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This Is Why Your Brain Sucks At Time Management

Distance makes the mind grow foggier.

This Is Why Your Brain Sucks At Time Management
[Photo: Flickr user will668]

I’ve been a college professor for over 25 years now. So you’d think by now that I’d be pretty good at planning out my summer. Theoretically at least, I should be fairly skilled at figuring out what I’ll realistically be able to accomplish between the end of classes in May and the start of the fall semester in August. But I’m not.

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Each year, I start the summer with high hopes, and end it having accomplished way less than I’d expected to. I blame my brain for that—here’s why.

Distances Muddy Your Mind

Our minds struggle with time management the longer the timeline we’re trying to manage becomes. There’s a lot of evidence in the psychological research that bears this out. In fact, time isn’t the only variable—your brain is wired to understand things that feel far away from you in time, space, or even your social network more abstractly than things it determines to be close to you.

This makes intuitive sense to many of us but doesn’t always factor into the ways we plan out our work. Think of it like this: When you start planning a project, its middle and end stages are farther away from you in time than its beginning, which invariably means they’ll be more abstract to you conceptually as well. But in addition, the other people you’ll need to work with on the project may have some distance from you socially, all by varying degrees—which means things can get pretty complicated fast.

Whether or not you realize it, thinking about the future abstractly (for any of these intersecting reasons), typically causes two major problems for planning. First and more obviously, you underestimate all the steps that will be involved—it just seems a lot simpler than it will likely prove to be. When I think about writing a paper, I often underestimate the number of times I’ll need to reanalyze the data from a study, or the number of new papers I’ll have to read in order to make sure that I’m current on the latest research in a certain area.

Second, you’ll probably fail to anticipate many of the specific distractions that will take you away from work. You forget about all the emails that will keep flooding in and need to be addressed. You discount the routine tasks that come up during the workweek that take up your time. You forget about how often minor emergencies happen at work that temporarily sideline your longer-term projects.

Finally, the social distance between you and other team members plays a subtle, unseen role. When the success of your project also relies on the activities of other people, you underestimate the amount of time it will take them to complete their tasks. Often, you aren’t deeply familiar with all the steps they’ll have to take in order to finish what they’ve been asked to do; you just assume those assignments are easier than they are simply because you’re not the one doing them. And even when you ask your teammates for a time estimate, their brains will behave just like yours—and underestimate the amount of time it’ll take to wrap things up.

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All this is normal, and psychologically speaking, never totally avoidable. That’s why everything keeps taking longer than you expect it to, time and again. No matter how much you practice you might have managing long-term projects, you might feel frustrated and puzzled as to why you never seem to completely master it.

Two Psychologically Sound Workarounds

But that doesn’t mean it’s hopeless. There are two things you can do to get around these mental roadblocks and manage your time more effectively. One is to tackle the time variable first: Try to mentally reduce the distance between present and future when you plan. How? Start by thinking deliberately about the tasks you need to do as specifically as possible. That may mean fleshing out hypothetical scenarios in greater detail than seems reasonable—but so be it.

Plot it all out on a timeline, and make a realistic estimate of the number of hours you’ll be able to devote to those steps amid what’s likely to be a hectic schedule. A good way to do that is to imagine that you’re scheduling the whole project for next week rather than next month or next quarter. In other words, pretend the start date and the end date are much sooner than they really are. That can help trick your brain into accounting for all the things that are likely to interfere with your progress later down the road.

Second, just build in padding to account for all of the aspects of the scheduling process that you didn’t think of explicitly. Assuming a project will take between 10% and 25% longer than you expect is typically a good place to start. It’s basically just a way of rounding up to make room for your mental blind spots in the time-management department.

With practice, you actually can get better at managing your time, even if it’s never perfect. While I routinely get less accomplished each summer than I expect to, I’m no longer disappointed by my lack of progress. I make my ideal summer plan and then assume right away that I’ll only get about three quarters of it done—then that 75% chunk becomes my plan of action. It may seem a little under-ambitious to my brain at the start of May, but it sure doesn’t by September.