Time management is like chess

Decades ago, I had a brief interest in chess. I played around with a board and I read through books of the greatest matches. I decided I didn’t really like the game enough to pursue it, but I always loved the concept of what master chess players do. They look at the way things are, and then think three, or even more, moves ahead. What happens if this happens? How can I make a move to neutralize this problem which could arise if these two things happen in sequence?

It strikes me that time management — done right — is a similar game. In basic ways, it’s more like Tetris: how can I fit this activity, which takes X amount of time, into the 168 hours I have, given the shape of these other commitments? But in many other ways, it involves strategy. You know you have a meeting at 2 p.m. and a call at 1:30 p.m., which will likely take half an hour. However, you know that the person you’re talking with at 1:30 has a tendency to start phone calls late, so in scheduling the call, you take responsibility for dialing, so the call has a better chance of starting on time. You know that traffic is worse in the rain, so if the forecast calls for rain, you budget more time for travel, thus scheduling an activity that can be shortened with little consequence for the time before departure. You suggest times for calls or meetings that correspond relatively neatly with times that trains and planes arrive. And, of course, childcare logistics are a strategy game in their own right. What is your back-up plan? What if the daycare closes early for inclement weather on a day one parent is out of town and the other is scheduled to give a speech?

You obviously don’t have to think three moves ahead about everything, but if the stakes are high,  it’s good to be in the habit. Things come up, of course, but I always go back to the Donald Rumsfeld taxonomy: many time issues fall into the category of known unknowns. A good chess master anticipates these known unknowns and optimizes outcomes based on the likely scenarios.

What’s the most stunning time management feat you’ve ever pulled off?

In other news: I’m pondering new book ideas. What do you think I should write about?

Photo courtesy flickr user Dan Zen

21 thoughts on “Time management is like chess

  1. Re: New book ideas…
    If you wrote something about exercise – i.e. how to motivate yourself and fit it into a busy schedule that would be something I’m sure myself and a lot of people would be interested in?

  2. How about motivation more generally? A “lite” easier-to-read comprehensive version of the more narrowly focused research oriented books that have been coming out recently (Willpower, Habits, Mindset, etc.)
    Though I do have to say, my favorite part of your writing is the boiling down economics concepts into things that anybody can understand. That’s a gift. Which area to tackle next, however, I don’t know.

    1. @NicoleAndMaggie- I do love economics, and like numbers generally, so it would be great if I could figure out some way to work numbers into my next book. I feel like numbers, even when abused, seem to give ideas more heft.

  3. The hardest part of juggling time is when you operate a business which operates in multiple times zones. There are multiple tools out their to help, but given the scope of this post, I would take a proactive approach and confirm the time in their time zone, and then in your. Reconfirm the time with both times zones, so you both know the time difference.

    1. @Christoph – I have gotten snared in the time zone problem many times. I’m usually only talking with people in the US, so there’s really only three hours to deal with, but the question of when to schedule a conference call with people in Europe and Asia would be a tricky one. Someone winds up talking at 2 a.m.

  4. I think you should write about parenthood. I love everything you write, it always makes me feel a little smarter.

    1. @Alissa- thanks so much! That’s very sweet of you. What would I cover in parenting? My husband keeps saying I should write something called “from good to great kids.” Is there anything you can do to make reasonably intelligent, well-behaved children into superstars? I’m not sure there is — superstardom in the long-term is a combo of temperament, talent and luck — but it’s an interesting idea.

      1. That would have the potential to get you Tiger Mom publicity.

        I accidentally checked out a book once about how to game the NY gifted K placement tests (I was looking into research on early entrance and grade-skipping at the time– we live nowhere near NYC), which is sort of similar but more focused… turns out I was already doing what she recommended with my kid. (She had a little intro about how she always used to judge parents that did silly show-offy things like talk to their toddlers when on outings instead of ignoring them… turns out that increases their ability to get into the NYC gifted program, who’da thunk it?)

        1. What? It’s show-offy to talk to babies and toddlers? Weird.

          I will admit it took me a while to start talking more to my baby, because I’m generally quiet, but as soon as I noticed that she was actually paying attention, I became quite the chatterbox.

          It made our outings a heck of a lot more interesting. And now we can’t shut HER up 🙂

          1. Yeah, I thought that was weird too. Who knew? Just goes to show that yes, people will judge you no matter what, but that just says more about them than about you.

          2. @N&M – I will admit that I have seen toddler talking done well and obnoxiously. In the latter, the parent is clearly more interested in what people around him/her think about him/her as a parent than what the kid is getting out of it. If you’re just having a fun conversation with your kid, that is a different matter.

          3. Hm… I try not to judge why other people are doing things. I’ve gotten that sotto voce comment a ton when I’m doing math with my son at restaurants or when he was obviously reading out loud but far too young to be reading out loud. However, they’d be judging me for him bouncing off the walls (and his favorite: getting stuck between chair slats) if we weren’t doing math problems. You don’t know whether people are “clearly more interested in what people around them think” because you’re not getting into their brains. All you know is what you see through your own lens. The world would be a better place if we did a bit less judging.
            And the woman’s point was you don’t have fun conversations with kids who can’t talk, or kids who are even younger. And it’s true, you don’t, you just chatter at them. So yes, you would be judging. I don’t talk to my infant for your sake, or to get hir into a top NYC kindergarten (though apparently it would help). Frankly it’s none of anybody’s business why I have chattered and will chatter at my infant. And if you judge me for it, that’s your problem, not mine.

  5. In parenting, what about motherhood? A book about balancing motherhood with career, with stories from mothers who feel that they’ve successfully found that “balance.”

  6. Write a book for dads. You pointed out that you have to target your books for people with money (when I pointed out how unrealistic some piece of advice was for the population as a whole). Dads have fewer books targeted at them and more money. They are more likely to buy a book (and perhaps less likely to read it), but e-books and Dads may work well.

  7. What the most successful DADS do… that would be cool..like feature high profile dads and their balance.. that might actually do more for women than we think..

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