5 Things You Don’t Realize About How You Spend Your Time

Getting more out of every day with the help of productivity apps, Tibetan Buddhism, and simulating the workflow of an ER.

5 Things You Don’t Realize About How You Spend Your Time

In his book Wait, Frank Partnoy gives us a question to preface any decision we make: What time-world are you living in?


Why? Because decisions, like fruit, ripen at different times: Some are prodigious, begging for actions made at Twitter-speed, while others do better later in the season, like the big-picture questions that help you plan envision a company or plan a career.

“Time is a huge aspect of work,” he told us, “and that managing delay, rather than having delay manage you, can help people make better decisions and lead more successful and happier lives.”

So without any further delay, here are five ways to better understand how we spend our time.

1) The closer we are to finishing, the more motivated we get

“One’s motivation to reach a goal increases as one’s distance from the goal decreases,” Heidi Grant Halverson writes in HBR.

It’s the Goal Looms Larger Effect: The closer you are to a goal, the more it dominates your thinking and receives more of your ever-more-scarce attention–which is why mice closer to cheese or salespeople close to sales goals or reporters closer to deadline suddenly get so dedicated.


So we can pull apart the deadline into smaller ones. This the art of turning abstract dreams into daily actions–a discipline that takes training. Thankfully, apps like Any.DO, Everest, and Lift can provide that motivation-summoning structure.

2) Where does procrastination come from?

It’s old news that we all put things off. But what’s interesting is why. In our excerpt of Wait, Partnoy tells us:

Procrastination is closely related to impatience. Their kinship is based on our bias toward the present over the future. Both are examples of the human tendency to over-discount future events. In both impatience and procrastination, we overweight the immediate. The main difference between the two is whether the immediate thing we are over-weighting is a benefit or a cost. When what is immediate is a benefit, we are impatient gluttons, overindulging and consuming more than we should. But when what is immediate is a cost, we are procrastinators, putting off activities we should get done today.

So how do we hedge against the over-discounting?

Maybe by recognizing that the future will someday occur–and that what we’re doing today will shape that tomorrow.

Some traditions take this to heart: The prime preliminary practice of touchy-feely Tibetan Buddhism is a reflection on death. The more aware you are of your fragile mortality, the thinking goes, the more urgent your your best work will feel.


3) What’s the value of procrastination?

Procrastination isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Partnoy reports that only in the 1970s did it become a bad word as decision researchers started telling us that we needed to get everything done right away. This might be true if you’re immersed in implementation, but less so as you get higher up:

One of the interesting things I found from interviewing C-suite officials was that as you get higher up in an organization, they won’t call it procrastination, but they become much, much more comfortable with delaying decisions. Someone comes to them and says we need to do this right now and the calm CEO–who has seen these crises before–will say we don’t need to do anything. Let’s put this off.

It’s sort of like how an ER works, letting a case bubble up to the top, and only acting when it’s so bad, the patient is screaming, you ask them what the pain is, if it’s an 8, you don’t have to do anything, but if it’s a 10, you should.

In other words, task management, like email, is a matter of triage.

4) We have no idea how long anything takes

Beware the best-case scenario: Trusting that the trains are going to run on time or that you won’t get stuck in traffic is one of the main reasons for why we’re always late. We don’t take into account that things will go wrong.

The thing is, things going wrong has much more extreme consequences than things going right. How so? Nassim Taleb uses the following example in Antifragile: Think about airline travel. If you experience a positive change, like arriving early, you’ll get in with a 10- or 20-minute differential, but if you experience a negative change, like a delay, the differential can stretch out well beyond 20 minutes–as in hours and cancellations.

In short, when things go right with time, they go pretty right; but when things go wrong, they go really, really long.


5) Build a temporal mindfulness

Still, it’s not that we should always be delaying our decisions or always be acting as soon as possible–either of those would sacrifice critical thinking to unexamined orthodoxy. Instead, we need to be mindful of what kind of time we’re taking.

“This whole notion of understanding what time-world you’re living in is a flexible concept,” Partnoy says. “It’s not that we always want to wait, it’s that we want to understand what the relative time context is.”

Hat tip: HBR

[Image: Flickr user Phil Gradwell]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.