Buying time

I stumbled across wikiHow‘s advice to students who need to buy extra time to complete an assignment. You upload a corrupted MS Word file to the online assignment submission system. Eventually someone will get round to asking you to submit it again, by which time you might just have it finished.

There’s an art to eking out as much time as you can. It happens in politics too. Countless news commentators are asking, “Is Assad just buying time with his pledge to turn over chemical weapons?” Time is something to bargain with. It’s a token in a strategic game to get what you want. It’s a way of tipping the balance in your favour.

Round mirror surface, cogs and chains, figurines: skeleton and Father Time with scythe

Balance is a key metaphor amongst those who offer time management advice. According to Time Management for Dummies, “The point about better time management is that you’re able to do the things that are important to you and create balance in all areas of your life, not just at work. Many people who are overworked, with too much work to do in those 24 hours, spend too much time doing just that — work.”

The problem with the balance metaphor is that, like the scales of justice, at least half the load is guilt, and you feel even worse for getting the balance wrong.

But the commercial metaphor of buying time is useful. In his management self-help book, Leading Quietly, Joseph Badaracco endorses the strategy of dealing skilfully with delay. We instinctively think that decisive management involves getting things done quickly, dealing with problems as soon as they arise, in particular where other people are involved. Badaracco agues to the contrary.

Quiet time

When faced with a challenge, effective leaders rarely rush forward with “The Answer.” Instead, they do something quite at odds with the conventional view of leadership. Instead of charging the hill, they often look for ways to beg, borrow, and steal a little time.

This tactic can make the difference between success and failure. Time lets turbulent waters settle and clarify. It lets people discuss their situations with others and think things through on their own. Time gives people a chance to assess their real obligations, and gives sound instincts a chance to emerge. It lets them observe and learn, understand some of the subtle ways in which individuals and events interact, and look for patterns and opportunities in the flow of events (53).

How do you buy time? You can ask for it. You can set a time beyond the original deadline and tell people what your plan is for getting the task done. You can introduce a plan for consultation, and explain how the extra time will produce a better result. (It’s well known that passengers waiting on board a delayed train are happier when the train manager or driver announces the causes of the delay and provides an estimate for when things will get moving again.)

Buying time is different to “kicking it into the long grass,” or just stalling, which is an obstructive tactic, as if in hope that the problem will go away, or waiting for the responsibility to be deflected elsewhere. Effective time bargaining is presumably a subtle, sociable, and responsible tactic.


  • Badaracco, Joseph L. 2002. Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Choll Press.
  • Evans, Clare. 2008. Time Management for Dummies. Chichester, England: John Wiley
  • Foster, Russell, and Leon Kreitzman. 2004. Rhythms of Life. London: Profile Books.
  • Zerubavel, Eviatar. 1999. The Clockwork Muse. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. (recommended by Michelle Bastian)


  • The other prominent metaphor of time management relates to target practice and surveying, ie setting your sights on goals: set goals that are specific rather than vague, make sure you are able to recognise when you achieve them, get others to agree to them, make sure the goals are achievable, and set time limits on their achievement. Goals should be SMART — Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, and Time bound.
  • I find advice about time management the most useful and philosophically satisfying when it takes account of the heterogeneous nature of time. Time has a different character as deadlines approach. It scrunches up as it reaches the buffers. For some of us time goes at a quicker rate when sifting through emails than waiting for a bus. Thanks to smartphones you can use the former to speed up the latter.
  • Time also functions differently for different tasks, different people and at different times — stages in life, times of the year, the month, the week, and the day. Russell Foster is a biologist specialising in the way time is monitored, regulated, recorded and defined in organisms (chronobiology). In his book Rhythms of Life he examines the way organisms adjust themselves to the cycles of the days and seasons, and even define time. He asserts that: “Animals produce future most dramatically by anticipating seasonal processes, and regulate their annual breeding, migration and hibernation to chime with them” (133). We human beings are heirs to that biological tuning-in process. Our effectiveness for different tasks varies throughout the 24 hour cycle. Body and mind fail us during the small hours of the morning. That’s when we are least rational and the most likely to be fearful and accident prone. That’s when we’ll fire off stupid emails, start undoing and re-doing what we’ve already accomplished, or lie awake fretting about all the things we need to do.
  • Also see Soft fascinationThe past is a construct of the mind, and Delayed gratification
  • Here’s some more time management advice.
    • It takes time and effort to plan. So invest precious planning time where it’s going to be most helpful, ie on large scale tasks that are important but not urgent. Completing a report or assignment might be very important, but if it’s not due for a few weeks then it’s not urgent. So put your planning effort into that task. How long will it take, when will I do it, how do I organise other tasks around it, how do I pace out the task, where can I borrow extra time from if it takes longer than I expect?
    • Tasks that are urgent but not so important (meeting a self-imposed blogging schedule), or not urgent and not important (sorting my digital photo collection into albums), tend to take care of themselves. You can even delegate these tasks to other people, do then when you are less alert, or think of them as rewards. Tasks that are very important and very urgent such as completing a job for a client or compensating for a mishap in the office require crisis management. It’s all stops out to get it done. But people who always seem to operate in that mode are in a perpetual state of stress. One of the challenges of time management is to migrate tasks from the emergency quadrant to the planning quadrant.

