Sunday, February 21, 2010

Learning the Skills for Success

One of my younger colleagues was talking to me recently about how he struggles to manage his time at work. He often works long (10 hour or more) days, and usually blames this on the poor management skills of his supervisor and the managers of the projects he's working on. Only recently, has he started to entertain the thought that he might share some of the blame.

I don't know his supervisor well enough to know whether or not he is a good manager- all I can say is that he seems like a nice guy. One of the project managers in question is definitely quite poor. He is an excellent scientific lead, but actually takes pride in the fact that his project has no timeline. He is of the opinion that scientific projects can't have timelines. (I do not share this opinion, and we have other projects that would seem to be excellent counter-examples for him, but that is a subject of another post.) Needless to say, this causes a lot of problems for the departmental managers who are trying to balance their work load- they never know when this project is going to need material produced or studies run.

Regardless, my young colleague also bears part of the blame for his long hours. For one thing, he continues to work them without complaining up his management chain (complaining to me doesn't count- I run a completely different department and have almost no influence in his management chain). This sends the wrong information to his management- they can plausibly claim that they are unaware of any resource crunch. (I do not think this is true. I think anyone with two neurons to rub together could see the resource crunch, but that is also the subject of another post.) More importantly, though, my colleague isn't taking any steps to improve his use of time. I know, because I am the head of IT and I see the web usage logs, that he streams a lot of video. I know, because I sit right next to him, that the video he streams is episodes of Top Gear and not anything related to his work. Now, I don't think it is my business to tell people how to spend the "down time" that inevitably occurs while experiments are running. Some experiments run for more than 8 hours, and sometimes, people need to just relax while they wait. This is why we don't block YouTube. However, I have also seen my colleague sitting at his desk after his experiments are done, working on reports. He is always complaining that he can't keep up with his notebook and his reports. A smart time manager would do the reports from previous experiments during the experimental downtime, and leave work earlier.

I've tried (at his request) to give my colleague some pointers- for instance, I've suggested breaking his tasks for the day down into lists, and prioritizing them so that he gets the things that absolutely have to be done that day done first. He always has reasons why my ideas won't work. I suspect he thinks that I don't understand the constraints of experimental science, since I now work exclusively with computers. He forgets that my PhD work was 90% experimental. And anyone who thinks that computer work can't be a time sink has never chased a bug or fallen down the rabbit hole working on a difficult design issue.

All of this has got me thinking about how we learn to manage our time. Are time management skills something that we can learn, or are they largely a product of our personalities? I dont' remember ever explicitly learning how to manage my time. But maybe that is because I learned these skills when I was really young? I do not know. If we can learn them, is there a "golden period" during which it is easier to learn them, similar to the way it is easier to learn a new language when we're young?

It has also reminded me of the marshmallow experiment. This was all over the web a while ago, but in case you somehow missed it, here's the synopsis: a researcher gives a 4 year old a marshmallow and tells him that if he can wait 15 minutes before eating it, he can have TWO marshmallows instead of one. The research team followed up with the kids much later, and discovered that the ability to delay eating the marshmallow was an amazing predictor for success- all of the kids who could delay eating the marshmallow turned out to be "successful". Some of the kids who couldn't wait to eat the marshmallow turned out to be successful, too, but none of the kids with the ability to delay gratification turned out to be screw ups.

Here is a TED talk on the subject, if you want to know more (and see some cute video of kids trying not to eat marshmallows).

Hubby was very taken by this experiment. He read more, and learned that in South Korea, they were trying to develop curriculum to teach the ability to delay gratification. I thought this was perhaps taking the conclusions from a small research study a bit far, but oh well- it probably isn't doing any harm. Hubby wanted to try to teach Pumpkin, too. He would give her some M&Ms with her snack, but would dole them out slowly, throughout the snack, and would try to convince her that this was the better way. I just laughed at him. She was only two, after all! Of course, she wanted to eat all of her M&Ms NOW. She wanted everything NOW.

But Hubby may have the last laugh. Last Thursday, Pumpkin got two M&Ms right before day care, because she went pee on the potty. She asked for a brown one and a blue one. She ate the brown one right away. Then she rode the entire way in to day care (about 20 minutes) carefully holding the blue one between her thumb and her forefinger. She wanted to show her blue M&M to one of her favorite teachers. We got to day care, and she walked up to her teacher, showed her the M&M, and only then did she eat it.

So, did Hubby teach her the ability to delay gratification? Or was that just something that was always going to be part of her personality? We'll never know. And does this mean that she's guaranteed to go on to a "successful" life? I don't think I'll count on that just yet.


  1. I wonder about learning time management, and also about whether you can instill a higher level of resilience in your children.

    Both things seem to require a combination of modeling/teaching and inherent personality.

