The Missing Numbers

by on June 2, 2010 | posted in Marketing


Our scheduling and counting systems are based on the foundations of rounding. We show up to work at 8:00 or 8:30. We most generally leave at 5:30 or 6:00. When buying in bulk, we do so in increments of 5 and 10, wherein 5 is a number we “round” to.

8:00    8:30    9:00

As it comes to timing, we have these fixed start points for a pretty obvious reason. There are 6 billion people in the world, so to somehow formulate a structure of organization wherein we can work together and make this big blue ball better, we have to create some synchronization in regards to arrival times, leaving times, and weekdays and weekends.

The fundamental error with this philosophy is that our time structuring around people also pervades into every aspect of our lives. We have absolutely no reason to set our alarms to 7:00AM every day or to automatically believe that “it takes me about 20 minutes to get ready”, but we do. We do this because we’re programmed, and these automatic roundings make life easy. Most of the time, though, easy doesn’t mean best.

This mindset creates a largely inefficient system, one where we either underassess or overassess our needs, leaving a “limbo” period where we feel strange leaving to work, or on the flip side, starting a productive task. If we approximated this closer, we’d have the potential to weigh these options to either a) maximize sleep time to increase energy or b) have time to do something productive until we had to leave.

This doesn’t apply only to that awkward time before leaving to the office, or setting your alarm. Think back to when you last you approximated the time it would take you to finish a task. Past the one or two hour interval, how often did you ever break it down without utilizing a half-hour or hour completion variable? I don’t think I’ve ever assigned a task and had it answered “It’ll take me about two hours and twenty minutes to do”.

Time minatuae doesn’t scale, because the measurements are tough, and breaking it down further often increases stress. But the longer the project potentially will take, the more likely a buffer of excess will be created due to this natural rounding up.

A way to answer to this problem and make time more productive is take the bigger task and find more ways to break it down, so that you stop getting the automatic answers that round up, and start getting more accurate approximations of completion times. An added benefit of this methodology is increased productivity and an increased likelihood of achieving long term goals, as it’s hard to stay motivated for a goal that sits so far in the future.

Past the workplace, imagine scheduling your late-night meetings with friends. Why do you always meet for dinner, bowling, or drinks at 7, 7:15, or 7:30? I’d be willing to bet that you most often skew to the outward numbers, too. What if you stopped meeting at these times? What if you tried 7:10? Or 7:20? Wouldn’t you miss every other group shuffling in at the exact same junction point? You’d get in earlier, and do the world a favor of unshuffling the clutter. Plus, you’d have less of that “limbo” period where you were just waiting around to leave.  At these night times, too, there’s less chance of time conflict that scorns you so terribly earlier in the day.

2   3  4           6   7   8   9

As we move past orders of 20 or more, we almost completely forget about any number that doesn’t end in a zero or a five. The ease of rounding stops offsetting the anguish of figuring out the exact numbers we need, which creates inevitable cost waste for the buyer. As we scale up and numbers flounder into the hundreds and thousands, the huge wastes incurred from using this methodology are obvious.

Think about many sliding scale rating systems on the internet. One or five stars. 10 or 0. How often do you vote something in the middle? By far, most ratings are on a 10 or 1 scale, or 5 stars or none. This is why many, more intelligently designed websites, such as Youtube, have changed to the “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” methodology, since it’s a much better representation of actual judgement in comparison to the number scale.

Weighing Importance

Sometimes, the time invested may not be worth it for some of these decisions. If research has taught us anything, though, it’s that we often make short-sighted decisions with millions at play, run with the default choice set in front of us, and face great long-term dilemmas because of our substandard choices.

Five thousand is not an acceptable next bid for a product set at four thousand.  From five to six million should not be the only increment of investment we hear about on the venture capital level. You aren’t going to be ready in thirty minutes. Your television isn’t worth four or five hundred dollars – it’s somewhere in the middle.

Knowledge is Power

This topic is broad enough to write a book, and I know I’m missing several potential applications.  But now you have the framework for implementation, and beyond a 236 page book of fluff, that’s really all that matters. We black out a majority of our measuring numbers because of their initial application (bringing people together), and furthermore, convenience. But we don’t do so because we want to, we do so because it’s what we’ve always done, and most of the rest of our life calls for it.

This lifetime dedication to the rounded numbers leads to an immense potential time and cost loss. When we implement them, we aren’t always doing so for the benefit of others, and often times, we can coordinate with others to ignore them. By doing our best to eliminate these cognitive biases, we further optimize our lives and better move towards absolute efficiency.

Image credit goes to Latitudes.

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