Telling the time and temporal rhythms

Evidence from the MOA Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

By Clare Holdsworth, Keele University

Writing a one-day diary is a key activity of being a MOA correspondent. One-day diaries are often used in directives, including the annual request for 12th May diaries. These diaries can provide an intriguing glimpse into telling the time by analysing references to clock time included in a sub-set of diaries. This includes how clock time is recorded by MOA correspondents and daily rhythms in noting time. This analysis showcases the varied ways in which researchers can interpret the data collected in MOA diaries and their contribution to the illusive and fascinating study of time.

The Autumn 2017 directive used the one-day diary format to collect accounts of time pressure. Correspondents were asked to write about a day when either they or their partner was at work. If no one in the household was in work correspondents were asked to choose any day This directive specifically asked correspondents to recall clock times, particularly those associated with time squeeze. These dairies are particularly suitable to analyse how correspondents tell the time throughout the day.

Writing a Diary

Before we examine how MOA correspondents tell the time in the diaries it is interesting to look at how MOA correspondents write their diaries. One of the fascinating, and equally frustrating, qualities of MOA diaries is the variety of responses received. There is no standard format for submitting a MOA response. There are 137 responses to the Autumn 2017 directive, though three correspondents did not submit a diary. Of the 134 diaries, one quarter of the diaries are handwritten, and one diary is a cartoon.  The diaries vary in length from half a page to 15 pages and the modal length is 3 pages. 31 correspondents include images, all photographs except for the cartoon and one correspondent who provides two sketches. The choice of day is evenly distributed throughout the working week (10 correspondents write about a weekend, mostly Sunday), though there is a slight bias towards the start of the week, with Monday the most popular day (28 responses) and Friday the least common (20 diaries).

There is not a set way of writing a MOA one-day diary, though most correspondents adopt one of two style formats. The first format is to use a time-structured approach: the diarist divides the day into specific time points detailing activities at each time. Some of these time-structured diaries use a table format and all confirm to a stylistic devise of noting the time on the left-hand side of the page. The second format is to write a time-narrated diary in which the narrative of the day is dictated by activities rather than temporal structure. These diaries usually take the form of a long essay, though some might identify key time points in the margin. References to clock time include deterministic (activities happen because of the time, such as leaving the house to go to work) and incidental (activities happen at certain times, such as a meeting starting or finishing). A few time-narrated diaries have no specific mentions of clock time.

Of the 134 diaries collated in the 2017 Autumn directive I classify 36% as time-structured and 64% as time-narrated. There is no significant difference by gender, however age and occupation status are related to diary format (see figure 1). Older and retired correspondents are more likely to write a time-structured diary, while younger diarists and those in paid work tend towards the time-narrated method.

Figure 1 image of table showing MOA One Day Diary Format by Gender, Age, and Employment Status of Diarist
Figure 1 MOA One Day Diary Format by Gender, Age, and Employment Status of Diarist
i P value for pearson chi-square test is .61 i.e. not significant
ii P value for pearson chi-square test is 0.05 i.e. significant at 95% confidence level
iii P value for pearson chi-square test is 0.01 i.e. significant at 95% confidence level
Source: Authors’ analysis of diary format: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

Telling the Time

While the use of clock time to demarcate the day varies between the diaries there is a discernible pattern to how correspondents tell the time. In order to explore this I have extracted all references to clock time in the diaries and collated these in a database. There are 2052 clock times in the 134 diaries (an average of 15 clock times per diary). Most clock time references refer to specific times (e.g. 08.00) even if the activities written about are not necessarily happening at this precise time. Some are vague (e.g. a diarist may write ‘at about 9 o’clock’). These approximate times have been recorded as the exact time in the database. Temporal references can also be for a time period (e.g. a diarist may write between 8 and 9am) and for these both clock times (i.e. 08.00 and 09.00) are returned in the database of clock times.  Times noted more than once in the diaries were only recorded once in the database

These 2052 clock times are dominated by the 12 points of clock time (see figure 2). 96% (1970) refer to one of the 12 clock points. Of these over half, 36% and 25%, are for the hour (12) and half hour respectively (6). However the dominance of 12 and 6 for clock time is not the only pattern that emerges from this data, and the symmetry of clock time references is also striking. After 12 and 6, the next most popular clock points are 3 and 9, and these have almost identical frequencies in the database. These are followed in frequency by the remaining even clock points, 2,4,8 and 10, which all have similar frequencies, though there is a slight bias towards 10.  Finally, the least popular clock points are 5,11, 7 and 1 in declining frequency. Despite the heterogenous quality of the dataset and the different approaches that correspondents take to writing a one-day diary, it is possible to extract a symmetry in how MOA correspondents tell the time.

Figure 2 - Image of pie chart - Distribution of clock points in MOA time database
Figure 2 – Distribution of clock points in MOA time database Source: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time

Diurnal rhythms

The symmetrical recording of clock time is not the only pattern that can be identified in the dataset. It is also possible to discern a linear rhythm in the distribution of recorded time over the day. In order to analyse this, I have counted the number of discrete clock times in the database for each hour. The distribution of time points over the day is illustrated in figure 3. This analysis finds, not surprisingly that the most intensely referenced hours are 07.00, 08.00 and 09.00 respectively. This is followed by a slight lull in noting time in mid-morning (11.00), an increase around lunchtime followed by a second lull in the afternoon. More references to time points are made in the late afternoon and early evening, though this does not match the intensity of the morning rush. Evening (19.00 onwards) are distinguished by a gradual decline in time references, though there are slightly more temporal references between 22.00 and 22.59 compared to 21.00 to 21.59 because the former is the modal hour for going to bed. Further analysis of the rhythm of  time references shows that diarists not in work record a more even distribution of time during the day, while for those in work the morning peak and mid-morning lull are more discernible.

Figure 3 Image of line graph showing percentage distribution of time references in each hour period in MOA time database
Figure 3 Percentage distribution of time references in each hour period in MOA time database
Source: Mass Observation Archive (University of Sussex): Replies to Autumn 2017 directive One-day diary: organising and experiencing time


MOA diaries are very heterogenous and correspondents write their diary according to how they interpret their day. For some timing matters, for others it is more incidental. While diarists use different formats to write their diaries, there is more uniformity in how they tell the time. The symmetry of time references is striking, and it follows a temporal order: hour, half-hour, quarter to/past, ten to/past, twenty to/past, five to/past, twenty-five to/past. Mornings are more temporally referenced than other times of the day. This is partly because morning routines are more predictable and easier to recall, as well as diary writing fatigue during the day. The intensity of time references in the morning also reflects how activities at this time have to be coordinated with other household members (including pets). The MOA diaries illustrate how time pressure, and thus references to time, are a collective experience.

Clare Holdsworth is Professor of Social Geography at Keele University. Her latest book, The Social Life of Busyness, will be published by Emerald in September 2021. If you would like to learn more about her research, Clare can be contacted at

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Posted in MO (Mass Observation), The Keep

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