The Folly of Time Management

Time follows a path all its own, making a mess of our efforts to control it

| January / February 2003

I’ve been noticing lately how inept most of us are at judging time. A project expected to take a half day takes two full days. The meeting scheduled for two hours needs three. I mean, really: If my colleagues and I were as bad at estimating space as we are at estimating time, we’d be crashing into the furniture all the time.

And I’ve begun asking myself: What on earth is going on here? Since so many of us make the same errors so routinely, I think there’s something at work beyond our own personal mistakes—something deeper, or more basic, that has to do with the way we conceptualize time.

In examining my own experience of time, I’ve made a number of observations. The first is that time is not uniform, as the old clockwork worldview tells us, but instead unfolds in its own way—unpredictable in a daily sense, but ordered in some larger way. Time has its own topography, with all sorts of different terrain that is not marked on the maps of our calendars and schedule books. I’ve come to recognize, for example, that there are days that carry me forward like a stream going downhill: On these days every call I make connects, all my conversations are interesting, and projects I’ve been working on click together effortlessly. I try to get a lot done these days, because I know that what I start is likely to be finished successfully. Such days, you might say, are like valleys in which time flows smoothly.

But there are also rocky and mountainous days: the days when I can’t get anyone on the phone, bad news comes in the mail, and deals that were 99 percent done evaporate before my eyes. I consciously avoid making important calls or decisions on these days, and when I leave the office I drive with special caution—because I know these are times I’m more likely to have an accident or get a ticket.

Why time operates like this I don’t know, but I’ve seen it often enough in my own life and the lives of others to recognize it. Yet our culture is reluctant to acknowledge such patterns. Our inability to recognize the differences in “identical” slots of time may be, I suspect, one reason our schedules so often fail.

A second observation about time struck me one afternoon a few months back, when a fellow editor and I were facing a stack of manuscripts that needed to be edited that day. We had used up more than half our time on just one article, and we stared glumly at the remaining pile—believing, instinctively, that the best way to get through them was to plow ahead without stopping. After all, as our watches told us, we had a fixed amount of time, and a fixed amount of work to fit into that slot, so taking a break would subtract from the time available. Time is a matter of mathematics, right? But it didn’t work that way. Exhausted and stiff, we decided to take a walk along a nearby creek—and though we came back feeling slightly naughty, we also felt refreshed and clear. Much to our astonishment, we flew through the rest of the editing in an hour. The moral of the story, you might say, is that when you’re traveling the terrain of time, the shortest distance between two points may be a detour.

Anne Mulhollan
1/9/2009 10:47:14 AM

I like the original 1994 article MUCH better. This abbreviated version while true to the basic content is much less entertaining.