On Time

How good are you at estimating time?  That is, how accurate are you when you guesstimate how long it will take you to finish something or arrive somewhere?

Teresa and I spent one day last week visiting nearby Pennsylvania.  Our plan was to visit Kennett Square, known as the mushroom capital of the world for growing and distributing 500 million pounds – half of the total mushroom crop in the US, and then spend the late afternoon and evening in nearby Longwood Gardens.   We arrived around 2:00 pm with plenty of time to explore the village and mushroom venues before driving the ten minutes it would take to get to our 4:30 reservation at the Gardens (after all, they allowed a 30 minute flex time for arrival.)   We enjoyed a leisurely walk through town and it’s quaint shops and explored The Mushroom Cap store/mini museum on the main drag.  Finishing early we found a splendid nearby park with hiking trails and spent one of those ideal fall days walking over streams and through fields and stopping at a playground to remember what it was like to swing as high as we once did as kids.  As we neared the time to leave, we remembered there was one more mushroom farm/store we had heard of that was about a mile out of town but, based on Apple Maps, well within range of getting there and then out to Longwood Gardens on time. (after all the latitude provided by the reservation guidelines allowed us to arrive as late as 5:00!)  Who knew how fabulous the store would be or how friendly and accommodating the proprietor was as we arrived just after closing time but were welcomed in to explore, just the same.  Yup, you guessed it, we found lots of mushrooms and other items to buy as gifts and for ourselves, listened to the history of the farm and received numerous recipes and ideas for cooking with mushrooms whose names were both common and unknown to me.  What seemed like a few minutes turned out to be more than a half hour and all of a sudden, we found ourselves reading a GPS arrival time of 4:51.  Fortunately, the reservations allowed that 30-minute delay; unfortunately, we found ourselves enroute at the height of tourist traffic.  You likely know the scenario regarding what we were thinking and feeling as we realized we were possibly going to miss the water-light show we had been planning to see since July.  We arrived, were directed to park in the lot furthest from the gate and proceeded to fast-walk/run past 50 or so slower paced walkers to get scanned-in just minutes before our time limit. Not the best way to start a garden walk…

More often than not I underestimate how long something will take.  My research on the subject tells me that this is likely the result of two factors: we fail to consider how long similar tasks have taken us in the past – we ignore past and recent history, and we remain optimistic that obstacles and unanticipated hindrances will not interfere with our timeline.  Guilty and Guilty!  After all, I reason, I’ve taken the route before, I’ve painted this room before, I’ve run this many errands before so surely I can do it faster this time because I’m more experienced and clearly today nothing will interfere with me getting them accomplished on time, last time was a fluke!

Yes, I’ve gotten better about leaving extra time for travel and I’ve also been more conscious of saying no to squeezing in an extra chore or errand into my plans.  But the allure of doing more, especially when I’m with others, still pulls me quickly into the abyss of missing my mark when it comes to accurately estimating how long something will actually take.  

Some thoughts on the subject that I used to believe but have relegated to the trash bin of things I’ve let go of…

If I don’t try to fit everything in, I’ll miss something.

If I overestimate the time it takes, I may end up sitting idle and wasting time.

Life is short, there’s no time to waste.

Where do you fit into this conversation?  Don’t worry, you’ve got lots of time to write it down and send it in to the comment section!!  J

“The trouble is, you think you have time.” – Jack Kornfield

Time is on My Side……No it’s Not!

I have always had a very specific relationship with time from the time I was a little kid.  This might have been due to having to wait for everything and everybody, whether it was a friend to go bike riding or a doctor’s appointment where I had to sit in a waiting room for 20 or so minutes getting nervous.  Early on I decided I would never make anybody wait for me. But I overcompensated by getting to scheduled appointments at least 15 minutes early but often as much as  half an hour.  I didn’t want other people to feel the way I used to feel because of me.  As a result and to this day, I always allow time for me to get to a meeting place or an appointment that will allow my arrival a good 15 minutes before the scheduled time.

Add to that, is the problem that I still have trouble with the estimation of how long things take. If I am meeting friends for dinner, especially if we are going to a place I have never been to before, I have to estimate how long is it is going to take for me to get there. I not only figure in the travelling time but what about traffic? What about unexpected events lengthening the time, and yes, even parking?  Then I have to add on the additional 15 minutes early that I want to arrive.  Very complicated but I go through the process everywhere I go. If it is a far distance, like to a city or out of state there are other factors I have to consider.  Traffic jams, tolls, not knowing where I am going and the possibility of getting lost. It sounds complicated but it is a process I go through silently in my head before I am prepared to leave my house.  I have gained the reputation of always being early.  When the doctor’s office calls to remind me of my appointment and request that I arrive at least 15 minutes early for me that means a half an hour.

