Who has the time to get stuff done?

(I’m taking a break from a multi-day painting project to write this. The irony!)

Most people juggle a mess of overlapping, conflicting time demands arising from a variety of obligations and desires. Running at 110 percent means that there’s always something waiting to be done. (Social media makes this problem worse because it’s common for “a quick scroll” to absorb so much time that you’re not only late for your next to do, but stressed because you “haven’t had a breather” between tasks…)

The problem with piecemeal, jammed schedules is that people have a hard time devoting a block of time (3-4 hours) to a topic, let alone finding 3-4 hours on short notice for an urgent topic. 

Thus, we see an equilibrium where everyone is rushed, each task only gets a little attention, and it’s much harder for a group project to advance in a timely manner. Indeed, it’s much more common to have a three-person project drag on over several weeks instead of getting done in a few hours. The delays are mostly around coordination, because each person, as they turn to the project, needs an update from others, which means delay and confusion before they can even start, let alone send their part to others. In these conditions, transaction costs are high and the whole process annoying. (Trans-disciplinary communication among academics can be particularly bad due to jargon and work norms, let alone philosophical disagreements.)

There are two ways forward from these issues. For individuals, it’s to cut back on casual tasks, leave gaps empty for a breather, and set aside empty blocks of time each week. (I can’t remember where, but I read a few months ago about a very successful person who had blocked out two free days per week.)

For groups, the issue is worse because the person with the worst agenda is going to set the pace for everyone else, losing even more time and annoying even more people. 

I thought of this topic two months ago while at a conference with 700 economists in such a hurry to get to their presentations or find one of 25 parallel sessions that they hardly had any time to think, let alone extend serendipitous meetings into the conversations they might deserve.

So my suggestion for groups is that they go for a “hackathon” concept in which everyone works only on one topic for 1-3 days. The key elements — presence, communication and deadline — will aid success by setting expectations, collecting all decision makers and aiding problem solving.

I suspect that every company, academic department and family could get a lot more done by scheduling 2-4 “hacks” per year, with details (fix a nagging problem, design a new idea, etc.) decided as the date approaches. These hacks will be more productive because everyone will be there, the deadline will force attention onto ugly issues, and progress will motivate everyone to keep pushing for the next step.

My one-handed advice is to set aside more “empty blocks” for yourself and schedule a block for your family or work. 

Do you see anything familiar here? How do you get stuff done?

Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Who has the time to get stuff done?”

  1. One of the strategies that really helps me manage my time better is outsourcing some of the chores, to be able to spend quality time with family, and especially my toddler. For instance, outsourcing the laundry costs me a couple of dollars extra (ok, maybe $5 on an average) but the peace of mind is worth it. In a recent section on CBS Sunday morning (aired 08.19.18) they said that paying someone to do some of your work freed up most of one’s time and provided satisfaction and happiness. They even cited the famous new yorker cartoon https://www.art.com/products/p15063245118-sa-i6844069/eric-lewis-i-should-have-bought-more-crap-new-yorker-cartoon.htm to prove their point.

    1. Yes, exactly. I find that I really enjoy painting my walls, but I definitely outsource flat tires (e.g.) to the bike guy nearby, so I can get to more important (to me) stuff 🙂

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