More Thoughts on Time

July 24, 2009 / General /

By Ryan Quinn

Throughout my career, there have been a number of times where I have felt pressure and have worried about time. During the fourth year of my doctoral program, for example, I worried about having to extend for a year. I wanted desperately to finish my program on time and worked hard to try to do that. I failed, and in the end I had to extend for a year. After I finished my PhD, I took my first job as a professor and immersed myself in the task of trying to publish my research. I had six years to publish enough research to get tenure, and in a world where research projects can take three years, four years, or longer to complete and to publish, six years was not much time. Each year, as a new semester of teaching looms, I feel significant pressure to get my writing done before classes begin. I could give many other examples as well. When I feel this kind of pressure, watch the clock, worrying about what will happen when time runs out.

The Real Issue

I bring up this topic again because of a wise comment that Monica left at the end of my last blog entry “Some Practical Advice about Time.” Monica wrote, “I think we often confuse ‘time’ with other kinds of pressure, so ‘I don’t have time,’ is actually a way of saying that we are feeling a lot of pressure from something or someone and we don’t have a good way of handling the pressure.” This is a wise comment, and is supported by both research and practical experience.

A good example of research that supports Monica’s claim is Leslie Perlow’s research on the time famine.* I have discussed Leslie’s work before in my entry on “Lifting Ourselves Out of a Global Financial Crisis.” In that entry, I used her work as a way to contrast policy intervention with cultural intervention. In this entry, I will focus on her findings with regards to how culture shapes the way we understand time.

Perlow’s research on the time famine came from an ethnography-turned-action-research study she did in a high-technology company. One of the product design units was responsible for developing a product that was intended to become the cornerstone of their strategy for the years ahead. The executives asked this unit to develop the product in nine months. The unit’s previous development projects had all been three-to-five-year projects, and they had not completed those on time.

Time management problems were rampant throughout the project. The unit fell behind schedule, They constantly interrupted each other. They never had enough time to complete their tasks. They came in early and worked late. Their families complained about their work-life balance. They were constantly fighting fires.

Watching this, Perlow proposed a simple intervention: quiet time. A few times a week, for a few hours in the morning, there was a rule: no one was allowed to interrupt anyone else. After a couple of weeks of adjustment, something magic happened. Employees began to be respectful of others’ time even when it wasn’t quiet time. They got their work done. They did not have to come in early or work late as much. Their families were happier. They caught up on their work. They completed the product development on time, and the produce was successful. On every meaningful dimension, Perlow’s simple intervention was a dramatic success.

There was only one problem. Six months after Perlow left, all of the behavior in the product development unit reverted back to the patterns they followed before Perlow’s intervention. Quiet time was gone, and so were all of the individual and organizational benefits. Why would people give up a practice that was so radically successful?

Perlow investigated this question, and discovered that there was a culture of heroism in the unit. An underlying assumption was that being a hero was the most important thing an employee could be. Being a hero won a person positive attention, praise, and sometimes even promotions. If there were no crises, there could be no heroes. And there were no crises as long as quiet time was being practiced.

Perlow’s analysis is more sophisticated than what I have summarized here, but this is sufficient to make the point. A day had 24 hours in it before, during, and after Perlow instituted the practice of quiet time. The time pressures that people experienced were not caused by too much work to do in too little time. They were caused by poor time management, which was in turned caused by a series of cultural assumptions that prevented people from seeing and understanding how bad their time management was. As Monica said, “I think we often confuse ‘time’ with other kinds of pressure, so ‘I don’t have time,’ is actually a way of saying that we are feeling a lot of pressure from something or someone and we don’t have a good way of handling the pressure.”

Personal Application

During those early years in my career, I occasionally received good advice with regard to this issue of attributing the pressure that we feel to time pressures instead of to the real, underlying issue. At one particularly stressful point, a colleague said to me, “Why are you so tense about a dealine that is ultimately arbitrary?” He was right–I could have negotiated a different deadline. Another colleague, as I discussed the time pressures of doing research during the six-year window before receiving tenure said something even wiser: “Why don’t you just assume that you are going to be successful so that you can stop worrying about it?” While the first piece of advice recognized that my deadline was arbitrary, the second piece of advice went a step further–it pointed out to me that the real reason I was stressed was not because of time pressures, but because of my fear of failing, and my fear of what other people would think of me if I failed.

Sometimes time pressure is real: there is literally only so much work that can be done within a specified amount of time. Sometimes there are legitimate reasons to do everything you can to complete things by a deadline, even if it is a stressful experience. For instance, I worked many more hours than usual during the past two weeks to meet an arbitrary deadline because I wanted the peace of mind of knowing that my project was complete before I went on vacation. Sometimes we deceive ourselves unnecessarily into thinking time is the issue when it is not. For example, in my doctoral program, the reason I put so much pressure on myself was because I was really worried about looking stupid and not having an income for a year. I was severely disappointed when I failed to get my research done and had to extend a year. Now, however, I can look back and say that it really was not that big of a deal. Imagine how much stress I would have saved for myself and for others if I just would have admitted that to myself back then.

* Perlow, L. A. 1999. The time famine: Toward a sociology of work time. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(1): 57-71.