One would think that at my age, I would relax and chill but I have discovered something with old age.  Time goes much faster than it used to.  Some mornings I wake up and the next thing I know I am tucking myself in bed and wondering where the day went.  I make an appointment with the doctor, annoyed that it is so far in the future and the next thing I know, it is tomorrow..  Days go by so quickly and weeks go by even faster.  Not sure when that started to happen but somewhere around 70 I began to take notice of it..  I will sit down with my phone to read something on the  internet and I look up and an hour has passed.  It just seems to slip away, slip being the operative word. It suggests you lost control of where you were walking and your foot lost its traction.  Same is true of time.  Our lives have lost traction and things just happen before you know it.  We use that expression all the time. Before you know it, it will be Christmas.  This flu shot won’t hurt, it will be over before you know it!  Calm down, you’ll get your driver’s license before you know it!  And it is all true but in youth time, “before you know it,” seems like an eternity.  Unfortunately, that eternity lasts for decades until one day you hit  elder time like I did around 70.  Suddenly, before you know it really happens before you are aware of it. And year by year, that time squeezes itself more and more into imperceptible moments.  Just look at your kids. Somewhere between college and now, my daughter turned 51…….51, how the hell did that happen so fast?  It probably wasn’t fast for her, but I blinked and it happened.

I guess what I am saying with the time speedometer on high, at my age it gets harder to estimate the time it takes to do anything. Time seems to speed up but the body seems to take much more time to accomplish the usual activities we do each day- showering, getting dressed, feeding the dog, yada yada yada!  So now into the equation of all the surprises that can occur on your way to reach an appointment now you have to add in extra time for the extra time required to get the old body to move.  Damn, life is complicated..  Maybe I don’t have to be early anymore. After all, I’ll get there before I know it!

The Planning Fallacy

Hen tackles the issue of why we tend to ignore history when we estimate the amount of time needed for a particular task. In his example, Theresa and he planned to be at a venue at a certain time, but got sidetracked with other interesting activities. Of course, you could say that they simply amended their original plan to accommodate a more attractive alternative. That’s the way I’d look at it, anyway. They added one more item of enjoyment to the plan.

If you consult the literature, there’s all sorts of research as to why we tend to gloss over history and underestimate time demands. It seems that this is a common occurrence – one which each of us would find it easy to relate. Psychologists Kahneman and Tversky called this the Planning Fallacy. In experiments, subjects consistently underestimated the time needed to complete a task. One result showed that students estimated the average time needed to finish a senior thesis was 33.9 days – they actually took 55.5 days on average and only 30% of the students finished in the time that they had predicted for their thesis. 

George weaves in the theme of aging in the propensity for underestimating time. Despite Geo’s self-professed bias toward “glass half-empty” outlook, some have pinned the blamed for poor time management on a different bias: ‘optimism bias’. Buoyed by enthusiasm, we tend to assume that we can brush aside typical obstacles, because we have been there before. Despite the fact that folks usually recognize that their past estimates have been overly optimistic, they still believe that their new (optimistic) estimates are realistic. Unfortunately, ‘we don’t know, what we don’t know’ – those new variables that tend to be attracted to our easy-peasey, straightforward plans.

I’ve spent a good chunk of my working life as a planning manager or consultant to international projects. Delays and unforeseen problems are always expected, be it budgetary, resource turnover, or internal/external political conflicts. Mitigation is an oft-used term in project management. In these circumstances, a team of capable folks is on hand to catch problems early and provide opinions about realistic plan revision. Feedback from others is an excellent tool for modifying overly optimistic time estimation.

However, I’m always surprised that the approaches we use professionally do not necessarily become integrated with our personal tactics for estimating time. Like Hen and George, I’m a hawk on arriving early. I agree with George that the steps required for punctuality seem to multiply the effort. Oscar Wilde noted that “Punctuality is the thief of time” – maybe he’s referring to the extra overhead assigned to early arrival?

So why am I frequently racing for a self-imposed deadline? I’ll assign two reasons, of which the root cause is inadequate preparation.

The first has to do with dependence on other individual’s priorities. Rarely do my plans involve only myself. Loved ones, vendors, and service providers may not buy into my timeline. Worse, their plans may conflict with my vision of successful task completion. Time management always involves negotiation with others.

Second, I will agree with George that aging is a factor. But not because time moves faster. Rather, it’s because aging has introduced a certain brittleness in my task management approach – a bit more anxiety in executing. In turn, this task-anxiety reduces my ability to stay with the flow and I forget things. Halfway to an appointment, but forgot my wallet. Arriving at the tennis court without my racquet. You get the picture.

Linda says, make a checklist. Um, I’ve currently got six different checklists active: one for the restaurant, two for properties, and three for organizations. Add to this, a separate daily checklist (‘One list to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them’, as they say in Mordor). So many checklists, that I forget to consult them. My method of dealing with this has been to overcompensate. I’ll break a task into component parts (‘work packages’ for you PM 101 enthusiasts) and knock off each smaller task in turn. It works, but takes considerable energy. How I look forward to simply going into my shop and creating something! I don’t use checklists there (although I could – and maybe should). But, it’s my checklist-free zone.

In short, I find that it is in the doing where I’m happiest. And in those situations, I don’t worry about estimating the time needed – it takes what it takes!

Fly Like an Eagle: Steve Miller Band

“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’

Into the future

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’

Into the future

I wanna fly like an eagle

To the sea

Fly like an eagle

‘Til I’m free….”

2 thoughts on “On Time

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