Nutshell: Where does the time go? Looking outside in with a time audit

Written by
Future Talent Learning

06 Jan 2020

06 Jan 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

Looking objectively at where we spend our precious time will enable us to add value in the right places.

They are clearly iconic landmarks, but what else links Sydney Opera House, the new Wembley Stadium and the Berlin Brandenburg Airport? Less positively, they’re all examples of Hofstadter’s Law, the sobering, self-referential rule of thumb that any task or project will always take longer than we expect – even when we take Hofstadter’s Law into account. So, despite the fact that we know a project will overrun, and make provision for that when planning, it’s still likely to miss even the extended deadline. 

According to cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter, we’re forever destined to underestimate the time things take. That’s why Sydney Opera House opened 10 years late, London’s new Wembley Stadium missed several completion dates before finally launching in 2007, and Berlin’s consolidated airport welcomed passengers nine years behind schedule and nearly 30 years after the initial plans were formed.

Delays on such a monumental scale might make us feel better about endless to-do lists that end up longer at the end of the day than when we started them, but they should also give us pause for thought. They’re an example of planning fallacy, an optimism bias well documented by psychologists since the concept was first suggested by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in 1979. For example, when a 1994 study asked students to estimate how long it would take them to complete their final-year theses, their average estimate was an underestimate by almost 20 days; only 30% of students completed within their predicted timeframe. 

Worse, we never seem to learn from past experience. When repeating tasks we’ve previously completed, we’re still likely to be over-optimistic about future outcomes when we ought to know that our optimism is probably unfounded. The phrase ‘wishful thinking’ seems to have been made for our inability to estimate realistic timescales, even based on past performance. 

Overcoming the bias inherent in planning fallacy is one of the foundations of time management. Mitigation techniques such as breaking down tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks, anticipating derailers (Murphy’s Law is useful here) or creating implementation intentions (concrete plans with firm commitments) undoubtedly help. Anything that supports prioritisation or focus is also to be recommended. 

Reference class forecasting

Another aspect of Kahneman and Tversky’s thinking also offers a potential route to time-management bliss. When looking at forecasting, they identified two different approaches: the ‘inside’ view and the ‘outside’ view. Most of us are inclined to take the inside view, focusing on the specifics of the task at hand and what we consider to be its unique features. Unfortunately, that leaves us less than prepared for the inevitable obstacles, delays and interruptions. “Your plan is the ‘best case story’ and you’re anchored to this,” warns Kahneman.

We usually make better predictions when looking from the outside in, taking into account what actually happened with similar projects and tasks in the past. This expands our frame of reference and allows us to pick out trends and patterns. 

One way to use historical precedent like this is known as reference class forecasting, a step-by-step process that involves comparing a current project or task with similar ones previously completed. For example, if we’re thinking about writing a new book, we might estimate that by working on it for two hours per day, it should take us around two years. A wiser approach would be to look at how long it took other authors with the same constraints to write similar books and discovering the average time commitment is more like seven years.

In addition, the ‘prospective hindsight’ gained via ‘pre-mortem planning’ can help us to avoid planning fallacy. This involves projecting ahead to the point at which a project has failed and then working backwards to identify what has led to that failure – and the consumption of time along the way. 

Conducting a time audit

While the painstaking comparative approach of reference class forecasting makes it especially appropriate for large-scale projects, it can also be adapted for looking at our own time-management practice. 

As leaders, we’re subject to competing demands on our time that can sometimes seem impossible to juggle. We all know that feeling of looking at the clock and realising it’s almost the end of the working day; just where has that time gone? Or we may have spent the day ping-ponging from task to task, engaged in what the writer James Clear calls “half-work”

Often, though, there’s quite a discrepancy between how we think we spend our time and how we actually spend it. We’re also victims of our own planning fallacy, trying to cram too much into each day – often via multitasking, which simply fractures our attention, depleting the neurochemicals required for focus.

Carrying out a time audit is a simple way to unpick all this. The aim is to identify exactly how we’ve used our time in the past – with a view to using our better understanding as a frame of reference for how we might manage our time better in the future. 

The first step is to record how we really spend our time for a nominated period – usually a week. Using fairly short time slots – say 30 minutes or an hour – make a brief note of how you spend each slot during each day. Once you have the data, you can then analyse and learn from it, taking the ‘outside-in view’ and picking out trends and patterns as you go. 

The analysis could take a variety of forms, but one way would be to divide how time was spent into categories, such as: 

  • Very important: tasks where we can personally add value and where we should be spending most of our time.  
  • Not particularly important: tasks that need to be done, but are not great value adders and should be minimised as much as possible.
  • Unimportant: things we shouldn’t spend our time on at all.

We then need to ask ourselves some questions – and to answer them honestly: 

  • Where are my time drains? For example, do I really need to check my email inbox quite so often? 
  • Could I be stricter about being available for my people all the time? 
  • What would happen if I stopped doing a low-value activity altogether? 
  • What more could I delegate
  • How can past experience inform my estimates of how much time things might take in future?
  • How can I avoid distractions better? 
  • How can I shift my emphasis from less important to very important tasks?

Chances are that the audit will show we’ve allowed very little time for thinking and reflecting, something we should bear in mind in any new scheduling. 

Like all time-management techniques, the time audit is not without its detractors. Journalist Oliver Burkeman neatly summarises its potential shortcomings when he suggests that looking at the detail of how we spend our time only heightens our self-consciousness around managing it, our helplessness as the minutes tick relentlessly by; “the supposed cure just makes the problem worse”. With many tasks, he recommends trying the “ready, fire, aim” approach, and correcting course as we gain real feedback along the way.

Burkeman has a good point. But there are still only 24 hours in a day. Time management is simply about how we re-allocate or re-distribute that precious time. As a leader, this means making some tough decisions about where and how we can most add value. Looking more objectively at how we spend our time, using real data from the past rather than relying on our (probably over-optimistic) intuition, might just help us to gain the focus we need.  


Test your understanding

  • Explain what is meant by ‘planning fallacy’ and ‘reference class forecasting’.
  • Outline the steps involved in conducting a time audit at work.

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider how you use your time at work, and how a time audit might help you to deploy it more effectively.


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