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Time Management with Pac-Man:
Taking Advantage of Interruptions

  • Expert Tips
  • Future

How can corpo­rate gover­nance become more sustain­able? In our Expert Tips, we describe one of the most impor­tant factors for this: convinc­ing employ­er brand­ing. In irreg­u­lar inter­vals, we use our Future series to intro­duce unusu­al approach­es to Good Gover­nance, such as the CEO Day. This time, it is about an idea which, at first sight, may appear some­what exot­ic but which is thought­pro­vok­ing in a very useful way: time manage­ment in ‘Pac-Man mode’ turns inter­rup­tions into poten­tial successes!

Time Manage­ment – More Impor­tant Than Ever

Since the pandemic’s ebbing away, work­ing life has gath­ered enor­mous momen­tum, even in areas of weak econom­ic devel­op­ment. “More speed, more projects, more complex­i­ty and not enough staff, master­ing all of this simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, this is the domi­nant stance of about 1,000 deci­sion-makers inter­viewed for the latest issue of the HAYS HR Report1.

So it comes as no surprise that good time manage­ment is a core skill in today’s work­ing life. Thought­ful­ly designed proce­dures and wise­ly timed paus­es are supposed to yield opti­mal produc­tiv­i­ty. This is even more true of exec­u­tives, who tend to work more inde­pen­dent­ly, but also need to be more self-organised.

Inter­rup­tions are among the great­est time killers. A joint study of the Univer­si­ty of Cali­for­nia and Berlin’s Humboldt Univer­si­ty has found that it takes about 23 minutes until work­ers are fully concen­trat­ed on their previ­ous­ly inter­rupt­ed task2. Changes in task which are pre-planned and neces­sary effect delays like this. In such cases, time manage­ment train­ers recom­mend divid­ing the work­ing day into task blocks, thus limit­ing time loss to an absolute mini­mum. These blocks should be dedi­cat­ed to one type of task. For, if youstick to the same topic or work mode for a longer peri­od, you will auto­mat­i­cal­ly lose less time than some­one who keeps switch­ing between very differ­ent topics.

No Two Inter­rup­tions Are the Same

For some tasks, inter­rup­tions are an inte­gral part. When a team project reach­es crunch time, the team leader will have to be read­i­ly avail­ble. Very much the same goes for a new employee’s on-board­ing situ­a­tion. Howev­er, there are also all those unso­licit­ed inter­rup­tions – phones ring­ing, urgent e‑mails, the quick ques­tion in pass­ing. Brows­ing the count­less tips and devel­op­ment publi­ca­tions on time manage­ment will easi­ly give you the impres­sion that such inter­rup­tions yield nega­tive effects only. Most­ly, the advice is to prevent them as much as possible.

Game Theo­ry: the Revo­lu­tion­ary Approach

Jordan Shapiro, profes­sor of philos­o­phy and strate­gic consul­tant, choos­es a differ­ent approach3. He relies on the find­ings of game theo­ry: Pursu­ing a goal with­out any inter­rup­tions will rob you of this moment of paus­ing; you will lose reflec­tion and self-monitoring:

You think you want tran­quil­i­ty; but you don’t. A close look at Pac-Man shows us that distrac­tions and inter­rup­tions are an essen­tial factor in success and produc­tiv­i­ty. Pac-Man can be under­stood like a tuto­r­i­al on time management’s rela­tion­ship to happiness.

In 1980, Pac-Man was one of the first comput­er games and it is still enjoy­ing great popu­lar­i­ty today. For game theo­ry, it is the combi­na­tion of two funda­men­tal func­tions: avoid­ing obsta­cles (four ghosts) and gath­er­ing reward points. The four ghosts are special in that they behave differ­ent­ly and more or less unpredictably.

What Is Pac-Man’s Lesson for Time Management?

Shapiro sums up his ober­va­tions in three propositions:

  • Inter­rup­tions mean spon­tane­ity. We should factor them in and regard them as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to step out of our habit­u­al routine and consid­er new paths.
  • Inter­rup­tions bring about great ideas. For Shapiro, truly great ideas cannot be gener­at­ed by force. Genuine creativ­i­ty comes from an incal­cu­la­ble flight of thoughts follow­ing a distraction.
  • No two inter­rup­tions are the same, each has unique char­ac­ter­is­tics. Conse­quent­ly, differ­ent inter­rup­tions can provoke diverg­ing thoughts.

With above theses, Shapiro implic­it­ly reveals a typi­cal­ly US Amer­i­can way of think­ing posi­tive – in other words: there is no bene­fit in regard­ing inter­rup­tions as a mere nuisance. Being aware of the oppor­tu­ni­ty they offer is being able to take advan­tage of them.

1 HAYS HR-Report 2022: „Organ­i­sa­tio­nen unter Druck. Zu wenig Zeit, Geld, Person­al — wie die Pandemie den Kampf um knappe Ressourcen beein­flusst.“ (Orga­ni­za­tions Under Press­sure. Too Little Time, Money, Person­nel — How the Pandem­ic Impacts the Fight for Scarce Resources)

2 Gloria Mark (Depart­ment of Infor­mat­ics, Univer­si­ty of Cali­for­nia, Irvine), Daniela Gudith & Ulrich Klocke (Insti­tut für Psycholo­gie, Humboldt Univer­sität, Berlin); The Cost of Inter­rupt­ed Work: More Speed and Stress, Irvine/Berlin 2018

3 Jordan Shapiro; Against Tran­quil­i­ty! Pac-Man, Time Manage­ment, and Distrac­tions, Forbes Maga­zine, 21 Novem­ber 2012