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In this episode, Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed, speaks with Dawna Ballard, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin. As an expert on time, Ballard’s research examines how we experience time in our daily lives — and what it means for the world of work. Their conversation covers:

  • Insights on the history, culture and science behind the concept of time
  • The impact of COVID-19 on our sense of time
  • How natural rhythms affect productivity

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Prologue

Liz Lewis: Welcome to Season 2 of the Lead with Indeed podcast, where we chat with the experts about the world of work. Here, authors, researchers and industry leaders share their expertise on the science of talent acquisition, management, the future of work and much, much more.

I'm Liz Lewis, anthropologist, writer and researcher at Indeed. On today's show, I'm speaking with Dawna Ballard, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Dr. Ballard is an expert on time. Her research examines how we experience time in our daily lives and what it means for the world of work. In today's conversation, she discusses the impact of COVID on our sense of time, how natural rhythms affect productivity and why egg yolks should really be orange, not yellow. Let's get started.

Introduction

Liz Lewis: So, we're speaking with Dr. Dawna Ballard, associate professor in the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. Welcome!

Dawna Ballard: Thank you for having me.

Liz: We're so excited. You are an expert in time, and you teach about time. I've seen you described – or perhaps you described yourself – as a time smith. Can you walk me through what this means to be an expert in time? I assume it doesn't mean that you're really great with time and you’re on time for everything.

Dawna: No. Absolutely not. No, of course not! The opposite! Of course, it means the opposite! It just means that because, frankly, it was, it was such an important part of my life in so many ways that I could see how time shaped the quality of my existence. But, when I discovered, back in undergrad, this was the first time I knew that time was socially constructed. Meaning that it wasn't something given to us by the gods. That was not it. But it was really, actually a very fluid creation that changed, based on the setting and based on the person and the environment and the sort of national culture. When I realized that, I just felt like my life was forever changed. I mean, because I thought wow! If we create it then we can recreate it. And we can make decisions about it that might make our lives and our work better. That was literally back — I was a junior in undergrad and I thought wow! This is big news.

Liz: Time is central to our lives. Right? And it's literally everywhere, always. We cannot get away from it with our work, with our family. But it seems like people don't talk about it in that way. You know. We talk about it in terms of wasting time, killing time, making time. We have all of these expressions, these idioms around time. But it seems like people don't really think about it that much as something. Why is that? Why do people sort of take time for granted? 

Dawna: Absolutely. So, the reason is that we're supposed to. So, all cultures, really. Just think about the logistics or culture for like coordinating a group of people, however local or global that group is.

Liz: Interesting.

Dawna: So, we have to coordinate. And it's not just in time we coordinate. We coordinate in space. We coordinate in what’s polite. Like, we have all of these rules that allow us to have a somewhat friction free existence together — that's our goal. We want to reduce the friction and sort of get our needs met. If we constantly talked about and debated those rules, then we couldn't have any sort of normalcy because we might, we would be changing, probably, our opinions about these rules more often than a culture would like.

And so the idea that time is hidden, in fact, it's hidden, you know, as this underlying, fundamental dimension of human existence. And it's hidden because we can't constantly debate something that's so central. Does that make sense? Like, if we were getting a chance to talk about it, we might say, oh, do you mean that we just agree to this, that this isn't true? We have to believe it's true.

Our relationship with time in the world of work

Liz: How would you describe American workers' relation to time? And that's obviously a huge category.

Dawna: So, American workers' relationship with time is the classic industrial time. And, yeah, so literally time became money in industrial capitalism. And so, when you were mentioning, like, you mention, like oh, a waste of time, spent time, borrowed time, we do talk about it a lot. But we only see it as a commodity and don't have an understanding that that, really, again, it's a very new agreement. And that it's only one way to position time in your life. It is money if you participate in industrial capitalism to some extent. Right? But, really, that was more intended for factory work. 

