How Our Human Nature Affects Our Time Management In The Workplace

Spike Team
By Spike Team, Updated on October 01, 2021, 11 min read

We all like to think that we’re rational creatures, that we make choices based on logic and facts to further our goals and fulfill our self-interest. But, after all, are we not the creatures who built great cities and sent a man to the moon?


On the other hand, we reel at the thought of being compared to computers, with their binary choices and cold rationality. The idea that humans and machines are anything alike will be shouted down if ever brought up (Blade Runner, anybody?).


So which is it? Are we rational? Are we not? And which do we even want to be?


Bertrand Russel seems to put it well when he says:


“Man is a rational animal. So at least we have been told. Throughout a long life, I have searched diligently for evidence in favor of this statement. So far, I have not had the good fortune to come across it.”


In short, we like to think we are rational (and say we are reasonable), but at the end of the day, all the evidence seems to suggest we are anything but. Rather than rationality, many of our choices are driven by subconscious biases, leading to poor decisions that often go against our self-interests.


Numerous cognitive biases have an impact on our ability to make rational decisions, so we thought we would look at the seven of those that will impact your time management, as well as ways to curb their effects.



What Should I Prioritize and How Should I Prioritize It?



One of the first things to consider is prioritizing our time and our tasks –a critical time management skill. This can be especially hard to do when we have a whole heap of tasks, and everything feels equally important. Unfortunately, when this does happen, humans tend to focus on the most time-sensitive instead rather than looking for the most critical tasks.


This is called the Mere Urgency Effect and argues that we prioritize urgent tasks over what we perceive as non-urgent tasks, even if the rewards are much greater for the latter. Time sensitivity seems to trump importance every single time.


This goes a long way to explaining why we get sucked into small but instant tasks rather than focussing on longer but more essential tasks. So, for example, if you’re trying to get something important done that has no fixed deadline, then hear the “ping” of an email arriving, you’re probably going to open it and switch to whatever small thing it’s asking of you (even if that’s just replying).


Does this benefit you in the long run? No. Is the email more critical? Probably not. But it does seem more urgent, so we are naturally biased to switch to that task and suffer the worst consequences of bad time management.



The Solution

A simple time management tip to combat the adverse effects of this cognitive bias is to create actual prioritized tasks lists, so they aren’t just in your head. This way, you can think about what you’re deciding and why you’re deciding it rather than simply leaving it to your bias.


There are a few ways to prioritize effectively. First, you could use a Priority Matrix, such as the Eisenhower Matrix, which looks at importance vs. urgency. Additionally, you could try using Relative Prioritization, which makes you consciously rank tasks. There is also the Most Important Tasks (MITs) Method, the Single Focus Method, and more!


A great way to implement these prioritizing methods for you and your team is by using Online Notes, which allows you to build interactive prioritized lists with easy sorting and formatting options to set the most critical tasks apart. Additionally, Spike Tasks offer a simple way to make progress-tracking tasks from within your Inbox.


Additionally, to avoid the lure of instant tasks, avoid the notifications that let you know they are there! Switch off notifications on your phone, computer, and anywhere else you get them.



An Overload of Uncompleted Tasks

Do you ever find yourself juggling a bunch of different tasks at the same time, and to your surprise, knowing what you are doing for each of them? But then, as soon as you’re done for the day and somebody asks what you were doing, your face is blank. Nada. Nothing. You couldn’t say a single thing you’ve been working on.


Well, that’s because our attention is drawn to unfinished or incomplete tasks rather than those we’ve already wrapped. This works well when we’re trying to finish up the last few bits of a project before moving on to the next thing, but you can quickly become overwhelmed if you find yourself with too many unfinished tasks on your books.


This is down to something called the Zeigarnik Effect, which was coined in the 1920s when Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik investigated that waiters seemed to remember incomplete tabs more efficiently than those paid for.


At work, the Zeigarnik Effect can lead to uncompleted tasks stacking up and rearing their ugly heads in your personal life, throwing your work-life time management entirely out of whack.



The Solution

You’ll be happy to hear that you don’t have to complete all your tasks in a single day to avoid the Zeigarnik Effect. Instead, simply creating a to-do list and writing down what you have left is enough to relieve your mind of the pressure that might otherwise spill over into your personal life.


With Spike, this is super simple since there are powerful To-Do lists right within your inbox. At the end of your workday, simply create a new To-Do list and write down all your unfinished tasks and how you plan on completing them.



Overly Optimistic Planning



We’ve all been in that position when you tell yourself – or worse, your boss – that you can totally get that piece of work done in a week. Then Friday comes round, and you’re still not done. Not even close to being done.


Don’t worry; you can blame this on the bias. People tend to underestimate how long a task will take. This is most clear for mega-projects, which seem to always run over time and budget. The Denver International Airport, for example, opened sixteen months late and cost over $2 billion more than expected. Similarly, the California High-Speed Rail project is still under construction.


This planning fallacy can lead to abysmal time management, so how do you beat it?



The Solution

The first step to beating overly optimistic planning is to break any big projects down into smaller pieces, which you can plan for more easily. You can then manage your time based on these incremental steps or tally them to get a more realistic estimate of the total time.


Additionally, you need to map these time frames out and see how they fit into your more comprehensive work schedule. The simplest way to do this is using a calendar. Spike offers the opportunity to sync up all your calendars in a single location, which can be invaluable when getting an overview.


You can then take the small pieces of a project, see if they fit into your calendar, and make an informed decision about how long a project is going to take – or if it’s feasible for you to do it at all.



