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Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Private Time Management, Public Time Mismanagement

We all know what Time Management is. It’s about making the best use of the finite amount of time available to us. It’s not just about work time; it’s about how we live our lives. When a book or a Time Management course – or just our own realisation – alerts us to the fact that it’s possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, that’s a liberating and empowering moment.
It’s the source of huge satisfaction to get a lot done in a day and, likewise, to complete a demanding work project without sacrificing the time we want to spend on other things.
I don’t need to elaborate. It’s all familiar stuff.

But our personal Time Management takes place in a social and political context. The trouble is this, that there are people and organisations out there determined to waste our time, big time. And I’m not just thinking about Passport Control.

Consider the almost universal institution of Public Holidays. These are days on which governments require or advise employers to lock out their workers.  At a stroke, governments thereby deny employees the possibility of time-managing a part of their (valuable) holiday time – often a significant part, since public holidays may constitute a quarter or more of an individual’s annual holiday entitlement.
The most obvious fact about public holidays is that they lead to overloads – delays - on public transport systems. Instead of enjoying their time off work, people end up in queues of one kind or another. And though the committed Time Manager will find something else to do when in a queue, even if only chewing gum, this is going to be a second-best use of valuable time.

There are other frustrations. Here in the UK, Public Holidays – with the exception of Christmas Day - have never really responded to any popular sense that “This is when we would all like a day off together”. Instead (to take the worst example), Easter is dumped on us – and however much it is moved about by the astrologers, it always seems to coincide with bad weather. Google “Bank Holiday Washout” and you get a downpour of results.
So however good our personal Time Management may be, Public Holidays are pretty much a kick in the teeth. It’s worst in countries where they are compulsory; in the UK, they are  merely advisory – the Department of Business publishes the annual List of Days. The Prime Minister is entitled to interfere with the List, adding Days Off to make us stay at home and watch Royal Weddings and such like. But he never adds days for football matches or February 15th or November 6th.

Public Holidays are the paradigm case of organisational mismanagement of other people’s time.  Other examples are more complicated and vary between countries.

In the UK, the long-term failure of governments to have  housing policies or transport policies has condemned workers, especially in the London hub, to longer Home to Work commuting times than are found in other advanced economies.
Now for sure there are those who will insist that they would resist any reduction in their commuting time below the number of minutes needed to finish the crossword. But in truth, for most workers commuting time is better shorter. You can try to multi-task on the daily commute and many succeed, but it’s always a bit forced. As a result, sixty minutes bad; twenty minutes good.
It would be highly desirable for governments to have as a policy the aim of cutting average Home to Work commuting times. That would really improve Quality of Life for millions of people, because it would free up time for more productive and enjoyable activity.

Of course, the idea of working towards a Commuting Time target sounds either Utopian or silly. It is clearly beyond the wit of the kind of governments the UK is blessed with that housing policies and transport policies should be co-ordinated to get people closer to their place of work (or vice versa). Some people would say that it is beyond the capacity of any government. Policy would require endless tuning and re-tuning and though that’s possible for interest rates, infrastructure can’t be continuously re- configured.

But if London had a regional government rather than a glorified Town Council it might be possible to get the idea on the Agenda. That ain’t going to happen because central government needs London tax revenues to prop up the loss-making subsidiaries of Northern Ireland, Northern England and Wales. A London regional government would almost certainly try to thwart these central government purposes. The Mayor of London has already caused trouble by suggesting that Stamp Duty on London house sales should go to his Town Council.

Central government in the UK is an organisation which camps in London but has no feel for it. That’s why when Parliament opens each year, governments think nothing of closing off London streets for a Ruritanian State Opening. So what if people, on an ordinary working day, are inconvenienced?

Public Holidays, Commuting Time. These are key areas where public policy or the lack of it wastes private time. The reader can no doubt begin to think of others. I will give one final example.

The clocks. It falls to government to synchronise our watches, to set the time. It is government which solves this co-ordination problem. Unfortunately, the UK government chooses a solution which suits the Highlands of Scotland and nowhere else in Britain, setting the clocks one hour behind those of our near neighbours in continental Europe.

There are compelling reasons for thinking that south of the Scottish border the clocks should be aligned with those of Europe (one hour ahead of their current setting). All the evidence is that road accidents would be reduced if Autumn and Winter afternoon darkness was not thrust upon us an hour earlier than necessary. More daylight at the end of the working day would save lives. In addition, more daylight after work and school increases the range of things which people (including children) can do with their time. More light enables people to get more satisfaction from their time.

At the beginning of the present Parliament, a bold Tory MP (Rebecca Harris) introduced a parliamentary bill to put the clocks forward one hour from their present settings. There was a lot of support. But our Prime Minister, David Cameron, blocked it. I am not sure what compelled him, but it was either the fear of upsetting Highland Scottish voters or upsetting Eurosceptics in his party who would reckon sharing clock time with our near neighbours as bad as sharing a currency with them.

And so public policy continues to manage our time inefficiently – sub-optimally, if you like. Time for those who value their time to start protesting.

Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter on Time Mismanagment in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

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