Why Do Prototypical Times Affect Performance?

Christopher M Conway


Purpose. To determine whether the effect of atypical start times and/or deadlines for tasks are due to cognitive load, or may be due to underlying temporal dissonance.
Methodology. This paper develops a theoretical argument for an alternative explanation of a phenomenon observed in management research based upon a review and thought experiments about the phenomenon.
Results. In several studies, it has been found that “atypical” start times and deadlines – that is, start or end times that do not occur on the quarter-hour – result in lower performance (Labianca, Moon, & Watt, 2005; Sterling, Lopez-Kidwell, Labianca, & Moon, 2013). In the Labianca et al. work, this difference is attributed to increased cognitive load, due to the way that people are taught to tell time using analogue clocks. In the Sterling et al. work, this is extended to embrace the “punctuated equilibrium” group development model (Gersick, 1988, 1989). However, the contribution of cognitive load is assumed, and not measured in these works. Further, in general, analogue methods of presenting data improve performance rather than degrade it; since quarter-hour increments in analogue clock hands correspond to 90 degree angles, the determination of appropriate deadline and transition times should actually be easier. However, if we consider the ideas of temporal focus (Shipp, Edwards, & Lambert, 2009) and deadline awareness (a component of temporal urgency) (Conte, Landy, & Mathieu, 1995; Landy, Rastegary, Thayer, & Colvin, 1991), we see that different individuals may map non-prototypical times onto different prototypical times, based upon whether they tend to be past-focused or future-focused and how deadline aware they are. When people with differing characteristics are on a team, the result is that the team may experience a form of temporal dissonance (Conway & Limayem, 2011).
The theoretical contribution. This theory will lead to a better understanding of both why task start times and deadlines matter. More importantly, it leads to more refined conclusions about how to ameliorate the problem when necessary.
Practical implications The practical implications are that the appropriate interventions may differ based upon whether the cause for the performance differences noted is due to cognitive load or due to temporal dissonance. For instance, always setting a task to start and/or end at a prototypical time may waste time when the team does not experience temporal dissonance. Also, reducing the cognitive load may not improve performance if the issue is temporal dissonance.
Keywords: Time, time management, temporal dissonance
Paper type: Theoretical paper.


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