Our Instincts Betrayal Us

Our instincts betrayal us when it comes to time management. Period.

Human instincts help us in many conditions. Unfortunately, I have realized that our instincts fail us when it comes to time management. I have watched too many times people that had poor time management skills because their instincts guided them there.

In order to get the right time management instincts, we need to practice, a lot. No one is born with the proper time management instincts – I certainly wasn’t born with it (I was so bad in it 10 year ago…). The initial time management instincts usually send us to the opposite direction – make us use methods that result poor time management.

This post is about making us aware of that. The awareness is the first and most important step in getting better in this time management journey. Let me share a scenario I ran into in my work place in the past year (over and over…).

Use case – reading all notification emails

This example is taken from the software development world. I would mention JIRA here – JIRA is a defect tracking system, while JIRA notification emails are emails that are being automatically generated by the JIRA system for every change in a software defect that is related to the team.

  • Erez: “Ben, do you manage to get to zero Inbox from time to time?”
  • Ben: “No, I have too many daily emails, should I allocate more time during the day for reading email?”
  • Erez: “don’t jump in to a conclusion yet – let’s have a look at your Inbox and see what is going on there”
  • Ben: “OK, here you go”
  • Erez: “I can see you have many JIRA notification emails”
  • Ben: “Yes”
  • Erez: “What do you do with those notification emails?”
  • Ben: “I read all of them. Well, actually I should read all of them, but I don’t always manage to do so since there is a huge amount of them every day”
  • Erez: “OK, why do you read them?”
  • Ben: “Because I should be aware of all the changes in defects that are done in my team”
  • Erez: “Why?”
  • Ben: “Because there might be a defect that would require my attention”
  • Erez: “If someone needs your attention on a specific defect, that person will write your name explicitly in the defect comment and that would be part of the email notification – is that correct?”
  • Ben: “Yes”
  • Erez: “So your team size is 5 people. Assuming the defects are distributed more or less evenly between the team members, it means that only 20% of the emails are really aimed for you to read”
  • Ben: “That sounds right, but for the other 80%, there also might be something that requires my attention, but someone just forgot to explicitly write my name in the defect comment”
  • Erez: “How often does it happen?”
  • Ben: “I don’t know… maybe once in 2 weeks…”
  • Erez: “OK. Let’s do a bit of a math here. Let’s assume you get 20 JIRA email notifications a day. 4 of them (20%) are for you. The rest 16 aren’t. Every 10 days you have 1 that should have required your attention, but your name wasn’t mentioned. This means that 1 out of 160 emails required your attention without mentioning your name. It means you read 100% of emails (the ones that don’t mention your name) for catching scenarios that happen in probability of 0.625%.”
  • Ben: “Mmm… yes, so what?”
  • Erez: “Let’s take it a step further. Every email reading takes ~60 seconds in general (30 seconds for the email, plus 2×15 seconds for context switch between tasks). It means that you spend 1.25 hours a week (160 minutes every 2 weeks) for something that provides you no value.”
  • Ben: “OK, when you put it this way, I see I do waste precious time”
  • Erez: “Exactly. By applying a simple Outlook rule, you can filter out the unnecessary JIRA email notifications and remain only with those that are targeted for you. For the 1-out-of-160 case, you will miss it, but eventually the person that needs your attention will reach out to you – then you can do some lesson learning with that person to make sure your name is do mentioned on such defect comment for the next time”.

See here how to apply such a rule.

This is only a single example that shows that our initial instinct is wrong and it causes us to waste precious time. I have many more examples for such cases. For example, using the read-unread approach for managing emails in Outlook, where read means I handled the email, and unread means I didn’t handle it yet (I would probably write a post on this specific topic). Another example is organizing our emails in physical folders (see here).

I can keep going with endless such stories. I assume we are just too lazy when it comes to investing energy in improving our time management skills, or maybe we just don’t realize we can benefit from it. I see hard workers every day investing endless hours at work, while working inefficiently. And on the other hand, people that work much less hours, achieving higher productivity.

In the industrial revolution days, a worker on a product-line had productivity that is correlated to his/her working hours. In our days, when the workers are knowledge-workers, there is no such correlation anymore. On the contrary, too many working hours cause decline in our productivity. There are many researches out there indicating that.

I was using all the bad practices till I got improved, slowly, by using trial and error of many methods, by reading books and posts, but watching and hearing online courses. My advice is – take the time to improve your time management skills. The more time you invest in that, the more time you would save.