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The role culture plays in how people manage their time

Time is a scarce commodity and luckily we all have the same amount of it. Some leaders make time work for them; some don’t. Time management is an essential foundation of self-discipline; either you have it or you don’t, even if you keep trying to improve.

While we judge people on their time management, time management has a cultural angle. Countries tend to be punctual or have a culture of flexible hours. Switzerland, Holland, Denmark, Finland, the United States and Japan are point cultures. These cultures see time as linear, and they organize time well to work for the individual and society. In the United States, Japan and Switzerland, arriving on time is considered late. Most Northern European multinationals find it difficult to deal with their Indian subsidiaries on the issue of time.

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In Japan, the Shinkansen bullet train is, on average, about 36 seconds late. Once, when the Shinkansen bullet train left 30 seconds before the scheduled departure time, the company issued an apology. Whenever the Shinkansen is delayed even for a few seconds, the driver and the Shinkansen conductor bow and apologize to each passenger. In Switzerland, all the coffee shops are full at 4 p.m. because everyone tends to take a break at that time. Dutch children learn to establish study and play schedules in primary school.

Flexible cultures see time as fluid; time in these cultures is an event and depends entirely on the person, while society does not value it. Many in Africa and Asia (including India) see time as fluid. In these cultures, at every event, every speaker profusely thanks the main guest for spending their precious time on the event, which itself is a waste of time, in a way.

Edmund Hall, anthropologist and author of The Silent Language, notes that time is a silent social marker in flexible cultures. People of higher rank or from higher economic or social strata tend to lag behind, and society accepts this as normal. Coming/being late is not a problem if you are the boss. In Delhi, if you are on time for an event or a dinner, you are perceived as having little to do or being relatively unimportant. The Finnish Ambassador to India used to start dinner at 7:30 p.m. at all her embassy events, whether guests showed up or not.

Why are so many leaders such poor time managers? I can think of a few reasons for my observation: First, they can’t say NO, and so their schedule and day are constantly changing. Second, they are perfectionists and go to great lengths to get the other 5%. It takes too long and drains their people. Should a leader aim for such perfection?

The third is procrastination. Some leaders can’t decide, so they send their teams and ecosystem partners on a 20-question chase.

Fourth, the leader may be lazy and not care about being on time. Fifth, leaders can be ill-prepared; I have seen less than 5% of leaders in India being fully prepared for a meeting. The sixth reason is that leaders like to put things off. They see no reason to close anything.

If you’re a bad time-management leader, you need exceptional social skills to get people to support you. If you’re cocky and consistently late, it’s a recipe for people to moan behind your back and forget about you and your legacy the day you’re not in the role.

India is funny when it comes to time management. Bhaskar Bhatt, the former CEO of Titan, often said, “I am surprised to sell so many watches in a country that is always behind.

As Indians, we want food delivery, medicine delivery, plane take off and landing all on time. Digital has made us impatient with the times. The moment we send a message, we look for proof that it has been read. India has a higher proportion of Bcc couriers than most of the top 10 economies. Indians tend to tag everyone on mail, some cc-ed and a lot bcc. We want to be in every email loop, whether it’s useful or not, and that in itself is time-consuming and distracting.

Live TV has changed the game; all the participants of the show arrive on time because they don’t want to be left behind or don’t want the audience to see an empty chair.

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So will things one day change in countries with flexible cultures? Yes, I predict that digital technology will make flexitime culture countries better time leaders, because monetizing time is an important revenue stream in any digital business model.

Shiv Shivakumar is the bestselling author of The Art of Management published by Penguin Random House India.


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