The ‘Clock Time’ Trap

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What happens when we use time as a proxy for experience? We’re very likely to fool others — and ourselves.

Watching the Clock: In School

In school, we traditionally divide children into grades: first grade, second grade and so on. Modern schooling assumes that children enter at about the same age and track together all the way from ages five or six through secondary education and even college. In as much as age correlates with developmental stage, this makes sense. Yet even a casual student of child development knows this association is approximate at best. Inevitably this results in some bored kids who are too advanced for the material and others who flounder, not through any learning deficit greater than a developmental schedule that falls behind the norm.

A separate, and I believe larger issue, is that the lock-step yearly grade promotion plan distracts attention away from effort and real progress, and toward clock and calendar time. Even though each grade level is associated with certain academic proficiencies, I don’t recall making that linkage for myself when I was in school. Count the number of times that you’ve heard a student yearn for a particular day on the calendar: “I can’t wait to be out of seventh grade,” versus the number of times young people express a desire to master particular skills or competencies, e.g., “I can’t wait until I can speak French fluently.” Even when testing is used as a gateway to higher grades, the student’s attitude is often one of “I hope I pass so I can go on with my age-mates.” The clock-time perspective distracts from education as a growth process, and turns it into something more akin to serving time in jail.

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Part of the appeal of ‘alternative’ educational structures such as Montessori, Homeschooling or Unschooling just to name a few, is the departure from clock time towards a more skill- and achievement-based orientation.

Watching the Clock: At Work

Inappropriate use of clock time follows students into their careers. It begins with resumes. Some years ago, when I was working as a software developer, many job requirements and interviews followed the same format: “Do you have five years of C++?” “Three years of Java?” “How many years of SQL Server do you have?” These questions seem relevant on the surface, but looking deeper, they become nonsensical.

The first problem with “do you have x years of y” is that this kind of accounting is fuzzy at best and fraudulent at worst. When I first encountered these questions, I thought hard and tried to answer well. If I had been with an employer for a year, but was only hands-on with the technology in question for a month or two, I would answer with the latter figure. After not getting jobs for a while, I learned that if I worked for an employer for three years, and touched that technology one time while on the job, the correct answer was “three years’ experience.” Of course employers were wise to this inflation, so they in turn inflated their requirements, and so on, and so on. It got to the point where some employers were asking for five years’ experience, when the technology had only existed for three years.

Clock time also fails to measure the quality of the potential hire’s interaction with a technology. Some developers work for years on a system and do so very poorly, using terrible practices. This bad behavior can go on unchecked for years. The damage may not surface until long after the employee has moved on to other work. So those years of experience could actually be of negative value.

I learned the value (or lack thereof) when I helped screen employees for a previous employer. After sanity-checking a prospective employee’s resume, we brought them in and gave them a very simple test of their programming ability. Most of them, despite “years of experience”, couldn’t pass. Some even refused to test. Ultimately, we picked our programmers for their ability to program, and while some of our developers were far from perfect, we at least demonstrated for ourselves that they had basic coding ability.

Watching the Clock: In the Bedroom

How bizarre that we would allow clock time to interfere with our love lives. Yet we do. In the back of our minds, many of us have a specific number of dates before we’re willing to kiss, make out, or have sex. Friends and family get in on the act when they give feedback that they think the relationship is going “too fast” or “too slow”, as if it is any of their business. Clock time can’t be ignored altogether, especially for couples wishing to have children. And yet, I believe if couples paid less attention to where they were “supposed to be” at a particular time and place, and more on where they actually were, they would be happier and make better decisions about their future together.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Pat Orner Oliver on .

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