I got up this morning at 5 a.m. and was pretty pleased with myself when I made it to my 9:30 a.m. coffee catch-up meeting only 7 minutes past the scheduled start. I'm chronically late--not typically when meeting with my clients, but certainly with my friends and family. They're generally pretty accommodating, but I suspect that they've been more than irritated with this pattern over the years. So every year, I resolve to be more punctual, with little success until now.

I've been curious to know why this is the case and found a clue when I came across this podcast with Richard Thaler, "Why Most Economists Might as Well Be Studying Unicorns." The point of this chat with NPR's Shankar Vedantam is not specifically about lateness or loss in productivity, but more about all of the mental tricks we play on ourselves to make sense of our world and rationalize our decisions.

Mental accounting is the way we add things up--specifically money and time--in our heads. What won't surprise you is that none of us are perfectly accurate. Instead, we attach feelings to expenses and earnings that cause us to view pots of money differently. We do this with time, as well.

Getting out of the house in the morning is one example. The list of activities is predictable and not particularly daunting. And yet, if you're like me, there are an infinite number of distractions from what to wear, to what to eat, to what to pack, which can cause a cumulative series of delays.

Answering email is another example. A message from your boss pops up, and you think it will (or should) take 30 seconds to write back. Of course, it never does. Most emails require you to find a file, look up a detail, adjust a calendar invitation, or make a decision. All of these things add up to make email much more time consuming in the moment than we give it credit for. That's why we're all so frustrated with email, but we don't stop. It seems big and wasteful when you look back at the whole of your day and recognize how "Ooh, there's another. I'll just answer it real quick" takes over and more time slips by.

It's not lying to yourself really because what you're saying jibes with the story running in your head. However, there is a level of rationalization going on that we don't often take the time to notice.

Patterns of imprecise time estimating are what keep us in that perpetual state of feeling behind and overwhelmed. 

If we knew and acknowledged how much time various tasks took, we'd not only get more done, but we'd feel more confident in our ability to finish what we set out to do in the first place.

So, how does mental accounting for time hurt us in business?

The biggest way is that we anticipate the hard, important things on our list to take more time than less important items. So, the more important work is put off or not started at all. We tell ourselves that we're waiting for a block of uninterrupted time that will make the dreaded "to do" seem more do-able, yet that day rarely comes.

To get better at mental accounting, you have to do two things consistently.

1. Time yourself on the important but not urgent tasks to put a real figure on how long it takes.

This is even more important if those important actions have some regularity to them, such as writing proposals, reaching out to past clients, describing your product for your website, or any number of basic business operations tasks. For me, this is billing. While I love seeing the payments hit my account, I hate putting the invoices together. What I've found, though, after timing this exercise is that, in an average month, it takes 12 minutes. Really. Not. That. Bad.

2. Use a timer to get big projects started.

Set it for 15 minutes and tell yourself that you're going to work only until the timer goes off. As you hit "start," do whatever you can in that time. Of course, you're probably going to feel like you should keep going until the next logical stopping point. If you do, that's great. If not, shut it down and start again later.

Getting more precise with your mental accounting for time is one of the keys of conquering your schedule. When you get real about how long and how short key tasks take, you can plan accordingly. I've used these tricks myself and have seen a definite improvement in my ability to make it on time to the various commitments throughout the day.

Published on: Jun 14, 2016
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