How’s your timing?

Men talk of killing time, while time quietly kills them.
Dion Boucicault
1820 – 1890

These days, everyone seems to be short on time. So many people here in America are multitasking constantly and sacrificing sleep, yet they can’t seem to catch up. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Or are there?

As it turns out, humans are notoriously bad at judging time; our brains simply aren’t wired for the task. A 2011 study by researchers Jennifer T. Coull, Ruey-Kuang Cheng, and Warren H. Meck observed that “There are no sensory receptors specifically dedicated for perceiving time.” And so we rely on judgment, which is inaccurate more often than not.

When asked how many hours they work each week, people routinely overestimate by ten percent or more, according to labor studies. Conversely, they underestimate the time required to complete specific tasks, even when an activity is a familiar one. The phenomenon of planning fallacy — where people underestimate the time needed for a task — has been observed in multiple studies, and it affects individuals as well as groups.

Poor time estimation leads to many problems, both personally and professionally. Overestimating the hours we work leads to feelings of stress and a perception of time scarcity: we’re left with the sense that we don’t have enough time for everything that needs to be done. Possibly these feelings increase the natural tendency towards planning fallacy; when we think we’ve got too much to do, we try to convince ourselves that we can do our work faster than ever before. But when we underestimate the time required for our tasks, we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We might complete a job in a perfectly reasonable amount of time, but because we wanted it done faster, we’re likely to feel bad about our performance. These unrealistic expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment, damaging our self-esteem in the process. We’re also more likely to over-promise results and miss deadlines — both of which can have serious consequences in a work environment.

So how can we get better at judging time? How can we combat our tendency towards planning fallacy?

One solution is to keep time logs so that you have a concrete record of how long it takes for a given task. If a task is new or unfamiliar, try to find a similar task you can use as the basis for your estimate. (You should also add buffer time to your numbers, keeping in mind that problems and interruptions can and do happen regularly.)

Another solution is to schedule your day using an hourly planner. Determine your priorities, block out time for fixed commitments like meetings or doctor’s appointments, then consider the time you have left and match the remaining slots with appropriate tasks. Recent research by Norwegian scientists Halkjelsvik and Jørgensen revealed that individuals estimate their abilities more accurately when they consider the available time first and then determine whether a task can be completed in that time.

Becoming aware of any tendencies to overbook yourself should also help you think twice before you commit to more than you can accomplish. Once all your time is allocated, just accept that whatever’s left will have to wait for another day.

I have one last suggestion — though for some of you, it may be the most important one. Sit down and truly consider where your time pressure originates. If other people are setting unreasonable deadlines for you, you need to discuss the issue with those individuals. But often, we are the ones pushing ourselves the hardest. Don’t expect superhuman performance from yourself; no one can function under intense pressure indefinitely. Ground your expectations in reality and you’ll both work better and feel better.

Everyone in life has the same twenty-four hours a day, but only you can determine how you spend your allotment. Learning to better schedule your time may take a little effort, but the peace of mind it brings you will be worth it.

Time is an equal opportunity employer. Each human being has exactly the same number of hours and minutes every day. Rich people can’t buy more hours. Scientists can’t invent new minutes. And you can’t save time to spend it on another day. Even so, time is amazingly fair and forgiving. No matter how much time you’ve wasted in the past, you still have an entire tomorrow.
Denis Waitely
1933 –

Copyright © 2015 John Chancellor and Cheryl Chancellor

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