by Brian Dean (edited
version of an article originally printed in
The Idler, Summer 2008)
Imposed time management
systems make you miserable, and they
In managed "clock-time", the present
moment doesn't exist. Only the measurable past
and future are regarded as real, as the point
between – ie now – is of no value
in economic terms. Time management requires
us to view time in this way, and eventually
it programs our minds so that we’re unable
to live in the present. We’re either compulsively
anticipating and projecting into the future,
which leads to anxiety and stress – or
reliving the past, which causes (in the typical
work context) guilt, regret and resentment.
The longer we spend in a time-monitored environment
(eg a long-hours job) the more difficult it
seems to “come to our senses” in
the present moment. Presumably this is a price
worth paying for the Outstanding Successes™
of government/business management.
Scheduling: a waste of time?
In the 1820s, when George Stephenson’s
Liverpool-to-Manchester railway went behind
schedule and over budget by 45%, everyone involved
could be excused, as the discipline known as
project management hadn’t yet been invented.
In the intervening 180 years, managing projects
has become an industry in its own right –
but time and cost overruns are still the norm:
• A 2006 National Audit Office review
of 20 large UK defence projects found a total
delay of 36 years – an average of 1
year, 9 months per project.
• An international study on the management
of public projects, published in 2002, found
that almost 9 out of 10 went over budget,
with overruns of 50-100% common.
• 71% of IT projects go behind schedule,
over budget and/or under scope, according
to an 2004 industry study by the Standish
• 75% of UK government building projects
are completed late and over budget, according
to a 2001 BBC report.
[Sources: National Audit
Office’s ‘Ministry of Defence:
Major Projects Report 2006’, 24/11/2006;
‘Underestimating Costs in Public Works’,
Journal of the American Planning Association,
Vol. 68, No. 3, Summer 2002; ‘CHAOS
Report 2004’, The Standish Group; BBC
Radio 4 ‘Today’, 11/1/2001]
Underestimating by billions
The public ends up paying billions for projects
which are either cancelled or which would never
have received the go-ahead if the true cost
had been known from the start:
• An ID card scheme for benefit claimants
was scrapped in 1999 after nearly £1bn
was spent on it. The National Audit Office
found that “skimping” at the start
of the project led to “vast delay and
waste of money”. It added: “Mistakes
of this kind are made time and time again”.
• The National Programme for IT (an
NHS project) was originally expected to cost
£2.3bn over three years, but in June
2006 the total cost was estimated by the National
Audit Office to be £12.4bn.
• The cost of the Jubilee Line (London
underground railway) was estimated in 1994
at £2.1bn. The final cost (it was two
years late) was £3.5bn.
• The Eurofighter jet (a UK/European
project) cost, in total, £50bn. It was
£30bn over budget and completed a decade
late, according to a 2003 BBC2 report.
• A £1bn upgrade to the Tornado
GR-4 fighter jet left it unable to fire modern
“smart” bombs, giving it less
capability than before the “upgrade”.
As a result, the jets couldn’t be used
in the Kosovo conflict, forcing British forces
to rely on older GR-1s and Harrier jets.
• The New Deal welfare-to-work scheme
was originally budgeted at over £5bn,
with an estimated cost of £4,000 for
each job. In July 2000 an independent report
put the real cost at £11,000 per job.
• Refurbishment and building work on
the headquarters of MI5 and MI6 cost over
half a billion pounds – more than twice
• The Channel Tunnel was financed with
private money, but this didn’t stop
it going over-budget by £5.2bn (original
estimated cost: £4.8bn; final cost:
[Sources: BBC News Online,
5/9/2000; Wikipedia (NHS cost); The Guardian,
7/3/2000; ‘Eurofighter’, BBC2,
11/11/03; The Guardian, 7/3/2000; The Guardian,
14/7/2000; The Guardian, 18/2/2000; BBC News
"Task Completion Wishful Thinking Syndrome"
It’s not just government and corporate
managers who are inept at scheduling –
it seems to be a universal human trait. In the
1990s, researchers at Sussex University conducted
a five-year study into Task Completion Wishful
Thinking Syndrome (TCWTS), which concluded
that tasks always take longer than we expect.
From wallpapering a room to developing a new
fighter aircraft, we all tend to underestimate
how long it will take. We also fail to learn
the lesson from previous missed deadlines.
