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Have you ever thought "this meeting could have been an email"? My first job involved spending at least 5 hours of the day in meetings. Although the average time an individual can fully concentrate in a meeting is 13 minutes, the ‘urgent’ priorities my former boss set in the rapidly dwindling workday gave me an invaluable insight into the misuse of time. Douglas Hofstadter, the noted polymath, came up with a law describing the problem of overestimating what we can do with limited hours:
“It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
This is commonly known as the planning fallacy and is a cognitive bias that seems especially pertinent in the working world. Now if ever something proved this point, it was me looking up whether I was related to Douglas Hofstadter for a full 7 minutes while writing this article (in short, probably yes, but it’s too far back to be hopeful about my future children getting a Nobel prize). However, my situation is far from unique, it seems no matter the industry people are terrible at estimating time with 85% of projects not running on time or budget.
So knowing that we’re all susceptible to miscalculation and misuse of time, how do we use the tools available to make our time work for us?
Nir Eyal in his brilliant book “Indistractable” shows a fundamental distinction between time used as “traction” and “distraction”. Where time used in traction is propelling you towards something you want to achieve, distraction is moving you away from it. He recommends abandoning the distracting to-do list and instead, building your own weekly timeboxed schedule.
His reasoning for this is that do you know anyone who’s ever finished the tasks on their to-do list? By adding ‘urgent’ tasks to a list rather than focusing on what’s important you can perpetuate a negative self-image. Especially if the tasks you dislike are perpetually put off to tomorrow. Time spent where you feel like you have a never-ending list of priorities is time wasted. This neatly brings me to my next point.
As David Ogilvy said, “Give me the freedom of a tight brief!”. Knowing what you need to do and when is liberating. In “A Beautiful Constraint”, Adam Barden reports that children in an unfenced playground are more likely to play in the middle together whereas those in a fenced playground make full use of the space. I would not know as I was most likely in the library.
Taking this concept to a higher level are the authors of the aptly named “Make Time”. Two former Google designers share their strategy on how to use a simple method to push back against the temptation to engage in futile “busyness” and a never-ending stream of content, what they deem “the busy bandwagon” and “infinity pools” of content refreshing apps. They recommend reflecting daily on what energizes and motivates you and when you feel your time was wasted.
An integral part of their method is rejecting society’s desire to pull us in a hundred different directions preventing meaningful progress in one. Instead, they suggest laser- focusing on a single highlight and making sure to protect time around it. Agile methodology similarly recommends short meetings with equal time allocated to speakers to focus so the entire team has clarity of focus. If you’re proactive about what you want instead of reactive to other peoples’ desires, you don’t look back and think where did the day go?
This is complemented by creating an environment that allows us to design our time for pleasure, purpose, and if you’re really lucky both. Paul Dolan calls this the pleasure-purpose principle which he lays out in “Happiness by Design”. He explains that there are both pleasurable and purposeful activities in peoples’ lives and a balance of both is needed for long-term life satisfaction. Nobody says having teenage children is pleasurable, but people do find purpose in it. By evaluating what matters, we can structure our time around what is important to us and hopefully spend less of it checking email, something we spend a third of our working day doing.
Speaking of checking email, it’s sometimes easier than writing and I find myself surprisingly absorbed by webinar invitations. Just as Superman has kryptonite, we all know our capacity to seek distraction can be enhanced by certain factors, particularly boredom and technology. Cal Newport suggests that when using technology we work backward and “transform these innovations from a source of distraction into tools to support a life well lived.” Technology has the potential to enhance our lives, but sometimes we forget that it serves us, not us it.
Since there’s no getting around that many apps and features are deliberately designed to take as much of our time as possible, we should put safeguards in. By preventing ourselves from accessing technology at certain moments through free apps such as Self-Control and Forest, we can choose to end technology’s distraction at inappropriate moments. After all, will anyone on their death bed say I wish I was on Twitter more often?
However, unlike technology’s mixed blessings, if there is one thing that is an absolute time suck it is the delusion that you can or should multi-task. It takes on average 23 minutes 15 seconds to regain focus after being distracted and people switch tasks every 10.5 minutes. Even better, when the author of this study was interviewed by Fast Company she admitted to checking email while being interviewed.
This begs the question, "if we’re constantly task-switching what is happening to our capacity for deep thought?" I wonder if Einstein had been forced to have an email account would his long walks have been so fruitful?
