How time bandits can steal the day away

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 February, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 February, 1994, 12:00am

THERE is nothing more fascinating than people's capacity to delude themselves. They think they're smarter, funnier, more athletic, more articulate, more charming than they really are. We're all guilty of this.

Fortunately, most of our self-delusions don't cause that much damage in business. Overestimating how articulate we really are might make us look like a preening boor to some people, but it doesn't derail a career.

I know plenty of people who take great delight in hearing themselves talk. As far as I can tell, this personality flaw hasn't prevented them from being very successful.

But there's one area where our delusion (or inflated sense of optimism) can be dangerous. I'm talking about our sense of time.

Nearly all of us have an inflated or over-optimistic sense of how much we can accomplish in a given amount of time. We schedule a meeting for one hour and it ends up taking two hours. We promise to get a proposal on the client's desk in two days and we still haven't finished it four days later.

This delusion affects almost every activity in the business day: we think we can get to a meeting across town in 20 minutes, but heavy traffic or a wrong turn conspires against us; the trip takes 30 minutes.

None of us is immune to this delusion. If we managed our time as well as we think we do, all the items on our ''to do'' list would be completed at the end of every day.

The awful truth is, we tend to be optimistic rather than pessimistic about how much we can accomplish in a day - and it costs us. Our inflated optimism irritates people, disappoints others, and in extreme cases ruins our credibility.

The quick cure, obviously, is to err on the side of pessimism in gauging your use of time. If you know you need 20 minuets to get across town under perfect conditions - no traffic, no red lights - assume it's an imperfect world and give yourself a 10-minute cushion. Schedule 30 minutes for the trip (it's a sign of how much we delude ourselves that many of us believe we can make the trip in 15 minutes).

But people can't go from being time optimists to pessimists overnight. It's like asking an alcoholic to quit drinking on the spot. A step-by-step programme is usually more effective. With that in mind, here are three steps to help you start getting a more realistic grasp of time.

Are you working when you work? This is my first question when people tell me they don't have enough time in the day to get their jobs done.

I know an editor-writer at a monthly magazine in New York whose sole responsibility is to edit a section of the magazine and write a 1,000-word column each month.

Yet whenever I call him at home on a weekend, I'm told he's holed up in his office working on his column. This has been going on for years. I asked him once if he enjoyed giving up his weekends to write the column. He hated it.

''So why don't you write it during the week?'' I asked.

''Because I'm too busy having meetings, going out to lunch, talking on the phone, and pushing paper to get any work done,'' he said.

I suspect that's true for a lot of people in office jobs. Going to work offers so many distractions, they don't have time to do their real job.

The first step to getting a realistic grasp of your time is examining how you actually work when you're allegedly working. Are you doing 100 per cent when 90 per cent will do? Quite often, when people take two days to finish an assignment they expected to finish in one, it's because they spent the extra day trying to make it ''perfect''. They want to hand in something 100 per cent acceptable when actually 90 per cent will do.

I'm not advocating or excusing shoddy work. But it should make us reconsider which tasks require obsessive attention to detail and which don't.

Another question to ask yourself is: are you a victim of time bandits? Time bandits are all the people in your life who procrastinate, who are chronically late for appointments, who don't return phone calls, who take weeks to respond to a written query (if they respond at all). They steal your minutes, hours, and days by making you wait for them or by making you work three times harder just to talk to them.

Time bandits are more deluded about the clock than anyone. And if you don't recognise the havoc they create, you're deluded too.

Some people think they can make a time bandit change his ways. They're wrong. The person who shows up 40 minutes late for your 10 am appointment will always be late.

The best policy - at least the one that won't waste your time - is to refuse to be a victim. I have a pretty good idea about the time sensitivity of most of the people I deal with on a regular basis. Maximising my time is important to me, so I can't helpnoticing when other people share this trait (and when they don't). I factor this into everything I schedule with people.

Of course, many choices in the workplace are not clear-cut. Sometimes the time bandits in our lives are hard to detect.

For example, we have an executive in one of our overseas offices who can sometimes be extremely effective.

He's smart, brash, energetic and can close a deal as quickly as anyone. Most people misinterpret his frenetic pace and dynamic style to mean that he is someone who is very efficient with time.

Not true. He also has a strong independent streak that compels him to flout many of our standard operating procedures.

If I send him a fax (which still conveys some urgency to most people), there's no guarantee that he will respond to it in a timely manner. If I resend it three times, he still may ignore it. He is a classic time bandit. People could waste weeks waiting for him to help them out. The only way to get his attention is the telephone.

At some point, I decided to yield to his peculiar work habits. I never communicate with him in writing. I only phone (and I warn everyone in the company to do the same).

I suppose I could urge him to mend his ways or punish him, but that would be a waste of time for both of us. And I would still be his victim.