Time is ticking by and it is almost time to head out the door. This is the moment when many of us ask the “dangerous” question, “Do I have time to do one more thing before I go?” In all likelihood, the smart answer to this question is probably “No.”
Before I explain why, let me acknowledge that I completely understand why we ask this question. We are all pressed for time, trying to get as much as possible accomplished in what little time we have. It is so tempting to try to squeeze a task into every small snippet of time we have. Chores that often fall into this category include:
- Making a quick phone call
- Running upstairs to put something away
- Tossing in a load of laundry
- Doing the dishes that are sitting in the sink
- Checking email
- Looking something up online
Of course, the possibilities are endless.
Nevertheless, there are at least four reasons why we should resist trying to fit in one last little thing to do.
First, we regularly under-estimate the time it takes to complete a task.
We think a job will take five minutes, but in reality it takes ten, fifteen or more. For example, calling to make an appointment seems like it should only take a minute, but it often takes longer because we have to provide specific information or work our way through a series of automated questions.
Second, one task often leads to another, extending the amount of time required to achieve completion.
For instance, we try to quickly RSVP to an invitation online and it leads us to another site to buy a gift. Buying a gift takes more time and thought than we had planned for, but we know that if we close the window at this point, it might be hard to find it again. It is easier to “just do it now,” so we spend extra time choosing an item, paying, writing a gift note, and providing shipping information.
Third, we are easily distracted.
Almost everyone can relate to starting a simple task, but then having our attention drawn away by another demand. For example, we run upstairs to put an item away, and once we are up there, we see something else that needs to be done. Before we know it, five minutes have turned into twenty.
Fourth, unanticipated problems may arise for which we lack sufficient time to properly manage.
For example, we rush to quickly do the dishes and the garage disposal gets clogged and breaks. Or, we slip and fall as we carry the garbage outside, and end up with a big stain on our nice pants. Since we have no margin to deal with these problems in the moment, we have to leave them unresolved until we get back, adding stress and more work to our day.
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Admittedly, there may be times when we do successfully check an item off of the to-do list just before walking out the door. However, these kinds of infrequent successes can actually undermine our productivity and timeliness in the long run.
Let’s look at an analogy.
Most people know that the odds of winning the lottery are relatively low. Lotteries make money by people buying tickets and (for the most part) losing. Since it can be difficult to understand probability, most people believe the chances of winning are much greater than they actually are. Lottery advertising furthers this perception, implying that winning is a common outcome and a fun way to access quick cash. The more a person believes he will win, the more likely he is to play.
In reality, few people win lotteries. Over time, repetitive losing provides a natural deterrent to playing. If we play all the time and never win, eventually we will be inclined to stop buying tickets. On the flip side, winning tricks our brains into believing we are likely to win again, even though the odds remain strongly against us. Statistics show that someone who has won a game of chance once will continue to play, even if he never wins again.
Likewise, when we squeeze a task into a tight timeframe and it makes us late or stressed out, we will avoid repeating similar efforts in the future. However, if our last minute initiative succeeds, we may overestimate our ability to replicate similar results and fall into a mindset that gets us in trouble. Using our time wisely is good. Trying to squish too much into a small bit of time often backfires. The most productive approach is to be mindful and realistic about the time we have. What a gift it can be to allow ourselves to depart on time, proceed at a reasonable pace, and even show up early.
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The next time you find yourself toying with the idea of doing “just this one small thing” before it is time to go, hear my voice in your head saying, “Just say no.” Odds are you will be glad you did.
What task do you tend to try and “squeeze in” before heading out the door?