My sentence on time management

by on December 10, 2008 at 7:19 am in Philosophy | Permalink

All people are equally good at time management, but some people are more willing than others to admit that they are doing what they want to do, while others maintain the illusion they wish they were doing something else.

Here are my previous posts on time management, most of all here and yes this is the single most frequent topic question I receive from MR readers.  I thank Jacqueline for the query.

Addendum: Will comments, worth reading.  My view is simple: forcing yourself to use your time better just isn’t that costly, so if you want to, you can.  What does *Getting Things Done* sell for?  That’s about its marginal value.   It doesn’t reflect a big shift in time use.

Mikko December 10, 2008 at 7:29 am

Time management is about changing yourself and becoming the kind of person that will do the things in future that you believe he should be doing rather than doing the kinds of things you know you would be doing at the time. It’s about preferring one future personality with one kind of likes and dislikes over another kind of future personality.

Inter-temporal arbitrase between today’s me and tomorrow’s (or something like that).

Colin December 10, 2008 at 7:46 am

… and some people convince themselves that what they are doing /is/ what they want to do.

Famous J December 10, 2008 at 8:56 am

I was about to disagree. I think I’m terrible at time management, since I have a tendency to get “sucked in” with things like, I don’t know, reading economists’ blogs for instance. Minutes or hours pass without me intending or even realizing it.

However, as I’m thinking about it, I’m doing exactly what I want to do right then, it’s just not what I want to do if I take a bigger picture look at all the things I could be doing.

So I think your basic point is correct. People use their time to do what they want to do. Though I think the difference isn’t entirely priorities. Some people just have different time horizons.

If I have five minutes to kill, I might decide the best use of my time is to read economists’ blogs. If I have five hours and really decide what I want to do with that time, I’ll probably leave the computer off entirely. Since, as soon as I glance at the computer screen, my time horizon drops immediately to about ten minutes.

Anonymous December 10, 2008 at 9:54 am

You could probably make the equivalent statement about money management. Both time management and money management involve budgeting self-discipline.

Some people will always be broke no matter how much money they make; other people will always be late no matter how much free time they have.

Laura December 10, 2008 at 10:18 am

I disagree. A lot of avoidant activities are not things people actually want to be doing, they are just less anxiety-inducing than other things. I don’t usually want to procrastinate via online surfing, I’d much rather go outside or see friends, but surfing I can get away with at work.

Furthermore, most of the time I do genuinely wish I were getting work done. I just get anxious in such a way that I end up doing something else to distract from the anxiety.

It is the anxious feelings I am avoiding, not the work itself.

a student of economics December 10, 2008 at 11:01 am

As Marvin Minsky (The Society of Mind) and many others have pointed out, there is no single entity that is “you”. Rather a person’s mind can be usefully thought of as a teaming, battling, cooperating, interacting society of agents. Some of the agents care about “now”; others care about the “future”. Others try to adjudicate.

This theory has overwhelming physiological evidence from fMRI scans of the brain during decision-making (e.g. Limbic systems can override temporal lobes in certain types of staged situations, affecting time preference in a predictable way — see Laibson et al.).

Thus, while it may seem to be tautologically true that each person is always doing exactly what that person “wants” to do at that moment, there is a real sense in which people are not. In fact, at least part of them would prefer to be doing something else.

Time management can be thought of as resolving these internal debates more consciously and actively.

Aaron K December 10, 2008 at 11:30 am

That’s an awful sentence to read as I’m reading blogs…

D. Watson December 10, 2008 at 11:58 am

There is an excellent Pickles comic that makes the same point. Wife complains how she never has time to do the things she wants until husband points out that “You’re so busy doing the things you want to do that you just don’t have time for the things you only think you want to do.” Only, given the shortage of space in a comic strip, he probably says it in a more pithy manner. If I spent more time getting the quote right, this post would be shorter, but my play break is over.

Tony Henke December 10, 2008 at 12:16 pm

Isn’t this idea refuted by the empirical work on hyperbolic discounting? Which says something along the lines of “People aren’t good at managing their time and people aren’t satisfying their own preferences.”

MS December 10, 2008 at 1:03 pm

It’s simple: people want differnet things at different times. Often times these things contradict each other(ex. Person A wants to smoke but she also wants to quit smoking).

Time management is mostly about delayed gratification.

beedy December 10, 2008 at 10:10 pm

I question the assumption that most people are doing what they want to do. In fact, many employed people would rather be spending their time doing something else (surfing the Web, talking/messaging w friends, reading, writing, shopping, whatever – it varies with people). Instead, people offer their time in trade to their employer in exchange for pay/benefits that are essential for modern life. One challenge for many employers is to keep such employees from surfing/ chatting, phoning friends, etc. on company time.
Even if you’re motivated, many higher-paying white-collar/ office jobs require more time-management skill (from an employee) than many lower-paying jobs (night watchman, ditch-digger, etc.) THe jobes I’m referring to involve many very different types of tasks – often, more than you can actually do in the time you have – and it can be hard to keep track of all of them. It can also be hard to prioritize – which do you HAVE to do in the next hour, which do you have to do by next week, which are path-dependent, etc? Also, you are often interrupted while working on one task – a phone call, an email, a meeting, etc. – and getting one’s attention back to task 1 and completing it is correspondingly harder. The task ends up taking more time than if you could have just stuck to it until completion. But making sure it reaches completion is harder.
Also, measuring the marginal utility of “Getting Things Done” through the book price is dubious. I’d guess that David Allen makes most of his income through corporate seminars and coaching. The book is ancillary to his main business, to which it’s a marketing tool and supplenent. Still I’d like his royalty stream.
If I were Allen I’d be worried about Google’s ever-expanding free features (Google Calendar and Tasks, e.g.). Not as much as Microsoft shd worry, but still. But Allen will be fine. These tools are wildly popular because the brain needs them to cope with modern worklife. And employers need workers to be as productive as possible with their, er… time.

Sid Knight December 11, 2008 at 10:48 am

Why would an economist deny the benefit of budget analysis when the resource is time? Would the same assumption about the nature of choice make cost-benefit analysis of economic practice equally superfluous? All people (companies, governments) are equally good at resource management?

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