Going All-in on a Lost Cause



“Well, I’ve already come this far!”


It’s a prevalent mindset and something that we have no doubt all found ourselves doing. Once you sink time, money, effort, or energy into a project, it can be tough to walk away. However, we feel as if everything so far will be lost if we quit, so we’re better off still going even if the outlook is bleak.


This is what’s known as the Sunk Cost Fallacy since it refers to the effects of costs (time, money, etc.) that have already been invested and you can’t get back. The rational decision in many situations would be to walk away. If, for example, you’re 40 minutes into a movie and realize you don’t like it, the rational decision would be to turn it off.


However, due to our bias, we will often stick it out to the end because we feel as though we’ve already invested time which would then go to waste – even though you end up wasting more time by watching the movie! With this, it’s clear to see how it can lead to poor time management since we dedicate otherwise applicable time to futile tasks.



The Solution

The first step to avoiding going all-in on a lost cause is to reassess what you are doing and why regularly. We can continue pumping time into a project long past when we should have walked away simply by not taking the time to analyze it.


Take time on a weekly, monthly, and yearly basis to sit down and address all of your ongoing projects. Ask yourself: is this going somewhere? Then, carefully consider the possible outcomes of continuing with that project – both positive and negative – and make a conscious choice about moving forward without thinking about the sunk cost. Sunk costs are gone. Let them go!



Instant Gratification Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be

Do you want one marshmallow now or two later? We know that two will be better. We know two is 100% more than our current offering, yet it’s just so tempting to take the marshmallow!


And you know what? Most of us would take the marshmallow because humans tend to settle for a smaller immediate reward rather than wait for a bigger one, in the Present bias.


This bias can easily make us prioritize the “right now” over the future, which for time management can mean doing fun things today even though we know we will have to work harder tomorrow. This can have even stronger effects over a more extended period of time when we might take the easy option now despite knowing that waiting will lead to career and personal development down the line.


The Solution

Despite knowing that this bias exists and actively hurting us, we still tend to fall for it because it is tough to have a clear picture of future rewards. So, instead of trying to ignore the fun things and focus on the future, why not make the not-so-fun things a little more bearable so you won’t put them off?


Try building tedious tasks with more exciting activities to get yourself into the routine of doing them. So, if you really hate writing reports last thing on a Friday, but know if you don’t, they’ll be waiting first thing Monday, try popping on a playlist while you get the work done.


It may sound simple, but something as small as having your favorite music playing while you get a task done can bring up the overall enjoyment of what you’re doing.



You’re Overcomplicating Your Own Life

We’re sorry to be the ones to have to tell you this, but you’re making things harder for yourself. Humans tend to give more recognition to complex solutions rather than simple ones, and so we end up choosing unnecessarily complicated options.


It’s the reason why, when faced with a bit of extra weight from working at home, we’ll look up three different fasts, how cardio should be included in our sleep schedule, and a machine that jiggles our belly. When really, we should be eating less, and mostly vegetables. We like to complicate things!


The problem is, complicated systems and solutions often have far more moving parts, and each one of those parts is a possible fail point. So what we see as elaborate yet elegant is overly complicated and just waiting to fail.



The Solution

To avoid overcomplicating your own life, take the time to think about your problem, then come up with a realistic approach to deal with it. Many people find following the law of Occam’s Razor useful when doing this, which states that the simplest solution is most often the correct one: “When you hear hoofbeats, think of horses, not zebras.”


When it comes to time management, this means not immediately downloading a thousand apps that each promise to help you focus. Instead, take your time to discover what you need and how that can be consolidated into a single, simple solution.



The Happiness Baseline

We are all hunting for happiness in one way or another, yet it almost always feels just out of reach. This is due to Hedonic adaptation, which argues that after positive or negative events in our lives and the feelings that go along with that event, we return to a pretty stable baseline of happiness.


It’s also called the hedonic treadmill. That is essentially the effect it can have on us – we keep striving for something that will make us happy, achieving it, but returning to a baseline that leaves us looking for the next thing make us happy. As a result, we end up in a never-ending pursuit for happiness that wastes time and energy.


Imagine, for example, that you’ve been saving up for a new car. You are so excited about this car – it is the car of your dreams. Eventually, you’ve got the cash, so you head to the dealership, and it is the best day of your life ever! Three days go by, and you’re still happy, but a week? A month? Eventually, you return to your baseline and have to start all over again.



The Solution

We can’t avoid falling back to our happiness baseline – it is what it is. However, we can break up our lives into more rewarding parts based on the knowledge that it exists. Instead of planning big goals and getting one hit of happiness off them, break them down into smaller pieces.


Not only will this mean many small boosts to your happiness, but it has the added bonus of making those goals more manageable overall!



Cognitive Biases and How to Avoid Them

While we like to think we are rational, we quite clearly aren’t, with stacks of biases pulling our time, energy, and decisions in loads of different directions – often to our detriment. That said, there are ways to tackle them, especially when we know what they are. So, before losing time to unknown biases, remember to:

  • Prioritize tasks based on importance, not urgency

  • Make a list of incomplete tasks at the end of the day to keep them from distracting you

  • Be realistic in your planning and break big projects down for more accurate time projections

  • Beware the Sunk Cost Fallacy!

  • Think about the future, and failing that, how the present can be better

  • The simplest solution is often the best one

  • Make the most of the little things; your happiness baseline is unlikely to shift.

For more time management tips and tricks, check out the  Spike blog today or tweet us @SpikeNowHQ.

Spike Team
Spike Team The Spike team posts about productivity, time management, and the future of email, messaging and collaboration.

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