And it really doesn't fit our work now, but because it was literally – and when I say culture is something we're taught to believe is true, that's from the moment we're born. That's in our schooling. That's in our religious organizations. And that's in the workplace. That they teach you that time is money. And that idle time is the devil's workshop. And, again, the classic work ethic isn't just for Protestants anymore. It's for capitalists. And so, yeah, we really measure time as some aspect of work. It's the worth of our work, the worth of ourselves. Right? Like, have I spent my time in a productive way? Then that's based, you know, that's essentially me even seeing my own output, even say if on the weekend. It may not have anything to do with work. But, throughout our whole life, we see time as money and money is worth and so time is worth.

Liz: You said something that really stood out to me. You said that this concept of time doesn't fit our work now. It doesn't fit our world of work. Right?

Dawna: Right.

Liz: Because we're no longer, you know, I, I work normally not during COVID. I work in an office. I don't work in a factory.

Dawna: Yes.

Liz: Or something of that nature.

Dawna: Right.

Liz: Do you see any, you know, industries or even individual employers kind of shifting gears to accommodate new understandings of time that maybe work better for people?

Dawna: Yes. Absolutely! So, there's a few, um, innovations that I see. One, is no work Wednesdays, so that people are having a four-day work week. Yeah. It's very new, but there's some work done on it. There's, you know, sometimes it's Monday through Thursday, you know, so you have Fridays off. But, consistently there's an interest in Wednesdays because you have 2 days on. You have a day off. And then 2 days back on, which is more like a work recovery cycle. So you work. You recover.

Liz: Interesting.

Dawna: You work. You recover. Through industrialization, the goal was to get everyone to leave those rhythms outside of the door and to come in and just be a worker. 

Liz: Right.

Dawna: And to only produce during a window of time because you were getting paid for that. How you can see this recovery cycle and how, when we're connected more with biology, we naturally tune in. But, so I go to this lovely, local grocery store to get eggs once, because, like, you know, wherever we normally got them, they were out, and so we ran really quick. They were, turned out, the best eggs I've ever had. And they, in fact, were so good, I had never had eggs that good. And when I cracked them open, they were almost orange. And I thought, ooh, there's something wrong. And I call. And the store was called Ingredients.

Liz: Oh, yeah, sure.

Dawna: And I called and said, yeah, I said, 'I think there's something wrong with these eggs.' And they were like no. That's actually how eggs are supposed to look.

Liz: Yes!

Dawna: And, so then we were addicted, right, so then that's all we bought. And, even though they were like far more expensive than I, you know, normally would have had. But now, we're like, oh, that's the only kind of eggs we’ll ever buy. And once we went there, and they were out. And we're like, okay, they're out today. We went back. They were out again. So, finally, we said what's the deal? Like our eggs, where are they? And they said yeah. The chickens are molting. We don't have eggs. We're not gonna have eggs 'til they're done molting. And I was like that's it. That's work recovery. 

Naturally, most things outside of factories had rhythms where it was on and off, on and off. And that's what I think the four days — the Wednesdays off — really helps to replicate. But you're on and then you're off. And you're on and you're off. And humans, we forget that we're so much like that, that we have rhythm. And we actually are great producers. And the reason I point out that those were literally the best eggs I've ever had, that I'll probably ever have, is that they were, you know, they were extraordinarily good at what they did. Extraordinary. You know? And so this wasn't a glitch in the system. This was the system.

Liz: Yeah.

Dawna: This is the system. And so our goal and our challenge for post-industrial work is to not just become pre-industrial because we're not that any more. But to figure out the best of this pre-industrial and industrial life. And find a way for the two to work together because we do have clocks now and they're not going anywhere. And we do like global commerce. And that's why we need clocks. And we need atomic clocks. And we need nanoseconds. Like, this is part of what we value. So, we need to find a way to pull from pre-industrial and from industrial and make something new. But right now, we're just trying to keep going in this industrial way of working. And we're not in any — some people are in factories — but the entire global workforce is not in a factory. We're much more. And, right now, a lot of us are at home. No matter what industry you're in.

