Time and Identity: What Your Clock Says About Your Personality

It’s always running out. Some ways to make the most of what we have left.

alarm clock

Vintage alarm clock, Ellen Lupton, 2009


How you deal with time is part of your identity. Are you a morning person or a night person? Are you always late or always early? Do you have a strong sense of each minute passing or do you lose yourself in activities–walking, talking, sleeping, shopping–and forget what day or hour it is? The answers are personal, but the behavior is social. When you’re running late, it’s often for an engagement involving other people: getting to work, meeting a client, picking up your kids from camp.

I didn’t start wearing a watch until I was almost thirty, but I was rarely late because I always knew where clocks were stationed in delis, banks, and coffee shops. For centuries, church bells have signaled the passing of time; the bells are still tolling where I live in Baltimore, reminding the neighborhood every 15 minutes that time is, indeed, marching on. I recently hung an outdoor clock on my shingled garage as a civic offering to the countless morning dog-walkers who frequent our quiet street. Marking time is a social act.

outdoor clock

Outdoor clock


Today, many people have decided to keep time with cell phones or PDAs instead of wristwatches. Most of these devices need to be woken up before you can check the time–a clumsier and more obvious action than glancing at your watch during a sleep-inducing seminar or sales pitch. The same people who use their iPhones as clocks are also likely to check their email during a dreary meeting or dull dinner date. The posture of someone “secretly” texting from under the table has become an indelible icon of distraction. We can’t hear it, but we can certainly see it.

M and Co. clock

Onomatopoeia wristwatch, designed by M&Co, 1984

Some of us remain addicted to analog. Ruth Patkin, founder of NYC communications company Cowgirl Media, wears her Onomatopoeia wristwatch to work every day as an ever-present icon of creative possibility. Designed by M&Co, the watch substitutes tiny drawings for some of its numbers: a tree for three, a hand for five, a cat for nine, an egg for twelve. Patkin calls the watch a “magic talisman to call forth the genius of Maira Kalman [the M in M&Co] and ward off evil, uninspired thinking.” The concrete, visual character of analog time-keeping helps keep her on schedule. “It’s easier when I can actually see the hands moving around the circle, the minutes passing before my eyes.” She also appreciates the low-tech visibility of printed wall calendars and her vintage black leather Filofax.


Green Sand hourglasses, CB2

Hourglasses are making a come-back as design objects. This one from CB2 does away with old-fashioned framing elements–it’s all clear glass and green sand, styled after a chemistry lab beaker. In the latest Harry Potter movie, there’s an hourglass that slows down when the conversation is interesting and speeds up when it starts to drone. Try programming that into your Blackberry. In short, time is always running out. Here are some slogans and sayings for making the most of the time we’ve got left.

Better never than late. This reversal of a familiar maxim comes from my friend Edward Bottone, a chef and food writer who cultivates old-school manners in our increasingly coarse and brutal age. Another friend (who will go unnamed) says that you aren’t really late until ten minutes past the appointed time. Such staggered beginnings quickly get absorbed into a business culture (especially if it’s the boss who is always late).


Life is long. The slogan “life is short” is a reminder to try new things and put mistakes behind you. My friend Claudia Matzko prefers the phrase “life is long.” This successful artist and mother of four switched careers when she was in her late 40s, going to law school and starting a new life. (She also divorced her husband and found a fabulous new mate at age 51.) While some of us obsess about leaving youth behind, others are working on a long, productive Chapter Two.

Under an hour. Why are so many meetings scheduled for a full hour? You can have meaningful exchanges in twenty minutes, or twelve minutes, or even four-and-a-half. It’s commonplace to start an hour-long meeting ten minutes late and let it run ten minutes over–and yet you could have finished the whole thing in the time spent waiting for everyone to show up. When meetings are necessary at all, try scheduling them for 2:20 instead of 2:00. People take specificity more seriously.

Don’t do lunch. Chronic lunch meetings (even without the three martinis) are a source of permanent time loss. The so-called working lunch is padded with small talk and menu chatter. Often people ask to meet for lunch because they have a favor to ask, and they hope that the Chicken Caesar will soften the blow. Suggest tea instead, or just a phone call.


Love your deadlines. On a recent international flight, I met an Egyptian woman who was traveling from Cairo to a conference in D.C. for romance writers. Under the pen name Olivia Gates, she writes three to six Harlequin romances a year. Gates loves working against the clock, and she said that much as she loves to write, she would never give up her day job because creativity thrives in close spaces. (Her other career? Opthalmic surgeon.) Whatever you might think of her literary product, you’ve got to admire her discipline.

I’ll close with a final word about one of my favorite activities: procrastination. Everyone does it, and it’s a common source of shame and anxiety. Think about it this way: as soon as you begin fretting about not facing up to a dreaded task, you have actually begun working on it. You’re gathering ideas, forming a strategy, sharpening your weapons. Delay is inevitable, so make the most of it. Procrastination won’t hurt you as long as you start early.

This week, Ellen Lupton is exploring the Visibility Principle.
Whether you manage a big office or run your own show from home, you can
use it to enhance your productivity.


Read more of Ellen Lupton’s Design Your Life blog
Browse blogs by other Expert Designers

Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National
Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA
program at Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore (MICA). An
author and illustrator of numerous books, articles, and blogs on
design, she is populist critic, frequent lecturer, and 2007 AIGA Gold
Medalist. Now working on Cooper-Hewitt’s 2010 National Design
Triennial, Lupton also co-curated the museum’s current sustainability
exhibition, Design for a Living World. Ellen Lupton’s latest book,
Design Your Life: The Pleasures and Perils of Everyday Things (2009), is co-authored with her twin sister, Julia; and her books Indie Publishing: How to Design and Produce Your Own Book (2008) and D.I.Y.: Design It Yourself
(2006) are co-authored with her MFA students. Baltimore-based Lupton
and husband Abbott Miller, a partner in the design firm Pentagram, met
as students at The Cooper Union and collaborate on books, exhibitions,
and their kids Jay and Ruby.


About the author

Ellen Lupton is curator of contemporary design at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York City and director of the Graphic Design MFA program at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore. An author of numerous books and articles on design, she is a public-minded critic, frequent lecturer, and AIGA Gold Medalist.