Time-management madness

by Brian Dean (edited version of an article originally printed in The Idler, Summer 2008)


Imposed time management systems make you miserable, and they don't work

Clock-time insanity

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 Group.

• 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 estimate.

• 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: £10bn).

[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 Online, 5/9/2000]

"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:

“We therefore 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]

Guilty time-thieves

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 “dance”.

“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 “lived-time”. Jönsson’s 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 their categories.

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.