Time is of the Essence – Productivity Blog Series

Why is it that we are so busy these days? There are a lot of people telling us that they don’t have time to plan how they’re spending their time as they are too busy. They are too busy trying to do the things, which they think are expected of them in order to rise to the top and get the next promotion and the next pay raise. But why is this? Shouldn’t technological advances have made life easier for us and meant we could work less by now?

This is the mid May installment in our series on Productivity. In order to read the previous articles, you can start here at the first article, which also contains links to the other blog posts written so far.

“Wow! Has it already been two weeks since I last wrote a blog on productivity?” I might be inclined to utter some kind of utterly inane drivel such as “how time flies…”, but in this article we are going to look at our concept of time – and how we are ACTUALLY spending it.

What is Time?

We’re living in a world where for the last several centuries most of us agree on the “structure” of time. We have 60 seconds in a minute; 60 minutes in an hour; 24 hours in a day; 7 days in a week; and about 52 weeks in a year for a grand total of 365 days a year – or about the same time as it takes Earth to orbit the Sun. We talk about a generation being about 30 years and the average life span in the Western world rapidly approaching 80 odd years.

This means that there should be enough time to get everything done that we need/want to. Right? Looking at the grand scheme of things these measurements pale into insignificance. The Earth’s age is estimated to be 4.54 BILLION YEARS, dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago (after having inhabited Earth for about 165 million years), and the last ice age lasted almost 100,000 years (or several million years if we want to get truly technical) up until about 12,000 years ago.

As Claus Moller pointed out:

“Time is the most democratic of all your resources. Everybody has the same available time at their disposal every day: 24 hours.”


Considering how slowly evolution went by for the first billions of years on Earth, we are now faced with explosive developments in terms of technology, which help foster quantum shifts in all areas of life. However, one thing hasn’t really changed in these times when innovation is happening faster and faster and our lives are being disrupted by new technologies, new processes and new companies while you are sat reading this article.

What has all of this technology done for our time management and productivity? Erm, I’m not sure you really want to know…

Back in the 1930s, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technological evolution would mean that one hundred years hence people would only have to work 15 hours per week – and much of it because they chose to. This would mean a huge surge in the leisure time afforded to people. How wrong can one be?

The reality is that we now inhabit a world where time scarcity has become the prevailing issue, to the extent that the strategic management consultancy McKinsey is now advocating it needs to be dealt with at the corporate, rather than the individual, level.

By any stretch of the imagination, who of the readers of this blog can honestly say (unless you’re currently unemployed) that you have more spare time available now than you did 10 or 20 years ago? One of the key reasons for this is how we value our time. Can you put a price on how much you can earn if you spend one hour at work? If you’re a shift worker you definitely can, but what about managers? They can break down their annual salary by month, working day and that way reach an approximation of their hourly worth in the market. However, what happens if you try to factor in that extra shift you put in every week in order to get promoted faster – and be remunerated accordingly? Would you rather spend the time at home on the sofa watching reality TV? I didn’t think so…

Even though we all have the same amount of time available – it is clear that we value it differently. And probably rightly so. We live in an age where income in real terms has barely risen for unskilled more work for the last 3 decades, but where successful people in all fields keep on raising the bar in terms of remuneration substantially. Just look at the salaries of top directors and how much they can rise in a year or think about Premiership footballers and how much they’re paid. To think that it was only in 1961 the maximum weekly wage was abolished through the work of Jimmy Hill. Today the average salary in the Premier League is £31,000 per WEEK!

Time is Money!

This renewed focus on building our income has also helped fuel a second coming of conspicuous consumption (or maybe the late 1980s and early 1990s recessions were just a blip on the long term radar of a society focused more on material goods than how we spend our time and with whom. In economist Staffan Linder’s satirical look at consumption in “The Harried Leisure Class” (1970), he wrote: “After dinner, he may find himself drinking Brazilian coffee, smoking a Dutch cigar, sipping a French cognac, reading The New York Times, listening to a Brandenburg Concerto and entertaining his Swedish wife – all at the same time, with varying degrees of success.

We clearly live in the age of the cash rich and time poor. A time where we can put a value on every second of our time – and which means we’re more inclined to spend it doing the thing that means we get the highest return on our investment (time). That is one of the key reasons why people spend so much time at work!

Did you know that 4 out of 10 British managers report they spend more than 60 hours a week at work (source: The Economist)? Back in the 1980s (when we didn’t have all of our technical “tools”) managers would often be found working less than blue collar workers. Today it is generally the other way round. Unskilled workers now find themselves with more time on their hands, whereas skilled workers find that in order to get ahead (or even just stay at a level pegging) they need to work so much harder – or at least spend more time at the office – than their peers.

