-blind societies are more relaxed and casual about time.

Thus what is late in one society is not necessarily so in another. As societies become more time-bound, they have a more competitive attitude to time, and so ’fast’ is better. Hence fast-living, fast-eating, fast-tempo, manic-type work behaviour emphasizing ’catching up’ and not being ’left behind’. Time-bound societies see time as linear, time-blind as cyclical. Time-bound societies centre work around clocks, schedules, delivery dates, agendas, deadlines. This can make for serious misunderstandings at work.

Then there is the time-blind culture’s ability to distinguish between sacred and profane time. The former is for eating, family, sleeping. Profane time is used for everything else. Hence in Spain, meetings can easily be interrupted; time is not dedicated solely to the meeting.

There is also the distinction between mono- and poly-chronic time. Time-bound societies are monochronic — they do one thing at a time. Time-blind are polychronic, happily ignoring appointments, schedules, deadlines and tolerating interruptions. There is also the issue of time-orientation: past, present and future. The British are thought to be interested more in the distant and recent past and therefore do not invest so much in the future, whereas the Germans have a longer view of the future, investing in basic research, education and training.

The understanding and use of time is crucial in business. Not only does it lead to how, when, where and why work is done, but people with conflicting ideas and theories may have very different conceptions and expectations. This can lead to miscommunication and animosity.

Also organizations have unique time cultures. Some do time-urgency seriously. Time is measurable. Others seem much more relaxed. Some are amnesic about the past, believing it pointless to look back. Others are obsessed with the future, paying top dollar for strategy consultants to ’predict’ and possibly control the future. Some fine people for being late at meetings, others appear to reward them. And there are also organizations that make people literally ’clock in and out’, checking exactly how much time they spend at work.

But as with cultural differences there are also individual differences.


This is all about differences in circadian rhythm and most people know it as morningness—eveningness. Many bodily functions — blood flow, oral temperature, urine chemistry — change over the day. So too does our ability to perform various tasks.

There are various tests that help you determine whether you are a morning or evening person; often called larks and owls. Most of us are neither extreme cases but some people are more extreme. A strong morning type will get up much earlier (by as much as two hours), and go to bed much earlier compared to evening types. They feel much more alive and active in the morning and choose to do tasks that require concentration then. Equally they tend to feel more tired and listless in the evening while this is when evening types just come awake.

We all use drugs like caffeine and alcohol at different times of day to increase, or decrease, our arousal levels. Obviously, some jobs are much better suited to morning vs. evening people.


Another distinction is between the time estimator and the time contractor. To the former ’I shall see you at 6.30’ means any time around 6.30 (i.e. 6.05, 6.45) while to the latter that is a promise or a contract. If a time estimator is married to, or works with, a time contractor all hell is frequently cut loose as their expectations and misunderstandings are challenged.

Equally there are those fixated in the past, those obsessed only with the present and those looking only to the future. Remembering past experiences and lessons is valuable. Concentrating on the ’now’ is important. Thinking about and planning for the future is good. But to be always backward looking means you miss current opportunities and to be so future oriented that you ignore current problems which impact on how you get to the future.

Recently Philip Zimbardo in America identified four key approaches to time perspective.

The ’past—negative’ type who focuses on negative personal experiences that still have the power to upset you, causing feelings of bitterness and regret.

The ’past—positive’ type who takes a nostalgic view of the past, with a ’better safe than sorry’ approach which may hold them back.

The ’present—hedonistic’ type who are dominated by pleasure-seeking impulses, and reluctant to postpone feeling good for later gain.

The ’present—fatalistic’ type who don’t enjoy the present but feel trapped in it, unable to change the future, feeling powerlessness.


Kreitzman, L., & Foster, D (2004). Rhythms of life: the biological clocks that control the daily lives of every living thing. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press.

Zimbardo, P.G. & Boyd, J.N. (2009). The time paradox: Using the new psychology of time to your advantage. New York, NY.