It‘s obvious to most of us that time is a precious resource. Unlike others, it is finite and non-renewable. When we get to a certain point in our philosophical development, we begin to face the fact that we won’t live forever and that our lives as human beings has an inescapable quality: it is marked by an unknown expiry date.
This realization hits us at different times, and perhaps it occurs as a slow, creeping acknowledgment for most. As we live our lives with this concern in the background, we experience a growing urge to make the best of what we have. That is, we try to optimize our lives.
Mathematical optimization is a field of study that has existed for at least a century. It’s inhabited by operations researchers, management scientists and other applied mathematicians. However, their tools are normally applied to physical objects or physical activities in time.
In Perfect Time-Based Productivity I take the concept the step further, but state that human beings are caught in a tangle of misnomers and misunderstanding. That is, we know that we want to make the best use of the time we have been given. Specifically, at the end of every day, week, month and year we want to be able to look back on the time elapsed with satisfaction and give ourselves a passing grade. The same applies to the last few minutes of life.
However, we have a problem. While we want to optimize our use of time, something is broken which leads us into a state of confusion.
Time Cannot be Managed
Dr. Brigitte Claessens is an Assistant Professor at Radboud university in the Netherlands and she’s one of the foremost researchers in the area of time management. Quite fittingly, she’s in the Psychology Department where she has created waves with her bold assertion that “Time cannot be managed in any sense.” She’s not the first person to make that claim, but she is the first academic of note to pull together her knowledge from a number of fields to state the finding in plain terms. It’s stark, unequivocal stance does more than provoke: it brings into question all the work that has ever taken place in the field. (In the 2Time Labs InnerLab we are conducting a year-long research effort examining this assertion.)
If she (and others) are right, then humans have been looking for all the right answers in the wrong places. And it won’t be the first time.
Weight management, for example, isn’t accomplished by trying to manage weight directly. Instead, we all know that it’s accomplished by jointly managing our food intake and level of exercise. In the language of mathematical optimization, there is an objective function which maps calories consumed and calories burned onto the results shown on our bathroom scale, measured in pounds or kilos.
The same is true for time optimization. We have always thought that optimizing one’s time was a function of managing time but, according to Claessens and others, we are wrong.
In Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I discovered that we manage a psychological object which other researchers have called a conscious intention but I named a “time demand“. I defined it as “an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future.”
A new objective function would be stated like this, as a start: optimized time usage is a function of managing time demands.
The Two Main Ways to Optimize Time Demands
How should we optimize time demands? Immediately, two kinds of activities spring to mind.
1) The activities that take place before a time demand is executed.
2) The activities that take place while it’s being executed.
Perhaps optimization has something to do with paying attention to these practices.
In the first case, we know that a time demand is created in the mind in response to a trigger of some kind. In some cases it’s an explicit thought that represents a kind of internal promise. Successfully shepherding a time demand from the moment of creation to the moment preceding its execution involves a series of steps I lay out in my book in further detail.
My research shows that all functioning, adult human beings create time demands – a skill that we teach ourselves in our early teens. We do so with varying levels of skill: here are some typical flaws in the ways we manage time demands before the point of intended execution.
Flaw 1 – we create too many time demands to be accomplished in a day, year or lifetime leading to feelings of regret or guilt
Flaw 2 – after a time demand is created, it becomes lost. Some of us blame our memory, which psychologists call prospective memory. Others point the finger at the surfeit of data in our environment i.e. information overload. Whatever the cause (and there are many possible culprits), the result is the same: a time demand unconsciously disappears before the intended moment of execution.
In the second case, once a time demand has begun to be executed, the research shows that it’s best to give it our full, undivided attention. It’s the best way to maximize the quality of the end-product, its timely completion, the cost of the effort and the quantity of output realized. Writers such as Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi have written about the flow state – our most productive way of completing time demands.
There is evidence, however, that humans do more than just create and execute time demands like machines. Given the role time demands play as carriers of commitment, they are essential to the completion of every goal we have in life in that require our agency.
Deeper Optimization Techniques that People Use
Relationships, money, well-being, happiness: any of our goals in these or other important areas require the creation, management and execution of time demands. As we enter our teens, we come to realize that this isn’t an easy activity for anyone to perform. It’s a hard job – in the words of Julie Roberts in the film “Pretty Woman”, they are “slippery little suckers.”