  2. paola9:13 AM

    The ability to manage time, IMO, must be a mix of both nature and nurture like most things. I often think my hubby came out of the womb with the ability to manage everything, but his training as an engineer and before that, the way he was raised, certainly contributed.

    As for delaying gratification, IME, somewhere between 2.75 and 3 kids consciously start saving things for later. Of course, again, how much is it the way they are raised? In our house sweets are doled out sparingly, so we are unintentially teaching them they have to wait for treats or things they like in general.

    Wouldn't it be great if it were as easy as that to determine a person's future success.

  3. I believe my personality is a mix of both good and bad time management abilities. However, there have been times when I've worked really hard to improve my time management skills in the workplace, and been very successful. There are still plenty of times when I don't. I'm definitely a procrastinator by nature, but I work hard to ensure the important things are done on time.

    I guess I'm thinking that they are a combination of both nature and learned behavoir. And I don't believe there is a definite cut-off, but I don't know about best time. Like language, you can learn them later, but it's harder.

    And way to go, Pumpkin, saving that blue M&M! I've always been a big fan of having a little now and saving the rest for later. Usually.

  4. I'm a lab biologist, and I can sympathize with both your colleague AND your own frustration trying to help him - I have some days where I manage my time almost flawlessly, and some days where I end up staying late because I forgot to do something or lost track of time while reading blogs (ahem).

    I too would love to know how much of time management (and overall organization/executive skills) are inherent and how much are taught. I was AWFUL at remembering things as a kid - constantly losing things, forgetting homework assignments, procrastinating, etc. My parents tried punishments and rewards and pleading and scolding and... well you get the picture. But you know, it's funny, I can't remember anyone ever sitting me down and explaining to me WHY it's important to develop organization and time management skills. I think I didn't improve until I reached an age where I figured out for myself the rationale.

  5. I thought the marshmallow experiment was really interesting, too. I've never tried to replicate it with Tate but sometimes he will save his after potty m-n-ms so long they melt in his hand and then he gets upset. So we have to put them in a plastic bag so he can carry them around until he's ready to eat them. Totally his doing. And then there are other times when he will tell me he is saving some precious food item for later right as he is about to eat it. Later is a relative concept I guess.

  6. I know I learned some TM tricks in my 20s working for a very hard-driving, productive boss. Some were rules he insisted his team follow (the first hour of the workday is an "hour of power" where you must get 2 items completed from the to-do list he made you write before you left work the night before; every phone call is returned the same business day; you can only check email 3 times per day; never throw away paperclips). I still carry those rules with me.

    Very interesting about the correlation between delaying self-gratification and success. One of my ex boyfriends was supposed to be a supergenius but never quite made anything of himself, and I always said his selfish impatience was his worst trait. So sample size one there. I'm a believer.

  7. I agree with y'all- it has to be a combination of nature and nurture. It just struck me that I had never really thought about it before.

    @hush- OMG, your boss would have driven me NUTS. I check my email constantly, and can't imagine doing it any other way. I do have a to do list, though. I don't make myself write a new one every night, unless I'm having a hard time keeping myself on track. Then I do write a to do list every morning with my tasks for the day. I only have to do that when my tasks are particularly unpleasant/boring.

  8. @Cloud - Yeah, my former boss was a very unique dude, but also quite charismatic. I hated it at first, but once I adopted his flow, I learned that he really had stuff figured out. And now that I'm a WAHM his tips are invaluable. And I even have time to play on blogs!

    Maybe your work is different. Where I used to be the truth is email was a huge waste of time - and it is forever - and mistakes are often made via email (confidential info leaked, misspellings, tone mis-readings) so his "only 3 times a day rule" actually saved everyone a lot of grief.

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  10. Thanks for commenting on my little blog, Cloud! I'm not currently in industry, but that may change - I actually have some question I'd love to ask someone on "the other side of the fence." Do you have a LinkedIn profile (or Facebook or something) where I could find you?

  11. @Irene- I'd be happy to answer questions. Send me an email at the address associated with this blog- wandsci at gmail dot com. All other ways of contacting me require me to post my super secret (OK, sort of obscured) real identity. But once you make contact, I can send you my LinkedIn info if it seems like that would help.

  12. @hush- well, part of my job is IT support (a small part- someone else does the bulk of it). So I'm sort of expected to be constantly checking my email... that is how I'd get notified of the server room overheating, or a server crashing. It is also how I get our help desk tickets.

    But I can see that in some jobs, it would be distracting.

  13. Anonymous7:10 PM

    The marshmallow experiment is strongly related to having a stable home environment. (Among other things.)

    DS was in a study doing it this year for someone's dissertation project. He passed with flying colors, though he was almost 4.


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