Time famine: why we feel controlled by events

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In 1999, Leslie Perlow, researcher of the University of Michigan, conducted a study on a group of software engineers, describing how they suffered from a “time famine”, a feeling of having too many things to do and too little time at their disposal. Even when they were trying to schedule their work, something came up anyway that would have interrupted them, specifically a colleague that asked for help for an activity. These engineers were victim of the bias of perceived lack of control, a cognitive error that leads people to believe they don’t have any effect on their surroundings, being controlled by events, when in reality everything is caused by controllable, manageable, schedulable factors. During the course of nine months, Perlow managed to change, at least in part, the relationship of the engineers with time.

For her research, Perlow decided to follow the software development team of a laser color printer, fictitiously named “PEARL”, produced by “Ditto”, another name of fiction. Although Ditto engineers usually had three to five years at their disposal for the development of the products, in the case of PEARL the deadline was set in nine months. In addition, they were told that if they wouldn’t have made it, the whole division would have collapsed.

Perlow focused on three factors:

  1. how the engineers spent their time at work,
  2. what effects their use of time caused on them and on the group to which they belonged to,
  3. why they used time in the observed way, in their opinion.

Perlow spent on average four days a week observing the engineers during their work, in the labs, in meetings, in hallway conversations, and even during social activities such as company parties or trips out of town. Taking numerous notes, and asking the engineers to compile a personal log, writing down all their activities.

She then analyzed the content of the engineers’ work, the sequencing of their activities and the systemic effects that it caused. She examined the length of the blocks of time and, for interactive activities, in other words task the engineers faced together, if the participants to the study considered those group tasks as helpful or urgent for the people involved. In fact, what many complained about was the fact that they didn’t have time to work individually, because they were constantly interrupted by someone asking for help. So much so that many came in early, or worked late, but since others thought the same thing they ended up interrupting each other even outside the conventional work hours.

Interdependent work patterns

In the research on time use, three elements are evaluated, the first of which is interdependent work patterns. They consist in the different kind of tasks completed, in their sequencing in time and what effects they have on the person and the others. According to the engineers, the content of their work consisted of “real engineering”, the individual work, and “anything else”, in other words the interactive activities. Although they preferred the individual work, group activities were fundamental in the completion of the project, but they were perceived in a negative way because they interrupted their concentration during “real engineering”. From the sequencing, it emerged that over 60% of the time was spent in individual activities, but never in a single block of time, neither in a few large blocks. On the contrary, it was spent in many little and short blocks of time, sandwiched between interactive activities. 75% of time blocks of individual work was equal or shorter than one hour. The systemic effects of this sequencing led the engineers to fear being interrupted, looking over their shoulders dreading to see a colleague in need that asked for help. But, although 96% of these interactive activities was considered helpful, only 10% was considered urgent. Therefore, 86% of these group tasks was schedulable. Since they never had scheduled this kind of work, the engineers didn’t have control on their own time.

Leslie Perlow, from the University of Michigan, conducted a study on a group of engineers, describing how they suffered from a “time famine”.

Enactment of work patterns

The second element in the study of time use is the enactment of said interdependent work patterns. At Ditto, the enactment consisted of a vicious work-time cycle. The field of software engineers is considered as one of the most stressful, as there is always a great amount of pressure to present the product on the announced launch date. This pressure causes a crisis mentality, that leads to the constant emergence of problems and disasters. And, until a true crisis arose, managers were not willing to give more time, energy and resources to the engineers. Therefore, they solved problems only when a crisis arose. This led to the generation of a system of individual heroics, in which an engineer was led to do anything just to complete their work, precisely because they were rewarded by the managers if they were able to resolve a dramatic situation. On the contrary, standing to the side and not under the spotlight would have never allows a person to progress and advance in their career. Therefore, this heroism led the engineers to use any possible means, thus asking other colleagues for help, causing constant interruptions. These, in turn, generated the crisis mentality, repeating the vicious cycle.

Effectiveness of work patterns

The effectiveness of these work patterns is the last element that is analyzed in the research of time use. Perlow managed to build a model in which a precise sequencing allowed the engineers to work individually without the fear of being suddenly interrupted. The schedule that had the most success was that of a “quiet time”, that for three days a week consisted in uninterrupted individual work for everyone until noon, while the remaining hours were “interaction time”, during which the engineers could have helped each other and solved problems in groups.

At the end of the nine months, 65% of the engineers claimed that they felt more productive on average, when compared to the time when interruptions were not scheduled. In addition, they said that “quiet time” gave them the opportunity to manage work that they normally wouldn’t have never been able to do in a normal day of work. Another benefit they felt was the increase in awareness of the effect the engineers had on their colleagues. They started to think before interrupting, postponing when possible, even during “interaction time”. At last, even the managers seemed to notice some differences. They stopped doing checks that seemed to come out of nowhere, interrupting the work of their employees. PEARL managed to come out on the launch date: it was the second Ditto product that was presented before the deadline. The division vice-president said, “I do not think we could have made the deadline without this project. This is a new benchmark”.

The results of Perlow’s study challenged previous research on time use, since nobody before her had analyzed how the Context and You influenced Me. An individual training on time management risks to fail if the schedules of colleagues and employees are not taken into account. Not only the schedules, but even the macro-context in which someone works and how this and the work patterns influence each other.

Carlo Sordini


  1. Perlow, L. (1999). The Time Famine: Toward a Sociology of Work Time. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44(1), 57-81. doi:10.2307/2667031

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