Consider the following situation: you have an important meeting scheduled for next Wednesday. The client calls to say they need to move it forward by two days. What day is the meeting now, Monday or Friday? This is not simply a linguistic trick or confusion. Both answers are correct, exposing different perceptions of the passage of time and how we relate to it within space. If your answer was Friday, you experience time as something fixed that you progress through: you act upon and probably within time. If you thought the meeting must now be happening on Monday, you perceive time as a force; it is moving towards and acting upon you. Our minds interact very differently with time. This variation is seen from person to person, and when considering different states of time – past, present or future. So, how can we combine a basic understanding of time psychology with technology, to work better?
Past Time: Know Thyself
You know you have felt busy all week but the list of accomplishments seems small, where has all the time gone? With past time we do not remember objectively or completely. How did you spend every 30-minute period in the last week? What about the last month? Our memory is autobiographical, coloured, and affected by emotion, optimism and more. Technology in the digital age gives us unprecedented access to powerful tracking and analytics software. Nicholas Felton, information designer, has produced an annual report for the last ten years, tracking and presenting his personal behaviour patterns. Recording data gave him insights that he wouldn’t have had if he had just relied on personal recall. To gain an overview on the specifics of your working week, the Reporter app, also from Felton, offers a pop-up quiz on your phone that you can tailor. For example, pre-list your typical work activities, and a rating for your focus level. Or simply ask: What are you working on right now?
For detailed analytics on your online activity, try Rescue Time. It runs securely in the background on your computer and mobile devices, giving you an accurate picture of your day. You don’t have to manually input, but you can set alerts to let you know when you have spent a certain amount of time on an activity (or distracting website), and log offline activities such as meetings. Users credit Rescue Time with giving them perspective, resetting their work-life balance, helping them re-prioritise, and making them more accountable. Powerful claims. Whether you use an app or pencil and paper, gather data so you have a starting point.
Present Time: Feelings and Flow Matter
One of the most important (yet often overlooked) points about time management is that how you are thinking about time right now, triggers negative or positive physiological reactions, impacting the type of brainwork you are capable of. Put yourself in these two different states of mind: time anxiety about a deadline or procrastination.
In the first, constantly rushing and feeling that you are up against the clock triggers a series of physical stress responses in your body that put you into something approaching a “fight or flight” mode. Primitive survival instincts and decision-making come into play, squeezing out space for nuanced, complex thought. I saw this very often when I was a teacher. Rushing a classroom creates a stressed environment and you do not get their best work. So whilst occasionally being “up against the clock” creates a sense of urgent focus, the adrenalin heightened state is very bad for reasoning through complex problems and having elastic, creative thoughts. If you recognise yourself as someone who is often overanxious, led by time, and constantly watching the clock, you may be inhibiting your brain (and those you lead) from producing its best work. Just as a computer does not perform as well with multiple programmes running in the background, neither do you. Time anxiety becomes another drain on your attention, leading to less complex brain activity. Fine for basic paperwork; bad for strategy and leadership.
In the second situation of procrastination, the behaviour differs but the impact is similar. Dividing and diverting attention does not give the right kind of focus to the task, building up background panic and denying yourself the mental state of flow, where you produce some of your “deepest” work. Of course advising someone to procrastinate less is about as (un)helpful as telling an alcoholic to drink less: the self-defeating urge to procrastinate is complex, varied, and often irrational. Practicing self-awareness to identify thought processes and triggers in your behaviour patterns helps identifying the right corrective actions for you. Do you procrastinate from habit, lack of consequences or is perfectionism causing you to be overwhelmed, and delay starting? Once you identify the cause, technology can be a support.
