Hidden Time

I crashed whilst mountain biking in the Pyrenees last week. It hurt. Ten days have now passed and tomorrow I will have my tenth ‘first’ examination of the injuries. Each time the conclusion has been to refer me onwards, and at each link in the chain they have repeated the same first examination and induced the same eye-wateringly painful response. Not one person in the chain has been happy to take the word of the person I saw before them. I am getting intensely frustrated by being poked and prodded without ever moving the treatment onwards to the next stage.

Today, the first sign that we may be moving forwards, was when two separate departments rang to tell me about the same appointment to see the next person in the chain. That’s a significant amount of repetition and wasted energy. Each and every one of these people were doing their best, and yet somehow, between them all, we have wasted hours going over the same ground.

The paradox is that if there is one statement I hear more than any other it is: “If only I had more time”, or its sibling: “I don’t have the time.” We live in a time famine. I see lots of people working longer hours than they should, neglecting their personal health in an effort to get the job done because of the pressure they feel under. It’s not a huge leap to ask the question whether, just like examining my injuries, there is a chunk of time needlessly wasted that is placing people under unnecessary pressure.

Rather than start by examining what others are doing, I decided to assess what I am doing to see whether I too am guilty of the same. I’m ashamed to say it’s been an embarrassing process. I did think I was efficient and effective with how I spent my time. I don’t watch television, except very occasionally. I’ve ditched the distraction of social media and I’ve figured out the best time to get work done is before anyone else is up. In short, I felt a smug sense of satisfaction that I was extracting the most value from the time available I could. It turns out I was wrong.

What I noticed was that when I open an email, I will often have a casual glance to see what it is about, and then come back to it later. So most emails are opened at least twice. I have a pile of papers on my desk that I must have re-organised at least four or five times, rather than dealing with it all once.

We were making a meal for friends the other night and I had to make two additional trips to the shop for ingredients I needed. I was reading an article and picked up on a reference mentioned within. I searched for the reference online and found myself distracted by something else I saw. I’ve no idea how long the distraction lasted, but it was too long. In short, it’s poor performance. It’s a waste of time. What annoys me most is that my hobby of ultra-distance bicycle racing demands a disciplined approach to pit stops to minimise time off the bike, as it all counts. I’m obsessed by thinking through the sequence in which I do things in order to maximise the efficiency and effectiveness. What I have failed to do is to transfer this learning more generally.

And so the question I have posed to myself across the board is: ‘What’s the least number of steps I can take to complete tasks?’ Not just at work, or in my sport, but in everything. In a way, it’s working out how to be as lazy as possible and how I can get the best return for the least effort. Of course this is nothing new.
Japanese methods of manufacturing in the 1980s and 1990s obsessed about how to take out unnecessary steps in the production process to ensure it was as efficient and effective as possible. I’ve been surprised at just where the savings to be had exist, from the trivial of realising I could empty the dishwasher with less moves and less opening of drawers and cupboards, to the more important realisation that if I introduced a better process for coding research articles, I could spend far less time trying to find the source of useful insights.

Above all, what has struck me most is the need to consciously seek to refine the process, which requires you not to do anything in the first instance, until you’ve thought it through. I am hoping that as I begin to refine and improve processes, I will habitualise them and that pre-thought will become redundant.

Why bother? Just think about it. If during the course of one day you could spend ten minutes less doing what you do, that equates to 60 hours a year, or five, 12 hour days of activity, free of charge. I believe my ineptitude means I will release even more than this. This is time that could be spent studying, playing with the children / grandchildren, sleeping, exercising or doing whatever you want it to be. What it isn’t is time saved. You can only spend time. Think of it like this: Finding time in this way is a bit like finding loose change down the back of the sofa; it’s your money, but you will get more value by doing something with it than you will by leaving it where it is.

Dominic Irvine © 2017