This possibly explains why, after decades of
applying “advanced” management tools,
there’s no evidence of improvement in
the scheduling profession. The 2002 international
study on project management mentioned earlier
(one of the most comprehensive of its type)
couldn’t put it plainer:
conclude that cost underestimation has not
decreased over time. Underestimation today
is in the same order of magnitude as it was
10, 30, and 70 years ago […] No learning
seems to take place in this important and
highly costly sector of public and private
decision making.” [Underestimating
Costs in Public Works, Journal of the American
Planning Association, Summer 2002]
Another aspect of TCWTS is the common feeling
of accomplishing very little relative to expectations.
Most workers probably feel a little guilty at
five o-clock, after finishing less than half
of their allotted tasks. Employers then have
an easy time persuading them into working overtime.
Each year employees are giving £23 billion
in free labour (unpaid overtime) to their bosses,
according to the TUC.
Some companies regard “unproductive”
workers as guilty criminals. As Barbara Ehrenreich
(author of Nickel and Dimed) noted,
the retail giant Walmart calls it “time
theft” when an employee “does anything
other than going to the bathroom when [they’re]
supposed to be on company time”.
Meanwhile, the ambitious types who get promoted
to management evidently never learn. They schedule
work as if each worker is able (with the “right”
motivation) to use every valuable second in
productive service to the company.
Racing against the clock
The view of time as a precious commodity seems
to have roots in the Protestant beliefs which
drove the Industrial Revolution. American business
culture was the first to have workers compete
against the clock to finish tasks in ever-shorter
times. It was the birthplace of time-and-motion
studies and Fordist assembly lines – an
obsession with measuring production by stopwatch.
As Charles Hampden-Turner and Fons Trompenaars
point out in their book, The Seven Cultures
of Capitalism, this obsession comes from
the Puritan cultural heritage: “The
Puritans were not, like those of other religious
persuasions, awaiting the afterlife in quiet
contemplation. They had God’s earthly
kingdom to build and, given seventeenth and
eighteenth-century life expectancies, a perilously
short time in which to build it […] Time
is the Puritan’s Great Disciplinarian
and Cost Accountant”.
“Time is the Puritan’s
Great Disciplinarian and Cost Accountant”
Hampden-Turner and Trompenaars identified two
predominant cultural conceptions of time. They
surveyed 15,000 managers from around the world
and found that in the US, UK, Sweden and the
Netherlands time is largely viewed sequentially,
as a “race”, whereas in Japan, Germany
and France, it’s conceived as a synchronised
“Sequential time”, they argue,
is seen as a threat, as it’s running out
fast. The resulting anxieties lead to a preference
for short-term profit-making, with paper entrepreneurs
favouring creative accounting and tax avoidance
over longer-term processes such as manufacturing.
“Synchronised time”, on the other
hand, is seen as a friend. The past and future
are but our memories and anticipations synchronised
as ideas in the present – an eternal “dance”
of possibilities recurring in the moment. Thus
Japanese culture (which leans towards a synchronised
view of time) tends to be the most long-term
in its outlook.
Short-termism in American business culture
is often blamed on the higher levels of equity
financing by shareholders who want quick returns.
But this doesn’t appear to be the real
cause. Those impatient shareholders are simply
reflecting existing cultural fears about time
running out – the sooner they get their
money, the better.
Clock-time & Lived-time
Bodil Jönsson, a Swedish physicist, makes
a similar distinction between two ways of framing
time. Her book, Ten Thoughts about Time
– a Philosophical Enquiry, was a
huge bestseller in Sweden. According to Jönsson,
we divide “clock-time” into small
segments in an effort to manage it, but we never
feel that we have enough.
Her antidote to clock-time anxiety is more
two categories sound like the “sequential”
and “synchronised” time of Hampden-Turner/Trompenaars.
In fact each author mentions the two Greek gods
of time, Chronos (god of sequential time) and
Kairos (god of the opportune moment) as symbolising
To give an example of having more “lived-time”,
Jönsson describes the sense of endless
expectation that children have during summer
holidays. This is because they don’t break
it down into separate days or weeks –
they see it as an undivided whole, “summer
in one piece”. Bodil therefore recommends
a mental habit of not subdividing time.
Of course, in countries such as Britain and
America, with their miserly 20-day (or less)
annual holiday allowances, this will no doubt
be a difficult habit to cultivate. Nothing threatens
a US/UK project manager more than the idea that
employees should take extended breaks whenever
they feel like it. That would really screw up
their project schedules.