Structural labour market changes have meant that unskilled workers have fewer job opportunities as the West moves away from manufacturing towards service sector jobs. But, perhaps most fundamentally, there are two factors in place meaning that we’re now spending more time in the office than ever before:

  1. Overall life time living costs will rise along with the general life expectancy, meaning that our pensions will kick in later and we will need to save more to pay for our retirement. This is coupled with a perceived greater job insecurity and what, in many countries, is turning out to be a very fragile economic recovery from the global recession.
  2. The lack of measurability for work undertaken by today’s knowledge workers means that time spent at the office is often equated with productivity. This means we might not get any work done, but the PERCEPTION is that we cannot be productive unless we throw time at a problem.

What on Earth happened to the concept of “working smarter, not harder”?!?

Because of the value that we now place on our time we have to constantly make choices how we use the finite amount of leisure time as one choice invariably will exclude something else. According to the article in The Economist this has also meant that we’ve become more impatient (to the point where we will abandon anything that seems like it takes a second too long). This search for instant gratification, so as not to feel wasteful with our time, is also adding to the amount of stress in our daily lives:

“The ability to satisfy desires instantly also breeds impatience, fuelled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much else. People visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google. More than a fifth of internet users will abandon an online video if it takes longer than five seconds to load. When experiences can be calculated according to the utility of a millisecond, all seconds are more anxiously judged for their utility.” (Source: The Economist)


And what of our health?

The big problem with this is that it also has an adverse effect on our health. Our time – and how we (and others) try to manage it – is one of the biggest causes of stress – to the extent that the NHS now have a page on “time management tips” on their web site to help prevent stress.

There are some interesting aspects to this entire situation we find ourselves in:

  • Leisure time for the well educated has fallen in real terms and is now at around the levels from 1965
  • Working parents find themselves spending more time with their children than they did in the 1980s – and educated parents spend a lot more time with their children than was the case in the past
  • The inequality in wages and consumption between senior management and shop floor workers has increased massively in the last 30 years
  • In the 19th century, having a lot of leisure time was seen as an indicator of wealth and status whereas today, the richer we become and busier we are is now the situation that people are striving to find themselves in as it’s a visible sign of success

All of this is based around the notion that we must work harder than ever before to earn more money than ever before – in order to pay for our retirements where we will, hopefully, get to relax and enjoy both our time AND money. Unless, we drop dead from a heart attack in our 40s…

In Germany and France there is now legislation in place to try and free the employees from the “tyranny” of their phones and emails. Whether this will have a positive impact by reducing stress and having a restorative effect on employee health – or backfire dramatically (i.e. the domestic output drops and competitiveness plummets in relation to international competitors) still remains to be seen…

It is thought provoking that according to the great article in The Economist, “In Search of Lost Time: Why are we so Busy?” educated people are now spending so much more time with their children – and the assertion that this is all in order to give them a head start in life – in order to prepare them for what it will require to rise to the top. Worst of all is the thought that all of this is likely to become exacerbated going forward as we’re not likely to leave them huge amounts of money (and therefore time) so we need to help them prepare for the future so they can fight for themselves. Now the rat race against other parents when it comes to schools and extracurricular activities suddenly makes a lot of sense…

The article also went on to say:

“Writing in the first century, Seneca was startled by how little people seemed to value their lives as they were living them—how busy, terribly busy, everyone seemed to be, mortal in their fears, immortal in their desires and wasteful of their time. He noticed how even wealthy people hustled their lives along, ruing their fortune, anticipating a time in the future when they would rest. “People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy,” he observed in “On the Shortness of Life”, perhaps the very first time-management self-help book. Time on Earth may be uncertain and fleeting, but nearly everyone has enough of it to take some deep breaths, think deep thoughts and smell some roses, deeply. “Life is long if you know how to use it,” he counselled.”

Ultimately, though the most apt description from The Economist article is this:

“Alas time, ultimately, is a strange and slippery resource, easily traded, visible only when it passes and often most highly valued when it is gone. No one has ever complained of having too much of it. Instead, most people worry over how it flies, and wonder where it goes. Cruelly, it runs away faster as people get older, as each accumulating year grows less significant, proportionally, but also less vivid. Experiences become less novel and more habitual. The years soon bleed together and end up rushing past, with the most vibrant memories tucked somewhere near the beginning. And of course the more one tries to hold on to something, the swifter it seems to go.”

So what can we do to stop this vicious circle. Answers in an Instant Message, please!