WMU News

Expert says popular time management techniques won't work for all

June 14, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- You're feeling guilty.

The expensive day planner that was supposed to revolutionize the way you work is sitting on the corner of your desk gathering dust, practically untouched since your company sent you to that time management course. In fact, the thought of plotting out your days and weeks in such precise increments makes you cringe. Maybe you're just disorganized by nature.

Or perhaps you're a polychron.

A Western Michigan University professor is researching time management styles in the workplace, and his findings could change the way we perceive time and organization. Using a system that categorizes people as "monochronic" or "polychronic" time managers, Dr. Jay D. Lindquist, professor of marketing in the Haworth College of Business, is investigating why and how people use and organize their time. He and Dr. Carol Kaufman-Scarborough of Rutgers University are studying the characteristics associated with both types of time managers, and the duo recently published a portion of their work in the Journal of Managerial Psychology.

"We believe a person's time personality is made up of a series of time styles, just as other researchers believe a person's overall personality is made up of traits," Lindquist says. "We are theorizing that time activity level -- be it monochronic, polychronic or balanced -- is one of the contributing styles to a person's overall time personality."

Monochronic employees, he says, are those who thrive on detailed planning and organization. These workers prefer to focus on one task at a time and they follow a schedule from which they don't like to deviate. According to Lindquist, monochrons are rattled by interruptions and tend to put new tasks off until a later date, when they can be worked into the schedule.

Conversely, a polychron prefers to have many projects under way simultaneously, enjoys changing from activity to activity and is unruffled by interruptions. Polychronic time managers, Lindquist's research shows, shift goals throughout the day and tend to feel that they have accomplished those goals when it's time to head for home. And unlike their monochronic counterparts, polychrons believe they perform well under pressure.

"We're at the leading edge in the areas of time personality and time style," Lindquist says. "There's not yet universal agreement on these principles, but we're working to establish guidelines and benchmarks so that when you know someone's time personality, you can predict their behavior, and vice versa."

Even at this early stage, however, managers will benefit from identifying their employees' time styles, according to Lindquist. Whereas in the past a struggling worker may have been criticized as inflexible or unorganized, a supervisor exposed to this theory might instead recognize that the person's time management style conflicts with the work required, and shift that employee to another spot within the organization.

Take an accountant or engineer, for example. The work required is precise, methodical and detailed -- ideal for a monochron. However, put those same employees who excel in their positions into a sales job, where they move from one customer to another, constantly switching gears and responding to the unexpected, and they'll undoubtedly flounder.

"Conflicting time styles are a great source of turmoil in organizations, but managers aren't always able to identify just what the problem is," says Lindquist. "Imagine you're polychronic and working on a team with two monochrons. You're all frustrated with one another, until we explain to you how monochrons and polychrons operate, and suddenly you understand what it will take to work together. Even though we don't fully understand it yet, if we can awaken people to the general issue, that's useful."

Already, the corporate world is responding. Earlier this year, Lindquist presented his work to local business leaders as part of the Haworth College of Business Dean's Breakfast Speakers Series and at the Kalamazoo Rotary club. Impressed by the favorable reaction from the Southwest Michigan crowd, Rotary officials recently approached him about addressing the topic at a national meeting in November.

At the least, this new understanding could help managers identify which type of time management training to which they should send their employees, Lindquist says. "You can't send everyone to a monochronic training -- these seminars are of little or no use to polychrons. The people who are teaching this time diary stuff should be teaching how monochrons and polychrons should each use the system. Now that really might revolutionize the way we work."

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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