Why we feel overloaded, and can it be fixed?

The real source of our frustration is signaling with "face time." 

People — and not only at work — get insulted if they are dealt with in peremptory fashion, even when the issue at hand can be resolved quickly.  Imagine a visiting professor comes to give a seminar, but you can’t find time for lunch.  Lunch would have been chit-chat anyway, but now the professor feels you don’t value his research  — or him — very much.  Can you imagine such vanity?  And if others perceive your time as important, they want it all the more.

What are some possible solutions to this problem?  After all, a day has only twenty-four hours and your face has (one hopes) only one side.

1. Pretend that some other privilege you offer (hand kisses? birthday cards?) is extremely costly to you.  Offer this other privilege in lieu of large amounts of time.

2. Pretend to be busier than you are.  Let people believe — perhaps truthfully — that everyone else receives even less time.

3. Pretend your time is unimportant.  (NB: This may involve dressing down.)  The hope is that no one will feel slighted if they don’t get much time.  Who feels slighted not to be given free thumb tacks?  But there exists another equilibrium, in which the neglected person feels all the more insulted.  After all, you are not giving away even your crummy low-value time.

4. Tell people you are autistic, or that you have Asperger’s syndrome.

I await your suggestions in the comments.


Probably no 2 is the easiest go get away with since it requires a min of effort and has a min of signal noise. No 1 requires more perfect information, no 3 requires inconsistency (since you are faculty and supposedly your time is then worth something) and probably takes more effort to "prove", whereas no 4 requires a stronger lie ie higher cost (see Gneezy's deception paper in AER 2005).

The best technique I've found -- though this works better in a midsize workplace than with your visiting professor example -- is to convince your visitor that your time would otherwise be spent working on something of more value to them than facetime with you would be.

For instance, if I am (or appear to be) working on fixing a software bug that is of particular concern or annoyance to one of my coworkers, that coworker is less likely to interrupt me (and more likely to let me interrupt him with useful questions) than if I am working on fixing a problem that is mine alone.

Moreover, this solution might even tend toward efficiency: It makes everyone at least partly internalize workplace-wide benefits of one's interruptable work and costs of facetime.

#4 works great for me

Yes, Aspergers it is. Amongst academics in many cases it would even be true. Undiagnosed of course. Not hard to fake I'd assume, but have no direct knowledge of that.

None of the others would allow one to blog that day, would they? Or post comments.

Singals that are easy to fake are meaningless. You have to make up for it by making *actual* sacrifices.

In the entertainment industry, some people with too many hands on their time cope by being extremely rude and ill-tempered. The "victims" of their abuse then have a choice of being offended, which gains them no sympathy from anybody; or, they can wear the abuse as a special distinction to brag about among their peers.

I think part of the reason I've been stuck in grad school for 6+ years is that I valued my advisor's time *too highly*, so I rarely talk to him.

People demanding face time almost always want to structure it -- in their office, in a meeting, at a meal, etc. -- so it's leisurely and escape-proof. If none of the other strategies identified here is appropriate, and it's not the Big Boss, and yet you're going to have to do it, take them up on it instantly and crisply:
--Let's talk now. Now is when I'm available.
--What would you like from me? Exactly?
Don't sit down, and have an escape route to the door.

If they go into a long story, just keep asking, Exactly what do you want? How can I help you until you tell me what you want? Maybe you want to think about it some more. Let me know when we can move it forward. Etc. Etc. You will figure out what works best with your bete noire.

If they want to tell you something complicated that you need to know, ask for an e-mail.

If they ask for something you don't want to concede, ask for time to think about it.

If they honestly just want to enjoy your company, acknowledge sincerely how nice that would be to do some day, when time and circumstances allow.

Once you have worked with the timing, it's Jujitsu. With experience, it can also be crisply and honestly courteous. Most people don't want to be a bore. They just don't know how not to.

A strange question for an economists who writes a blog inviting comments. But still the answer is straightforward: be rude and expect reciprocation.

Too busy to socialize at lunch? Sounds like poor time management. Or you just don't enjoy socializing all that much.

I used to think that just putting my nose to grind stone was the way to get ahead - then I realized that making time to network with people was essential to success. I now structure my time in ways to accomodate normal social behaviour, such as arriving at work very early and doing the work that I need to do undisturbed in the morning. This way the rest of day is free to be interrupted at will by those pesky employees, who deserve face time with me :)

Deb, would you rather Tyler use the Spivak pronouns?


I thought it was customary to allow a writer to choose the generic pronoun that matches his own gender. :)

Another thought: Reduce demand for your facetime. I've found that being boring works extremely well with all genders.

#2 works great for dating multiple people simultaneously.

Some of these suggestions are obviously meant in fun. Seriously, I would warn against any tactic that involves fraud. You will eventually be found out (like Lucky Jim and his various telephone personae), and you'll wind up looking much worse than if you were simply rude to begin with.

Comments for this post are closed