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The essence of time

We are familiar with the concept of value for money, but are we as good at assessing ‘value for time’?

You’re going on a short break tomorrow. You still need to pack (don’t forget your walking boots!), check that you’ve got the travel insurance details, and the booking confirmation with the address, grab a few books in case it rains, your phone charger and whatnot. Before you leave, you have to put the rubbish out, make sure all windows and doors are locked, the heating is switched off… the list is endless. And to get there in good time, you really need to be on the road by 9.00 in the morning. How does this make you feel?

Are you filled with dread, almost wishing you never booked the damned trip in the first place, and will you be running around like the proverbial headless chicken? Or are you serenity personified, mentally making a realistic plan with a clear sequence in which to do everything you need to do, ready to leave the bed unmade if anything takes a bit longer than expected? Are you the person who is still frantically looking for their walking boots at 9.30, blaming the long list of things that needed doing for being late? Or the person who easily managed to tick off everything that matters, and who is ready to go at least 15 minutes early?

Taming time’s elusiveness

Time is a scarce resource just like money. We can, for example, set aside a certain amount of it for a certain purpose. Devoting three hours to tidy up the garden is quite similar to devoting £400 to a lawnmower and a set of garden tools. Just like we may find a time budget of three hours was not enough to realize our horticultural ambition, we may find a cash budget of £400 does not stretch far enough to buy all the garden implements we want. And just like we may find we didn’t have enough money because we put too many unrelated items in our trolley, we may find we failed to finish tidying up the garden because we got distracted chatting to the neighbour.

But there are some differences too. We are all familiar with deadlines — submitting our tax return, finishing our report for the project review, even getting to the station in time for the train into work. There is not really an equivalent regarding money.

Time is elusive. We try to box it in with calendars and clocks, from the sundials, clepsydras and hourglasses of our ancient ancestors to our atomic clocks and Apple watches. But these devices confront us with our inability to keep and manage time on our own. Money we don’t use remains in our purse or on our bank account; time we don’t use just disappears.

Deadlines, with the aid of our timekeeping tools, should help us to get things done in time. They tell us when something is due, so if we know how much time we need — eminently feasible for reasonably familiar tasks — we can work out when we need to start. If we can set our own deadlines, then we really have no excuse, right?

Well, no. Two psychologists, Dan Ariely and Klaus Wertenbroch, ran two experiments in which one group of participants received fixed deadlines, while the could determine their own deadlines (both of which were binding, with penalties for late submissions). In one task students had to write three papers (each day’s delay meant a 1% reduction in the grade), in the other one they had to proofread three texts in return for payment (each day’s delay would cost them $1). It turned out that it was the participants who were given fixed deadlines, rather than those who set their own, who got better grades, and who found more errors (and earned more money).

On a larger scale there is plenty of evidence that deadlines are not a miracle solution. We hear (too) regularly about large projects, like the implementation of IT systems or large infrastructure works, which run into delays that are often 100% or more of the original schedule. And if your work involves projects, if you have never seen one overrun, please do get in touch — I would like to know how you did it.

We tend to suffer from the planning fallacy, a term coined forty years ago by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, a specific case of overconfidence bias. Our naivety and positive outlook makes us focus on the best case, rather than consider everything that could go wrong. Planning is not necessarily a good way to ensure deadlines are met — perhaps even on the contrary: having a detailed, worked out plan gives us an illusion that we have everything under control.

The quid pro quo of our time

Of course, not planning is also not the solution. This is precisely what trips us up with short-term deadlines, like getting ready to go out. Without a plan, we risk spending more time than necessary on the important tasks for no good reason, or being distracted by irrelevant activities that do not serve our goal of getting away on time.

This is a crucial point. We need to realize that we are exchanging a scarce resource, time, for a particular result. In order to use our time well, we have to know what we get in return.

Let us return to the self-imposed deadline. This is a device we can apply to impose a sense of urgency. Imagine your old sofa has reached the end of its useful life. You and your spouse have seen a new settee that you quite like, but you both believe there must be something better out there. Unfortunately, actually identifying that superior new sofa appears not to be a high priority for either of you. One way to make progress is to say that, if by the end of next month, no better settee has been found, you go for the one that you both quite like.

Using a deadline in this way can help in two ways. By implying that time is of the essence, it forces you to decide between looking for a better alternative, and doing nothing and going for the default. You say, in effect, that the value of even further delaying the purchase is less than the value of acquiring the so-so item. But it also forces you to decide whether time really is of the essence. If you or your spouse eventually realize you actually don’t really like this so-so sofa, will you really buy it anyway, and be saddled with a piece of furniture you hate? Or will you accept that you need more time to find your dream settee?

The UK is finding itself with a similar self-imposed deadline. If current prime minister Johnson can form a new government after the election on 12th December, parliament will most likely approve the Brexit withdrawal agreement before the end of January next year. This means a transition period will start within which all current UK-EU arrangements continue, and negotiations on a new trade agreement will take place.

The transition period runs until the end of 2020. Originally it provided 21 months of negotiation time (from the original exit date of 29th March 2019), but now leaves just nine months to reach an agreement. Most experts, as well as history, suggest that it is highly improbable a Free Trade Agreement can be concluded in such a short period of time.

Yet Mr Johnson is adamant that there will be no extension to this transition period. For him, time is clearly of the essence. This is not unlike the sofa scenario, but without the possibility of acknowledging that the so-so option is actually no good and more time is needed — only with much more significant consequences.

The value of a delay and spending more time, should an agreement not be concluded by the end of 2020 is clear: an FTA with the EU will allow businesses on both sides to continue to trade almost as smoothly as they do now. The value of “having Brexit done” without a trade deal on New Year’s Eve, on the other hand, with significant negative effects on the UK-EU trade, is much more dubious.

When we say, or act as if, time is of the essence, it is wise to establish clearly exactly what we gain and what we lose by a hard deadline.

The essence of time is how well we use it.

Originally published at on November 29, 2019.

Thanks for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. Please do share it far and wide — there are handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thank you!

Written by

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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