The Psychology of Time Management and 5 Strategies
The answer isn’t more time or efficiency, but managing your natural tendencies.
- Due to the common feeling of never having enough time, many authors promise productivity hacks.
- Our brains are wired to lead to tendencies that make the sense of time scarcity worse.
- Awareness is the first step to avoid the lure of task completion bias, multitasking, and the planning fallacy.
Do you feel as though you don’t have enough time to get everything done? It’s natural to think, “If I just had a little more time, or had less to do, or could get caught up, it wouldn’t be a problem.” Because time is the one “thing” that everyone has the same amount of, regardless of wealth or status, what varies is how much is expected (or demanded) from each of us during a designated span of time. Because time itself cannot be managed, it comes down to what you do in that designated span of time (behavior management), and this is where psychology comes into play. A suite of psychological phenomena work in concert to undermine our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with our time management.
Beware of Task Completion Bias
Let’s start with considering the large set of possible behaviors during our hypothetical span of time. We have our presumed large to-do list of things that need to get done now, soon, or at some future point. What do you tackle first? Chances are, smaller, easier tasks rise to the top. After all, you may be able to knock off the list several tasks in a relatively short period of time, so why not get those out of the way?
Psychologists refer to this tendency as task completion bias. Uncompleted tasks create psychological discomfort, and completing task provides relief, as well as a sense of accomplishment and a little hit of neurotransmitters that are reinforcing. It’s like scratching an instant lottery ticket and scoring a small prize – not going to change your life but provides a jolt of pleasure for the moment. So what’s the harm in starting with small tasks?
Much has been written about the daily flood of email, text, and other instant messages experienced by most people who work in offices. Responding to messages is just one example of small tasks that seem as though they have to be done, but a common and never-ending one. When you prioritize small tasks, the larger ones are delayed, sometimes indefinitely if there are no deadlines. The small tasks frequently seem urgent, and grab your attention, yet it is the larger tasks that are typically the most important for your success and satisfaction (though less urgent until a deadline looms).
The result is that we often fail to achieve the goals that most align with our values and sense of meaningful work (and recognition). Stuck on the treadmill of task completion bias, when the deadline for a larger, more complex task is soon approaching, we experience increased stress and the sense that there is never enough time.
Multi-tasking and the Enemy of Deep Work
The most important aspects of our work frequently require sustained attention or thought, which psychologists refer to as deep work. However, when stressed by too much to do, it is easy to be lured into multitasking. Unfortunately, a growing body of research consistently demonstrates the inefficiency and increased experience of stress that multitasking engenders. Perhaps even more troubling is that frequent multitasking and focusing our attention on small tasks trains the brain to function accordingly, making deep work more difficult over time.
Enter the Planning Fallacy
In addition to task completion bias and multitasking, other psychological factors may undermine prioritizing and successfully completing our important tasks. One is the human tendency to be overly optimistic in estimating how much time we have to work on something, as well as how long a task will take, a phenomenon psychologists refer to as the planning fallacy.
How many hours do you have to get work done at your job? A likely reply is “8 hours.” However, we know from experience that there will be interruptions, distractions, needed breaks, and so forth. Of the actual available work time, how much would you have available to work on something you prioritize? Whatever you answer, it is very likely too generous. One reason is that we tend to underestimate the nonproductive factors just mentioned, as well as unanticipated tasks and problems that pop up over the course of the day. And we tend to underestimate how long something will take to get done for the same reasons.
What Can You Do?
1. Start each day articulating the truly important things(s) to get done that day. Ask yourself, “If I could only work on one thing today, what should it be?” In this context, how do you define “important”? Consider nontraditional definitions such as, “most personally or professionally meaningful,” or “most likely to bring a sense of relief or a reduction in anxiety,” or “having the largest or longest lasting impact.”
2. Break down larger tasks into defined achievable steps. Instead of planning time to “work on X,” specify a goal that can be identified as having been achieved. This way you are using task completion bias to your advantage. Reward yourself for completing that daily step.
3. Avoid the lure of multitasking and getting pulled into distractions and task completion bias. Schedule and protect blocks of time set aside for specific deep work, and alter your surroundings to minimize distractions and interruptions. This may include a sign on your door or cubicle, wearing headphones, and setting auto-replies that indicate when others might be able to expect a response to their messages.
4. Fight the planning fallacy. Estimate how much time you have for working on your designated task today, and how long it will take. Then cut the first one in half and double the second estimate. These revised estimates will not feel realistic, but track your actual experience during the course of the day and compare. Another fruitful strategy is to imagine that a coworker has the same designated task, and perform both estimates for that other person. These may still be overly optimistic, but they tend to be less so than personal estimates.
5. Anticipate interruptions and delays, and form simply behavioral responses. Psychologists refer to these little plans as implementation intentions, and they are highly effective at facilitating goal achievement. For example, “If a coworker interrupts my scheduled time to work on my priority task, I will explain and ask that we set a time to resume whatever they brought up.” Or, “While working on X, I will turn off my device notifications and not look at messages.”
In the end, time management is not an all-or-nothing, or one-magic-strategy type of problem to be solved. Instead, like our other behaviors and life experiences, it is an ongoing dilemma to be managed. The process starts with raising awareness of your own tendencies, and experimenting with what works best for you. Hopefully the few psychological phenomena and strategies introduced here provide a fruitful starting place on your time management professional development path.