Edward T. Hall, renowned anthropologist and international business consultant, and his partner, Mildred Reed Hall, researcher, coined the terms Monochronic Time and Polychronic Time. Monochronic Time (Mono-time) is having a laser-sharp, intense, narrow focus on one thing at a time. By contrast, Polychronic Time (Poly-time) is having an open focus on several aspects of the present moment. Mono-time follows a linear motion of time that is measured by a clock (matter-motion). Under this concept of time, the achievement or the end result becomes the focus of whatever action is taken. Mono-time is quantifiable. In other words, it measures what you have accomplished in a given amount of time. Many people, if not most, follow linear or Mono-time.
The active characteristics of Mono-time include using “to-do” lists, prioritizing, goal setting, daily planning, scheduling appointments, delegating, supervising, and so on. These characteristics are necessary components of time management and help you achieve your personal and career goals. However, if you narrowly focus on these external components, you may leave out connecting to any internal components like your emotional self. Instead, you’ll become restricted to an achievement-focused mentality. Having an achievement-focused mentality creates what we refer to as: “a work-home split.” Hard-working people come home and ruminate about their days’ work or anxiously forecast tomorrows’ work. Consequently, they aren’t available to mindfully spend time with family or friends.
This dichotomy between work and home prevails because, in our society today, we live with two codes of conduct; one is based on the work discipline, and the other is based on the freedom of leisure. For example, Dean, a stockbroker, has an appointment in his scheduling book each weeknight at 5:30 to be with his son, Jimmy. This time is set aside so they can go over Jimmy’s homework together. But, promptly at 6:00 Dean moves to “his next appointment,” which is in the living room, where he rushes to check the stock market status on the news. After many interrupted homework sessions, due to the 6:00 news, Jimmy angrily tells his dad, “I’m just another item to checkoff your ‘to-do’ list!”
When days become too constrained or over scheduled, “rapport visits” become “report visits” and the spontaneity and quality of life are sacrificed. As in Dean and Jimmy’s case, healthy relationships with loved ones may also be sacrificed in the process. For this reason, life continually lived in this manner can feel robotic and empty, and may be undermining peoples’ physiological balances. For instance, they find themselves feeling guilty when they take a break because they’ve prioritized their achievements instead of looking at their overall well being.
Having a narrow focus on external productivity along the Mono-time line can lead to struggles with perfectionism and workaholism. Workaholism is a compulsive and relentless need to work, often in an attempt to avoid or distract from emotions/feelings. In our culture, workaholism is rewarded and respected. In fact, the glamour of wealth, power, and possessions keep many people going nonstop to check off the items on their “to-do” lists. And this is where poly-time comes in again and adds a third element to the matter-motion of monochronic time: emotion.
Essentially, when emotional awareness is added to your system of time management you will learn to balance the parallel processing of Poly-time with the serial processing of Mono-time in order to increase stress resilience. And even though there may be no quantifiable outcomes in Poly-time—the quality of being (that comes from connecting to yourself and others) is of great internal value. For this reason, the ability to switch between Mono and Poly modes of time helps to break unhealthy, compulsive patterns of workaholism.
When both of these systems are honored, you’ll be exiting from the stress and burnout treadmill. Instead, you can use your time wisely and have a “good life” in your lifetime. In our model, having a good life is not just having power, possessions, and money. Simply put, a good life includes having: a sense of control of your time, a sense of competence, personal meaning associated with your life, and social support/connectedness to others—belonging.
Mismatch Between Monochronic & Polychronic Time
When people operate mainly in Mono-time, they disconnect from the perception of their own internal physiology, and relationships with others. This is because the part of the brain that processes the context is repressed. Context, in this discussion, refers to the meaningful information that surrounds an event. So, Mono-time and Poly-time people are considered either low-context or high-context. For example, high-context people connect deeply with others; they intuitively listen and take in detailed background information about the other person.
Traditionally the Arabs, Indians, Japanese, French, and Latin American people are considered high context. As you might imagine, Poly-time aligns with a high-context orientation. By contrast, low-context people compartmentalize their relationships with others. Basically, they keep personal relationships separate from their work relationships. This means they don’t share personal information in business relationships. North Americans, Germans, and candinavians come from a low context orientation. Low-context people don’t want broad spectrum knowledge of others because they’re operating from Mono-time. In today’s global culture, at least in the business and intellectual domains, the prevailing “default” is low context Mono-time. Mismatches and conflicts can occur when people aren’t operating in the same time mode. For example, the physician is in a hurry (Mono-time), but the patient wants to chat (Poly-time), or, the sales person rushes to “close” the deal (Mono-time) and ignores the prospect’s desire to get further acquainted (Poly-time).
Our suggestion, regarding incongruities that stem from lack of synchrony between Monotime and Poly-time, is to be sensitive to other peoples’ time modes. Don’t ignore the differences or try to convert someone else to your time mode. Accept the person’s choice and simply honor that “people are different, not difficult.”