Why rest is the key to productivity 

Liz: So, I'm thinking about, you know, I've had lots of conversations with friends and colleagues who feel compelled to maximize productivity. Right? We hear a lot of talk about maximizing productivity and multitasking to get as much done as possible. What are your thoughts on these concepts?

Dawna: Okay. [laughs] So, in terms of maximizing productivity, that's fine. As long as you have in mind this thing called timescale, which that might be obscure. So, let me just say long as you know what window of time you want to maximize productivity in. So, if I want to maximize productivity, let's say I run a company. And I know everything right, and I know all the things about work, I studied work, I get that. Then, I actually want the people who work with me to stay working with me for a long time.

Liz: Okay.

Dawna: I want them to be healthy, mentally and physically. I want them to actually be rested because so many industrial accidents occur from basic sleep deprivation. Like, if I actually know the data, the actual literature on how to have a productive workforce, then the window of time I think about when I think of productivity, it's not gonna be a day or a week or even a month. That window of productivity, it might be like a five year window. It might be a year. But it's going to take into account that there are different rhythms in all of work. And that there might be really intense — every industry has busier and slower times. Like, no matter what it is, for whatever reason, there's some rhythm. And let's just take a CPA. They obviously have a really busy season all around April 15 in the U.S.

Liz: Sure.

Dawna: So, things ramp up before then. And they stay intense. And then they're gonna have a downtime around July. And I know this because I know some CPAs. So around July it's gonna be slower. And so I'm going to say, minimally, across a year, are the people who are working with me, are they productive for that full year? So, I want to maximize, right, what we get done because we love our work. We wanna serve our customers. I wanna maximize that across a year. So that's gonna mean that, if I want them to do well during tax season, I'm not gonna be burning them out in July.

Liz: Yeah.

Dawna: We're gonna be going on corporate retreats. They're gonna be taking, hopefully, mandatory vacations. When they have children or adopt children, they're gonna have great family leave time so that they can pay attention to work when they get back. They're gonna have good health care. They're gonna have paid leave or paid sick leave. So, the goal of productivity is lovely. But it can't be short term, today only because if, instead, I didn't know any of the data and I just wanted everyone to be productive and I wanted this one month, everyone to be really productive, we would just, literally, work nonstop. And then, what would happen after that month? Everyone's burned out. They would probably leave the organization because they're like, 'Oh, you don't care about me.'

Liz: Yeah.

Dawna: One of the coolest things I learned about productivity is that our brains have a default mode. Right? It’s called a default mode network, and we are actually getting more efficient work done when we're resting than when we're working. And so, what I try to build in, like if I know I have whatever I'm working on, I try to go, you know, go hard in it as long as I can. Like for, you know, like, say it's a project and I am reading about it. I'm, you know, looking at the data. I'm doing all these things. And then I take a break. Because I will lose my ability — there will be diminishing returns very quickly if I don't stop. You work on something, you go take a shower. And it's accidental. You do it because it's late, it may be time to take a shower.

And then you're like, oh my gosh! I got it. I solved it. Like whatever that problem was, you figured it out. That's the default mode network. That's what's doing that. Our brains really need downtime in order to do their most efficient processing, the most effective. That's how it always occurs, right?

Liz: I completely agree with that. And I have observed for years in my own life, you know, when I start to feel burned out on a project or on a work day, if I go and take a walk for — and it doesn't have to be long. But you know.

Dawna: No, no!

Liz: Take a walk, 15 minutes.

Dawna: Yeah!

Liz: And, you know, there's a world of difference between going outside, getting some fresh air and, you know, scrolling through my personal emails.

Dawna: Oh yeah.

Liz: That doesn't recharge.

Dawna: No, absolutely.

Liz: Or, you know, heaven forbid, social media. Like, it does not do it.

Dawna: Thank you for saying that because people do think they're taking time away because then they're now on social media. But that's not. You're still working the same part of your brain that does the problem solving.

Liz: Interesting.

