The obsession with time

Recently, a member of the family was given a pocket watch as a memento of a special occasion. It brought to mind the old saying that “a man with one watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches is never quite sure”. Of course, as soon as you think of something like this, you begin to notice more references to the subject, or object, in question. Sure enough, I have since been aware of the many references to ‘time’ that appear to have been popping up in many different places and in different contexts. It is only when you register such consistent occurrences and start to reflect that you realise how ubiquitous it is.

The first thing I do when a potential topic for these articles comes to mind is to look back over past articles to see if I have rambled on about it previously. In this case, appropriately enough, sufficient time has passed!

This morning, there is a bit of a chill in the still air and the sky is grey; it is a perfect opportunity to leave everything behind, even time, and to get outside. Unfortunately, this is not possible. In these higher latitudes of the northern hemisphere, autumn has arrived. Leaves are turning golden and falling to create a slippery carpet on the ground. This time of year always makes me think about the passage of time. I know I am growing old when I hear myself saying: “Where does the time go?” Tempus fugit, as my mum used to say. I can testify that the older you get the quicker the time appears to pass. Where has 2021 gone to?

Time has been in the news a lot in recent months. Obviously, the biggest story is the rapidly dwindling amount of time we have to reverse the impact of climate change. The failure to act early, when time is available, has appeared in a number of other news stories. Like climate change, they all related to imposed changes. When lockdown hit, I went from five days in the office to five days working from home. Not having a commute at either end of the day was supposed to provide more free time. Unfortunately, this was not quite the case. The switch from face-to-face to online instant messages, emails and virtual meetings appears to use up any of the potential spare time released. Now, in light of such observation, there is an opportunity to alter working practices to achieve a better balance and optimise the use of time.

Business has long been fixated on time since the start of the Industrial Revolution brought in time and motion studies. There have been any number of books on time management: how to organise yourself and activities so that you don’t get overwhelmed and can use time more efficiently. Then, of course, there is just-in-time. As we have seen, this works well until something happens that leads to just-not-in-time. A phrase that is starting to be used more in the business setting is ‘drumbeats’ for regular repetitive tasks. Another introduction to the vernacular is ‘time boxes’: breaking work up into periods of activity interspersed with regular short breaks to assist in maintaining concentration and hence productivity.

Non-destructive testing (NDT) has its own particular relationships with time. Human factors knowledge tells us that the use of time boxes would be beneficial to the application of NDT techniques. Time pressures exerted on operators to complete their tasks can have a detrimental effect on the results. The variability of humans means that some operators can actually perform better under a time constraint. The certification of operators is ruled by time. Experience criteria are denoted in numbers of years performing a task under supervision. Certification lasts for a fixed period of time and then renewal is required. In-service inspections are performed at fixed intervals.

Humans are creatures of habit and a lot of habits are time-based. We are content to fall in with the drumbeat of those habits until unexpected changes come along and we can see that they are no longer beneficial or effective.

Some fixed inspection periods have now been replaced by a risk-based approach, which focuses inspection time and resources on the most at-risk components. So, the lesson as I see it is that we regularly need to take time out to reconsider what we are doing to identify if there is a better way that would improve our life and work.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or BINDT.

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at

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