Distances Muddy Your Mind

Our minds struggle with time management the longer the timeline we’re trying to manage becomes. Our brain is wired to understand things that feel far away from us in time, space, or even our social network more abstractly than things it determines to be close to you.

When you start planning a project, its middle and end stages are farther away from you in time than its beginning, which invariably means they’ll be more abstract to you conceptually as well. Thinking about the future abstractly typically causes two major problems for planning. First and more obviously, we underestimate all the steps that will be involved—it just seems a lot simpler than it will likely prove to be.

Second, you’ll probably fail to anticipate many of the specific distractions that will take you away from work. You forget about all the emails that will keep flooding in and need to be addressed. You discount the routine tasks that come up during the workweek that take up your time. You forget about how often minor emergencies happen at work that temporarily sideline your longer-term projects.

Finally, when the success of your project also relies on the activities of other people, you underestimate the amount of time it will take them to complete their tasks. Often, you aren’t deeply familiar with all the steps they’ll have to take in order to finish what they’ve been asked to do; you just assume those assignments are easier than they are simply because you’re not the one doing them. And even when you ask your teammates for a time estimate, their brains will behave just like yours—and underestimate the amount of time it’ll take to wrap things up.

There are two things you can do to get around these mental roadblocks and manage your time more effectively. One is to tackle the time variable first: Try to mentally reduce the distance between present and future when you plan. Slipt, fragment, divide the different tasks. Pretend the start date and the end date are much sooner than they really are. That can help trick your brain into accounting for all the things that are likely to interfere with your progress later down the road.

Second, just build in padding to account for all of the aspects of the scheduling process that you didn’t think of explicitly. Assuming a project will take between 10% and 25% longer than you expect is typically a good place to start.

Summing-up: Long distance makes us thing more abstractly, and this is a risk. Reduce the distance in your mind, and add some padding for the distractions and the unforseen events.

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