Dawna: You need to go into the right hemisphere. So, the left hemisphere does all the 'Hm, problem, problem. How do I fix, solve this problem?' The right hemisphere is just enjoying the moment. The right hemisphere is actually where the now is. You wanna calm it down. You wanna say, hey, there's no wild animals, you know, coming after me. I'm safe. And now a different part of your brain starts working and you're like, oh, yeah, well, how about this.

How COVID-19 impacted clocks and calendars

Liz: So, in terms of COVID, right, we're both working from home.

Dawna: Yeah. Yeah.

Liz: I've been really struck by how the pandemic has altered my own sense of time. And I've had this conversation with a lot of people. I feel like time is literally moving differently than it was pre-COVID, when I was commuting and going to an office and have built in lunch breaks and all of those sorts of — it was a very different rhythm to my day and to my work, and I've heard the sentiment expressed by many other people who are also in a similar kind of work environment right now at home. This isn't just me, I assume. Like, what is it about this that has shifted time so radically, specifically for people who are working from home?

Dawna: What you're seeing is the cultural veil has been pulled back, and you're seeing what time actually is now. So many things that were tied to clocks and calendars have been cancelled. So, we realize, ‘Oh! There's really — like what good are these devices right now?’ Because they were tied to things that no longer exist. Appointments that used to matter, like a doctor's appointment. And let's say my doctor might charge me if I don't show up. Now, they're saying, ‘Hey, even if that 5 minutes before, you end up, you start having the sniffles, you can cancel. The social agreement's different. It's no longer like this validity, this inherent sort of power given to the calendar and the appointment. So, we started saying the event mattered. We went back to pre-industrial time, where it was just about the event. What's happening? Is there a global pandemic? Okay. That's the event that we're paying attention to and that's driving everything.

Liz: Yeah.

Dawna: What is transpiring is that people are combining the idea of time is money with — we're basing it on the event. And we don't have many events and so, instead of that phrase we used to say, ‘working around the clock,’ we're working around no clock now. So, we are literally just working and working and working because there's no time. So, it's not the way that I, when I originally said you got to find a way to combine both pre-industrial and industrial, this isn't the direction that I hoped for.

Liz: What are some examples that you can think of, of interventions employers could make to help those of us who are working from home now really navigate this effectively and productively?

Dawna: One of the things that costs nothing that employers could do is to think reflectively about what the work day is, and what the work week is, and encourage their employees to actually work during those hours.

Liz: Okay.

Dawna: Because what people need now are boundaries because there is no clock. And so, if they, I've seen in some cases, you know, in my correspondence over the last, is it 9 months now that we've been in a pandemic. But what I've seen is people saying, you know, I won't be available outside of business hours. Like, you know, this email won't be answered, and I really like that. So, establishing boundaries on what the work day is. And so whatever that industry standard is to think reflectively about that, communicate that with the employees. Like, okay, here's our work hours, and we don't expect to see you online outside of these hours. And, if we could give people some extra flexibility during this time around various deliverables, because if, you know, something comes up around your extended family, then it's different now than it was before. And I feel, honestly, like, if we can be reflective enough in the midst of this, we could, literally, come out the other side with far more productive workplaces than we ever had. It could be really — finally — we could fix a lot of what was broken through the space to reflect and to learn, and to not pretend that we have it all figured out. Because none of us living has ever experienced this before.

Liz: I'm speaking with Dr. Dawna Ballard, associate professor in the Moody College of Communications at the University of Texas at Austin. She is an expert on time and the role of time in our work and our lives. And it has been such a pleasure to have you. Thank you so much.

Dawna: Thank you so much. It's been my pleasure.

Conclusion

Liz: I'm Liz Lewis. My thanks to my guest, Dawna Ballard for sharing her insights on the curious history, culture and science behind this time we call time, and what it means for the world of work. Thank you for listening. 

In the next episode, we'll meet Caitlyn Collins, a sociologist and author who studies how workers juggle their jobs with caregiving responsibilities at home. She'll discuss what this means for employers during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. I hope you'll join me.

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