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Weekly 3: Become more "time-literate"


Idea Journal Weekly 3

July 19 · Issue #148 · View online

We combine 3 ideas to help you think differently and be more creative.

Summary: Expect delays. Take the path of more resistance. Look beyond the clock. (~3 min read)

#1. Projects (almost) always take longer than you expect
Cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter suggests in his book Gödel, Escher, Bach that we’re generally bad at estimating how long it will take to finish things.
This is especially true for complex projects like building a new product or writing a book.
He captures this tendency with what he calls Hofstadter’s Law: “It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”
Unless you put a lot of effort into continuous project planning, you don’t realize all the little things that need to get done to actually complete a project.
So, one step toward becoming more time-literate is to acknowledge that your current level of literacy is likely low.
#2. Easy doesn't mean important
There are practical steps you can take to fight against Hofstadter’s Law, discussed in idea #1 above.
If you’ve ever participated in a group meeting, then you’ve probably had the following experience. There is a set number of agenda items, with some agenda items more important than others.
But the group spends the entire meeting covering the less important items, time runs out, and you never addressed the most important items.
In his book Parkinson’s Law, naval historian Cyril Northcote Parkinson calls this tendency the Law of Triviality. 
As Parkinson explains it: “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.”
He gives the example of a budget committee meeting scheduled to discuss two topics: building a bicycle shed, and building an atomic reactor.
The committee members are reluctant to discuss the atomic reactor because the details are complicated and challenging.
But everyone is happy to give their opinion on building the bicycle shed because the details are easy compared to the atomic reactor. Even though the discussion about bicycle shed is less important.
Here are two steps you can take to help ensure that your meetings aren’t derailed by Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: 
1. First, you can order the agenda items by importance. In the above example, organizing the agenda so that atomic reactor was the first item would have helped the committee members focus on the most important item.
2. Second, you can set strict time limits for each agenda item. This is called timeboxing, and you can use it to limit the amount of time spent on less important topics.
#3. Broaden your definition of telling time
Time literacy isn’t only relevant for managing projects or running more effective meetings.
It’s relevant to all aspects of your life.
Marketing guru and public intellectual Seth Godin writes on his blog that “telling time” isn’t merely about reading digits or the hands on a clock.
For Godin, telling time also involves “how we use our awareness of time to screw up our narrative about life.”
He offers a few examples: 
  • We put a stopwatch on our best experiences, “ticktocking the moments instead of living in them.” For example, counting down the remaining days during your vacation.
  • We rehearse the past and obsess about sunk costs, instead of freeing ourselves up to make new decisions based on new information.
  • We focus on the days and on making short-term decisions, instead of being cognizant of the years. We ignore the benefits that short-term pain can have in earning us long-term satisfaction.
As Godin puts it: “We might have a fancy watch, but that doesn’t mean we’re good at telling time.”
Quote of the week
“The years teach much which the days never know.”
- Novelist and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in his 1844 essay Experience
Other Weekly 3 issues about time
Idea Journal
Idea Journal
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