Now we can all easily see that our phone distracts us, but let me focus on something which is an equivalent but the more abstract enemy of our time and deep thought — groupthink. The poor solutions created by homogenous groups produce worse outcomes and ultimately cost us time that could be better spent.
The king of behavioural economics himself, Daniel Kahneman, fell victim to this when designing a curriculum. The group of academics he worked with believed that developing a curriculum would take around 2 years, whereas the dean who had also estimated that the project would take 2 years when asked by Kahneman said that similar projects took 7 years.
The project took 8 years and led Kahneman to coin the terms “inside view” and “outside view”. When people are in roughly the same job and following the same methods it is easy to form a homogenous viewpoint, the “inside view”. Whereas outsiders often have a clearer perspective on the issue and different experiences.
Kahneman advocated a process developed by Gary Klein called a “pre-mortem” where a group is asked to imagine what their reasons for failure might be if there were a plan to address the fails in a year's time. Before a plan is agreed on, you would see potential pitfalls people may be hesitant to voice.
7. Sunrise to sunset — be aware of your body clock
I sincerely believe that in many respects, the most tyrannical invention was the electric lightbulb. They were integral to the industrial revolution as they allowed workers to work longer hours, often in dark unsanitary places. This subsequent exploitation of labour inspired Das Kapital and left factory workers in Liverpool with an average age of death of 15.
John Maynard Keynes anticipated that at this point in the 21st century that work would be automated and the majority of the week would be devoted to leisure. Yet, for most countries in the world, we’re facing the same issues as Marx and Engels. Nonetheless, if anyone knows a job that fits Keynes description, please send it to me.
Still, we still celebrate time at work at a cost to both business and the individual. If we’re present but not engaged how can people think deeply about problems or make time for friends and families? By saying that the system is not wrong, but the individual is, society is making people unhappy and wasting everyone’s time.
There are three criteria I look for when I see someone mention positive psychology as part of their job description:
If any of the above answers are a yes these charlatans can shove their jade eggs where they don’t belong. Having said that, there are good people earnestly striving to create a better society.
One of these is Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, who offers pertinent advice on how to face life’s inevitable challenges. He calls it the three blessings exercise and has been doing it himself for over 15 years as well as working with the US Army and school system. It’s simple and free. He suggests thinking of three things every day that you’re grateful for and making note of them. He calls the process addictive, and it seems one of the rare addictions that is good for you.
Laurie Santos similarly has created Yale’s most popular course by putting into practice ways to improve our own well-being. A key highlight of her teachings is the “G.I. Joe” fallacy where she explains we mistake the fact that we know something is good for us for our ability to implement it. Like Seligman, she recommends to students to forming positive habits by picking something they’d like to implement and sticking to it for four weeks. I am currently staring at my unused Yoga mat thinking this is good advice.
By being aware of our mind’s own traps we can prioritize how we want to spend our time and not be on autopilot with bad habits.
Someone who similarly made their living by noticing the quirks of human behaviour is Jerry Seinfeld. He credits his success to a system he calls “Don’t break the chain”. Every January, he hangs a large calendar on his wall, and for every day he writes new material, he had the exquisite pleasure that can only come from drawing a big red “X” over that day on the calendar. By building momentum, it becomes harder to break a habit.
However, Jerry Seinfeld was not writing material for the sake of it. He wanted to be a good comedian - a key part of his identity and something that could only come from a variety of jokes. James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, wrote a great book about habit formation which seems to make an appearance at book clubs around the world in January.
Clear explains that the key to building better lasting habits is focusing on your identity first. There are two steps.
By focusing not on outcomes but on our identity, we can take pride in progress not fixate on perfection. Clear makes vivid that by focusing on “small wins” exponential growth occurs so that if you improve at one thing 1% every day you’re 37 times better that year. Imagine how much free time we’d have if we improved our time management by a factor of 37 in one year.
To conclude, there are myriad intrusions on our time, but by being aware of our own biases and fallacies we may catch ourselves before getting distracted from what’s important. That being said, Laurie Santos is right in that knowing what we should do and implementing our intentions are two very different things.
I appreciate trying to create a standard vision of time management techniques without recognizing the variation in individual schedules and offices can only ever be part of the equation. There is no one size fits all solution for people with different financial pressures, work demands, parental demands, and interests. Nevertheless, there are many elements of the studies I’ve come across that hold value whether you’re in London or Lagos.
For lack of a better word, it’s time we recognized the value of the hours in our day and guarded them the way we would our finances, our home, and our health. If we do not take control of our time then someone else will.
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