What makes things worse is that they are all competing with each other due to limited temporal space. According to Jordan Etkin of Duke University , the fact that some may be in direct conflict makes us feel more time-pressured. As a result, most adults live in a state of anxiety with regards to the burden of their time demands. Apparently, they are anxious that the time demands they create simply won’t be completed due to forces outside their control.
Given this concern, there are a number of techniques people use to mitigate the risk. These techniques are mostly self-taught, according to my research. As a result, they end up with skills that are uneven as the data collected from participants in my training confirm
However, there is another important reason why these techniques are different.
When someone creates a time demand, it appears that they also attach certain attributes to each one. To understand how this happens, imagine the creation of a record in a database of customer names.
While the name is an essential component in the record, it’s also likely that the database creator may want further information to be used, such as the person’s age, gender, address or phone number. There’s no limit to the number of attributes that can be added – we could let our imagination run wild and create a list of infinite length.
However, in a broad sense, we wouldn’t be creating this list without a reason. The “Why?” behind the creation of this database determines which attributes we would pay attention to, and which ones we’d ignore. When we create the database, we’d therefore collect a limited number of attributes – the ones that are important to us.
When we create time demands, we do something similar. A simple time demand such as “pick up the milk” could also have attributes we care about such as urgency, importance, time duration, scheduled start time, physical location, emotional mood, price, and others.
Of course, none of us creates a list of attributes a mile long – we only use those we care about. Like former President George H. W. Bush, we may not have a clue what the price of the milk we are about to purchase might be because we simply don’t care. It’s only natural for us to ignore those attributes which are least important.
But there’s more.
In my book I lay out a theory: we human beings often focus on a single attribute. It’s the one we find most scarce. We then use this attribute to manage all our time demands.
Here are a few examples:
- a man of limited means walks two miles each way to work in order to save the bus fare. Why? The out-of-pocket cost of the trip is his most important attribute.
- a woman runs two miles to work each day in order to improve her well-being. She’s optimizing her lifespan by warding off diseases related to a sedentary lifestyle.
- a senior citizen walks two miles to work because of the inconvenience of the bus routes, which would take 2 hours. This person is optimizing time.
- an adolescent walks two miles to school because his parent encourages him to enjoy the experience of going to school in the same neighborhood. He’s optimizing the proximity of his location.
- a teenager walks two miles to her job after school because the fellow she has a crush on often walks that route and she’d like to spend time with him. She’s optimizing the relationship.
This motley group may end up side-by-side at the same intersection, but each is there for a different reason. They are each attempting to optimize an attribute that’s most critical to them, subordinating other attributes in that moment.
These are just a few examples, but the two that stand out are time and physical proximity. Most people who have read several books on the use of schedules focus on the former, while some of those who focus on the latter have been influenced by books like Getting Things Done® by David Allen.
Which Approach to Optimizing Time is Best?
Some do argue that the attribute they happen use is the only one that’s important, and that the use of other attributes is irrational or foolish. However, my research shows that optimizing your use of time demands depends on your concerns in life, and even on the phase your life is in. In other words, one size doesn’t fit all.
What’s true in general, is that as you attempt to optimize your time via your creation, management and execution of time demands, you use a hierarchy of attributes. I would speculate that Pareto’s Law applies: 80% of the time you use the same attribute. Furthermore, your current habits, practices and rituals are geared to optimizing this attribute.
Therefore, the best attribute to use is the one that works best for you, and you alone.
Knowing this fact while being fully aware of the attribute you currently use is the first step. Unfortunately, life keeps changing and with it we need to make adjustments. With full understanding, for example, a young couple who is recently married may start by “maximizing opportunities to be together.” Six years, three children and two promotions later, their needs in life may shift to a different focus: “maximizing time.” When this change occurs, it’s best to make a conscious change in their individual techniques in order to optimize their use of time.
Therefore, the final answer to the question: “What’s the best way to optimize your time?” is “It depends.” A new objective function might be that one’s optimal use of time is a function of the way one manages time demands, the way one executes time demands and the “attribute of scarcity” one happens to use.
When this awareness falls short, it’s easy to end up trying to optimize your time in ineffective ways. Unfortunately, as I mentioned, we aren’t taught these skills. Left to our own devices, we often struggle, especially if all we know to do is try to “manage time.”
Having an expanded awareness and understanding is the key to getting tasks done, completing projects and achieving your life goals over the long term. Knowing when to switch and make an upgrade becomes all important.