Our weird relationship with time

I did a little experiment this morning in my kitchen. I guessed how long it would take me to make a delicious breakfast of coffee and English muffins with melted cheese. My estimate was three minutes. The actual time was nine. Was this how my day was going to go?

This little tale may come as a suprise to people who know me well. Over the years, I've crafted the illusion that I am very organized and punctual. A friend of mine once said, "If you are ever five minutes late to a meeting I'm going to call the police because I know something happened." Ah, but there's one big secret to my apparent organization. I keep it real with time.

Use the Rule of 3 to Avoid Disappointment
The next time you give someone a time estimate multiply your gut instinct by three. For example, if your gut says "1 hour" then propose you get back to the person in 3 hours. If your gut says 5 minutes, propose 15. I call this the rule of three.

Why do this? Our desire to please coupled with a lack of time-awareness leads us to make unrealistic promises and sets us up for failure. If I promise I'll get back to you in an hour because I want to appear responsive, I'll look like a slacker when it actually takes me three.  On the other hand, it's likely you'll be OK with a promised response time of three hours.  And, you'll be please if I actually do respond in an hour.

Avoid the Procrastination Chain Reaction
We often find ourselves in a time crunch when we procrastinate. A time crunch increases our stress levels and may impact the quality and thoroughness of our work. High stress and low quality is a perfect recipe for poor productivity. It's a mean chain reaction.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely details an experiment where he compared the grades of three classes that had different types of deadlines to submit their papers. Here are the results:

  1. Pre-set deadlines. The class that was told when each paper was due got the best grades.
  2. Set your own deadlines. The class that was allowed to set their own deadlines at the start of the semester got the second best grades.
  3. No deadlines. The class with no deadlines at all received the worst grades.

The experiment highlights our problems not only with procrastination, but our inability to fully understand it. It also suggests that the way to avoid the pracrastination chain reaction is to set deadlines for yourself that represent incremental progress toward a goal.

Arrive Early not Late
I don't often worry about trying to get to a meeting on time because I plan to arrive early. The result of being early is I'm more focused and ultimately more productive. For example, I'm going to a meeting this evening that's about 45 minutes away from my office. Here are two ways I can approach it.

Just in Time
I could plan to leave my office 45 minutes before the meeting to arrive just in time. The problem with this plan is I might get caught up in a project, caught on a phone call, or caught in traffic on the way there. All of those situations would cause me to arrive late (annoying others) and a little stressed out.

Plenty of time
What I'll do instead is leave two hours early and drive to a Starbucks down the street from my meeting. I'll bring work with me and get caught up on a few things. Changing my environment to Starbucks will positively impact my productivity because it will refresh my mental state. I'll also be able to arrive a few minutes early to the meeting which means I'll get to do a little networking and will be in a positive frame of mind once the meeting begins.

Needs some help?

Check out our Time Management workshop. Better yet, contribute to the discussion and let me know what you do to keep it real!