Why time management fails


Why does time management fail? – Because we all see the allocations of time differently…we see time as either a target, a budget or an estimate.

When we go for a meal at a restaurant, we have different outlooks on the cost of the meal. Some will be trying to spend under a certain amount – they have a target in mind and if they have enough for the cab fare home instead of having to walk, that’d be a win.

Others will have a budget; they simply don’t have any more to spend and once they’re all spent, that’s the end.

Our final group have estimated how much it will cost, and the estimate often bears no relation to the final bill.

When you allocate a chunk of time to a task, how do you perceive the time allocation?   It’s worth exploring the differences to see which you default towards, as this can have an impact on your productivity and your sense of achievement, but the biggest impact is on the deliverable, and whether you will be routinely early, on time or late.

Let’s assume for all three scenarios that the task is the same, and the length of time that you allocate before starting is the same.

Target: You set yourself the target and aim to beat it. If it’s a repeated task, you’ll be aiming to beat the time you did last time around. If it’s a new task you’ll give some thought to how long you think it’ll take and all the way through be hoping you can do it in less…  What do you do as the time allocated draws near?

How does it feel?  Like a race.

What happens as the end draws near? If you can beat it, you speed up. If you’re nowhere near, you may slow down. A race that can’t be won isn’t worth entering.

How do you feel when you go over the time allocation? A failure. If this was a meal in a restaurant, you’re saving money for the cab fare home.

What do we routinely perceive this way? Routine tasks that we expect to improve at over time.

Budget: Much like monetary spend, when viewed as a budget, time is finite. There is no more, and the budget is there to prevent over-spend. Software development or problem-solving is often viewed in this way. Let’s say I’m developing a new feature for a piece of software. I budget 8 hours for its development on the basis that if it can be developed in 8 hours then it’s worth doing. It’s not worth doing if it takes longer.

How does it feel?  Initially calm and measured.

What happens as the end draws near? Pace increases in order to meet the budget.

How do you feel when you go over the time allocation? You can’t. You’re deflated that so much work is potentially wasted as you have to draw a line under this and move on to the next thing. This is turning up at a Michelin-star restaurant and having to stop after the first course.

What do we routinely perceive this way? Low-value (or limited-value) tasks, where it’s just not worth spending more time. Good enough is good enough.

Estimate: The estimate is a best-guess. Unlike the budget, the estimate may flex as we near the original limit, but it’s a conscious decision and the estimate is there to help – it guides our awareness of how long the task is taking and as the limit approaches, we can make decisions to flex other allocations.

How does it feel?  Very calm and measured.

What happens as the end draws near? Stays calm and measured. There’s no rush; more time can always be added.

How do you feel when you go over the time allocation? Like an all-you-can-eat buffet. You’re still hungry so you go up for more.

What do we routinely perceive this way? Perfectionist tasks. Where only the best will do.

It may be that you often see time in any of the three ways depending on the task, but if you’re not consciously aware of your perception, then the knock-on effects of over-spending will almost immediately lead to failures in any chosen time-management system.  If you habitually choose one over all others (e.g. always see time allocations as an estimate) then you will routinely never have enough time for all the things you’d like to do.  You may also lack the ability to be “good enough” on lower-value tasks.

Time management systems fail because we allocate the time, then fail to notice how we perceive that allocation.