For example, meditation apps such as Beat Procrastination aim to change your unconscious attitudes about putting things off. Lead by clinical hypnotherapist Andrew Johnson, it re-associates positive feelings with task completion, and vice versa with avoidance. For changing learned habits, plug-ins for your browser such as Stay Focused limit your time on and even block you from time-wasting websites, cracking those technology addictions. Or if you have gotten a bit too “comfortable” at work and slid into coasting mode, enlist Yale behavioural economists’ help to privately increase your productivity by threefold. On the platform Stickk you can make so-called commitment contracts and assign referees and financial stakes to up the ante. This means if you don’t complete, your money gets sent elsewhere.
For improving concentration and focus time on individual tasks, Focus@Will is a neuroscience backed music app where playlists have been scientifically remastered for focus enhancement. They have playlists for ADHD sufferers, too. Soothing the “fight or flight” mechanism, their music engages your brain’s limbic system, to increase attention span. Whilst some of the sounds feel a bit dated (the ambient channel sounding like hotel lift music in the 1990s) the tracks really do help sustain concentration. Whether you are the overanxious rusher or the procrastinator in the room, the great thing about flow is that it is like developing muscle memory. The more often that you achieve an “in the zone” productive focus, the easier it becomes to replicate.
Future Time: Predicting and Planning Accurately
Future time is about attitude. Understanding how we relate to future time biologically and mentally, helps to make better decisions at work. In the 1960s, French time researcher Michel Siffre spent two months underground in a cave in the Alps. Only contacting the outside world to tell colleagues when he was sleeping and waking, he recorded every time he felt a day had passed.
Without time indicators such as natural light, Siffre’s internal perception of time completely distorted; he thought only a few hours had passed when it had been a day and a night. However, in terms of his sleeping patterns every period of sleep and activity perfectly equalled 24 hours and 31 minutes. Before this, no one knew how body rhythms worked. This, and other experiments following, clearly signalled that there is an area of the brain functioning on internal time, that adjusts itself to the 24-hour light cycle, which means we really cannot cheat time.
This is relevant to future time, where predicting our emotions and abilities is not something we are good at. The planning fallacy, first co-proposed by behavioural economist and Nobel prizewinner Daniel Kahneman, describes how when projecting into the future, we display an optimism bias. Overestimating our resolve, ability to work efficiently, and the small amount of time things will take, we consider only the defining features of an action and not all the smaller things that too need to happen.
So, if you are extremely short of time right now, it may be because your past self had optimistic expectations and skimped on the details. The good news is, once we are aware of this phenomenon, we can try to alter our perception of future time to make better decisions. One aspect of this is moving a task from the mid or distant future to the present, where our time forecasting abilities are much more accurate. If you do not have time to take on this new project now, or could not imagine giving that speech next week, what will have to change so that it is feasible in six months time? The evidence of extended project timelines in the past is not an anomaly. Take notice. We show a hugely improved ability to judge future time for other people than for ourselves, possibly because emotion and the desire to impress exert less influence on us. Studies with students showed they consistently underestimated the timeline for completing their own thesis, but were much better at estimating it for others. So to check if your deadline is realistic, simply ask someone else. (Importantly, they should not be heavily invested in the project success, to reduce the optimism bias effect.)
Viewing Time as a Quality
Whilst we may occasionally push our body to new time sequences such as when flying, we cannot cheat or create more time. The 24-hour time cycle emanates from within our body, as do natural sustained focus periods of 90 minutes or less, within each day. When we do not respect our temporal limits, our bodies notice and suffer. Equally, much research has shown that anxiety, multitasking, and switching tasks over-exerts the brain, leading to more superficial brain activity and poor memory formation. So for time management at work, we must focus our efforts on the quality of our time. Here, I am advocating a double bluff approach: just as a teacher plans and navigates time for students so they can do their best work, you must be your own teacher and student. Observe and understand yourself. Curate and design your time, so you can remove it as a daily concern or worry and use technology where it helps you to do this. Deep engagement needs unrushed time.
Charlotte Hayne is an education specialist as well as communications consultant to NGOs and social businesses. A writer, former teacher, and social justice activist, based in Berlin and London.