Get time on your side in 2014: 3 mental tools to be more effective

 In Insights, Productivity, Realizer Blog

Science has shown that time does actually go faster as we age. With 2014 upon us, how can you get time on your side and not end the year saying “where did it go?”

How we perceive time

Our brains process information continuously, but most of it we don’t pay any attention to and gets ignored. If the brain decides that it’s something you’ve seen before, it processes it very quickly. Whereas if it’s something new, your brain spends more time processing it and therefore time seems to slow down.

Similar reasoning explains why life seems to speed up every year. Let’s take the year you were 14. It was full of new people, situations, lessons, places. Their sheer novelty made them easier to remember. Your 14th year felt like it packed a lot in and therefore felt quite long. Fast forward to forty. You’ve settled into a routine, most things are familiar. Same job, same friends, same places. Seen it all before. So your fortieth year has less highlights, all the detail slips away from memory and it feels like a quicker year.

Evidence shows that we can learn to have more positive perceptions of time. We can get it back on our side rather than ending every day, week and year wondering what happened and looking wistfully at our to-do list.

I wrote previously about how to make quick decisions and stop procrastinating. Here are 3 ideas about how to change the way you use your time.

Trade boring, low value tasks for exciting high value tasks

Tim Ferriss’s book, The 4 Hour Work Week promotes eliminating unnecessary work completely. He uses the 80/20 rule to encourage you to identify what 20% of your work gets 80% of the results, and starting focusing more on this and cutting out everything else. Then he gets more specific. Only check your email twice a day. Stop reading news and checking facebook and twitter.

Perhaps most important, my own research shows that many people spend between 20-40% of their time in low value meetings. The obvious solution is to refuse to attend meetings without agendas and outcomes. And a personal favourite is to start meetings 5 minutes past the hour and end them at 25 past the hour, saving 33% on a half hour meeting, without any loss of value.

Linking to the idea of novelty, it’s also a good idea to eliminate, delegate or outsource any boring or repetitive tasks which are essentially wasting your precious seconds on this earth.

Replace them by asking yourself, “What am I doing today which I will remember at the end of this year? And will my boss remember it?”

Overcome prioritisation pitfalls

You’re at your desk, starting back after lunch. How do you decide what to do next? Even if you have the discipline of drawing up your tasks into an urgent/important matrix, we all fall into the mental trap of choosing the things we like doing more, and avoiding doing the things we are uncomfortable with.

There’s a second trap waiting too. We tend to want to tick things off our lists, and if faced with a list of ten things, what’s the quickest way to make it look smaller? To do the easiest, quickest thing first.  For example, research shows that when people have multiple debts, instead of paying down the one with the highest interest rate first, they pay down the debt which is smallest, in the hope they can get one debt off their list.

What’s often happening is that when faced with a choice of either a)”letting Bernie know she’s got a pay rise” or b) “writing next year’s business plan”, the latter is such a big task that you don’t know where to start. So you call up Bernie instead.

One powerful trick to overcome this is to avoid having these really big tasks on your to-do-list. Instead, chunk big tasks down into just the next specific step, e.g. “set up first strategy meeting for Monday”. Your to-do list moves along quickly and you can prioritise effectively.

Forecasting fallacies

If you’ve been to Barcelona you’ll know the Sagrada Familia cathedral which, begun in 1882. The latest estimate says it will be finished by 2028 – “if all goes according to plan”. Things often take longer than we expected.

This psychological error has its own name – the Planning Fallacy. One reason why we’re so bad at estimating time to complete tasks is that we focus on the best case scenario and fail to take into account hiccups like illness or vacations. To overcome the planning fallacy, here’s what you need to do.

  1. Conduct a pre-mortem, looking at what could go wrong. Therefore you’re prepared for eventualities and will actually save time.
  2. Use real examples of how long previous similar projects have taken, and adjust your estimate based on any differences with the new project


My approach to time is based in psychology – how we really think about time, and how it affects our decisions.

If you add novelty, eliminate boring stuff, chunk down your big tasks into smaller steps, and forecast effectively – you can get time on your side in 2014.