Not Enough Time

January 2019 · 1200 words · 6 minute read

I don’t have time for that. I hate to think how many times I’ve uttered those words over the last few years. Feeling continuously stressed out and always rushed. Like I wasn’t achieving anything and that I was being left behind in the rat race. I never felt like there was enough time to get anything done in the day. To be honest, I never even really knew what I was racing towards. I just knew that I had to get there.

But was my initial assessment of my situation correct? Was there genuinely not enough time in my life? Did I need to invent some form of time travelling device to get more than 24 hours in the day?

There is enough time in life, we only feel like we don’t have enough because we’re terrible at planning and forecasting. Personally, I would think about heading to the gym and budget a certain amount of time to get there, workout and get back. I would then schedule something right afterwards such as a piece of cognitively demanding work. Two things are wrong with this approach. 1) I never put any slack in the system, overscheduling anything. Whenever a delay happened (and there was always something different) I would quickly find myself rushed. 2) I wasn’t taking into account that immediately after I get home from the gym I don’t really want to do anything intellectually minded.

The same phenomenon happens in project planning of any description. There’s no slack and no redundancy in the system. Any time there is a minor hiccup the whole project gets delayed. Worse, these delays tend to be systemic and exponential in nature. They have wide ranging ramifications as everything is so tightly organised. In some situations the project planning even becomes political. In the interest of perfect planning we try to tightly control everything and it backfires. The truth is. Collectively, as a species, we’re bad at predicting the future.

My completely unfounded and poorly researched assertion is that project management, task management and calendar applications have a lot to do with this mess. When we’re sitting in the air conditioned confines of an office we’re free to make all sorts of estimations. We can neatly realign things on a Gant chart and see the (supposed) ripple effects throughout the project timeline. Placing something into a spreadsheet makes it seem so abstract and neatly controllable. But, as much as Silicon Valley wants it to be otherwise the real world doesn’t exist in the digital realm (yet).

If we never get our hands dirty and we never actually get out there and experience the project in a visceral sense we will never understand how our mental and digital abstractions map to the real world. Would you trust a full time project planner who has never written a line of codes estimation on how long a software project would take? Yet, we entrust project planners with this responsibility and in the interests of making themselves look good they strip more and more redundancy and slack out of the system. When it all goes to shit they simply move on to the next project.

What we need, instead, is a change in the way we plan. We need a way of introducing additional slack into the system. Projects of yesteryear used to get completed on time and on budget, our modern technology clearly hasn’t made much of an improvement there. Perhaps those projects were executed better as the planners were literally on the site and getting real world feedback? They weren’t sitting in an air conditioned office over planning everything.

I do not possess the capability to change the billion dollar project planning industry but I do possess the capability to change my personal approach to time management. I possess the ability to stop over scheduling and under resourcing my personal commitments and projects. I possess the ability to introduce additional slack into the system. I possess the ability to strip down my commitments and ask myself the question; “Is this truly important to what I’m trying to accomplish?”

So, in the pursuit of this endeavour I’m going to declare scheduling and time management bankruptcy. I freely admit that I have no idea precisely how long something will take. I admit that I need to include ‘buffer’ periods and I admit that sometimes I’m just not going to feel like doing something. I’m not a Taylorist machine, optimised down to the second but instead a living, breathing human. I have the capacity to handle precisely what I can handle and I don’t really have a good idea as to what that limit is.

Instead, I’m going to try to work on one thing at a time. I’m going to focus on the process of starting to do good work and the process of craftmanship that comes with that. I am not going to worry about committing myself to a specific block of time to complete something. It will be done when it’s done. I have no idea exactly how long something will take.

So. Each piece of writing starts with a single sentence. Each programming project with a single line of code. Each workout by getting to the gym and warming up. I will commit to the beginning and commit to trying to produce quality. I am not going to commit to a personal deadline nor to overschedule how much work I’m going to do outside of the bare necessities. I am going to hold myself to deadlines where important, but I am going to do this by freeing up my schedule in other areas to push other things to the backburner.

I also try to avoid meetings where I can. I find them mostly worthless. Spending 30-60 minutes (and precisely that because someone else needs the meeting room or other people are rushing off to another precisely scheduled meeting) trying to solve a problem is not a good use of time. True depth and understanding of a problem takes longer.

Thinking in 30 minute blocks is not the way I work. I need time to discuss and to digest. Time to bring in other thoughts and to compile things into a logical piece. Time to experiment and to play. There is value in “getting people in a room” but there is also value in taking the time to mull something over and to let the subconscious do a bit of the work.

I want to be the kind of person who takes the time needed to understand something well. Someone who can sit down and think truly deeply about a problem and see it from different perspectives. I cannot do this in 30 minute outlook calendar slots.

So things will take how long they’ll take. There is no use pretending otherwise.