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Friday, June 12, 2009

Feedback Oops

Here's something I've been thinking about lately.

I almost always underestimate the amount of time something (a task, anything, really) is going to take. This is a problem at work, where I am always behind schedule. But also at home, when I think a particular chore will take "one hour," and it takes two, that sets me back. And it's not like I have a lot of "free time."

So you would think that I would build that into my estimates, at some point. IOW, I would start to say to myself that if I think Task A will take one hour, I should set aside two for it. That way, I can make plans accordingly.

But of course, that doesn't work. Because once I know that I've overestimated in an effort not to underestimate, I don't work quickly at Task A and try to get it done in less time. (I'm not chief engineer Scottie.) I usually slow down. Which means that my overestimate becomes an underestimate because I knew it was an overestimate and therefore I felt no great urgency.

Follow me so far?

This is even a worse problem when other people are involved. IOW, if you can't fool yourself, how are you going to fool anybody else? We agree that the meeting will start at 8:30 sharp. But that's soft. You know that I will tolerate your being five minutes late. So you start from the belief that 8:35 is the time you're supposed to show up. That means that you endeavor to arrive at that time. And, in turn, anything that delays you delays you past 8:35, not 8:30--because you never intended to show up then.

But I know that you won't show up at 8:30; so I dally, myself, and again, anything that pushes me back, that just makes the meeting start later.

Now, no one gets angry that the 8:30 starts at 8:45. Everyone "knows" that the scheduled time is not the actual time that a meeting starts. Everyone "blocks out" 90 minutes for an hour meeting.

But if hour long meetings take 90 minutes, then the work day is not eight hours (stay with me--it could be ten or twelve), but only two-thirds that length. That's how much slack is built in by the inefficiency.

Now, again, one "knows" this. So one plans on only doing two-thirds what one believes could be accomplished in the workday. But again, the feedback loop is that now I "know" that I have plenty of time, and therefore I dally. And get less than two-thirds done.

I can't see a way out of the loop.

It's no wonder that Peter Drucker identified the most important skill of an effective executive as time management.

Now I have to run--because I'm late for work. But who shows up on time, right?


At 11:29 AM, Blogger DK said...

with these types of psychological dilemmas, I always ask: what would Philip K. Dick do?

At 12:51 PM, Blogger fronesis said...

#3: don't forget to factor in freaks like me. I am ALWAYS five minutes early. Maybe it comes from playing golf competitively as a kid – you cannot be one second late for a tee time - I'm not sure. But when I hear 8:30, to me that means, be there at 8:25 at the very latest.

Usually this just compounds problems, since everyone else thinks like you. However, my new closest colleagues do the same thing - so we just start the meeting at 8:25 and end it at 9:20. Very efficient.

At 7:27 PM, Blogger Number Three said...

PKD doesn't do meetings! He takes speed and types out whole books on rolls of paper. He wrote Valis (?) in Roman times, dude. Talk about being early! Even the fro man can't do that.


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