Chart showing 4 quadrants to illustrate the above

Some publications on the philosophy of time

  • Bastian, Michelle. 2009. Inventing nature: Re-writing time and agency in a more-than-human world. Australian Humanities Review 47, 99-116.
  • Bergson, Henri, Leon Jacobson, and Herbert Dingle. 1965. Duration and simultaneity, with reference to Einstein’s theory. Indianapolis,: Bobbs-Merrill. Translated by Leon Jacobson. With an introd. by Herbert Dingle.
  • Birth, Kevin. 2007. Time and the biological consequences of globalization. Current Anthropology, (48) 2, (recommended by Michelle Bastian)
  • Bergson, Henri. 1971. Time and Free Will: An Essay on the Immediate Data of Consciousness. Trans. F. L. Pogson. London: G. Allen & Unwin
  • Heidegger, Martin. 1992. History of the Concept of Time: Prolegomena. Trans. T. Kisiel. Bloomington, In.: Indiana University Press
  • Lefebvre, Henri. 2004. Rhythmanalysis: Space, Time and Everyday Life. Trans. S. Elden, and G. Moore. London: Continuum.

Looking through window behind clock face across Medieval city


  1. Richard, this is a far more sophisticated student approach to missing deadlines than making excuses like “the dog ate my homework” or my personal favorite “my mother used my floppy disk to scrape the ice off of her windshield.”

    Fascinating post – when I was a philosophy and religion major in school, I researched the concept of time and wrote a rather lengthy paper on my findings. My favorite example of the fluidity of time perception is still the comparison of traveling on a train around a mountain and seeing the world as a sequence of events in time with sitting at the top of the mountain and seeing everything, including the moving train, in a moment’s glance.

  2. Thanks Lynn. I wonder what the future holds. Instead of uploading files for assessment we (and students) may sync all our submissions, ie it’s already submitted in draft form as we work on it. At the deadline the automatic system freezes the document ready for automated assessment, or perhaps the system provides formative assessment automatically as we work on the document, like a personal tutor. Like Kickstarter or looking at bids on eBay, you see your score rising (or falling) until the deadline. Better yet, with peer assessment deadlines are agreed by the group. It becomes a group thing, and stalling becomes a thing of the past. All of which gets *derailed* (extending your train metaphor) by the needs of QA (quality assurance … and enhancement).

  3. anastasia says:

    When I read the title I thought you were referring to the film ‘In Time’ where people buy time literally. How silly of me!

    Really interesting to open up the question about time-management and creative ways around it. I will be looking forward to read more also on the actual problematic of this struggle – the attempt to respond ‘effectively’ to time in one way or another. In other words I find very interesting this inherent human tendency to encounter time-management ‘problems’ (I make this assumption because else there wouldn’t be so many management strategies and advice) – I mean this constant battle with time… Is time always perceived ‘against’ us (in the sense of life and death)? Was it always/ everywhere like this, or is it a cultural issue? I wonder when/where this question about time management has first arisen?

  4. MIN HAN says:

    It is very interesting for me to gain the knowledga of this kind of ” Buy Time”. I used to think I am a really lazy girl who can not finish the work earlier. However, it seems I am not that lazy as I haven’t delay my submissions. But I do need to start the time management so I will find some tips from the book you mentioned.

  5. Meizhen Chen says:

    Very clever way to buy “extra time”.

    This article also reminds me of the idea of ‘timebanking’. ‘Time’ could be regarded as one kind of currency and it values different in different time period and to different people.

    For example, Peter is very busy working with piles of tasks, so ‘time’ seems priceless to him at that moment, but he suddenly receive a call from family that require him to be back for something urgent. Whereas Mary is quite boring this afternoon and wonders what to do. Then thanks to timebanking, Peter could ask Mary to help him for two hours to fix his household problem or work task. In this case, Peter ‘withdraw’ two hours and Mary ‘deposit’ two hours. Next time, Mary needs help, she can use these ‘two hour’ to ask for others assistance for two hours.

    Timebanking –
    TimebankingUK –

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