The Folly of Time Management

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

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.

We might learn to see that beneath the urgency of our
machinelike days–filled with to-do lists and rigid schedules with
which we “manage” time–there is something else at work: a rhythm, a
movement carrying us along, and we move with it, whether we realize
it or not.

Utne first ran this story in our Jan/Feb 1994 issue. It was
originally excerpted from
Business Ethics (Jan./Feb.
1993), soon to become a publication about economic democracy.
Subscriptions: $49/yr. (6 issues) from
,Minneapolis,MN55408. Marjorie Kelly is the founder and editor
Business Ethics and the author of The Divine Right
of Capital: Dethroning the Corporate Aristocracy
(Berrett-Koehler, 2001).

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