Things not to say – “We don’t have time”

One phrase I can’t stand is “We don’t have time”.

We all get the same amount of time every day. We all start each day with the same amount. What differs from person to person is how they prioritize that time. I can pick which of the infinite things to do with time to use for this hour, and the next one, and the one after that. There will be consequences based on what I choose, but the only reason I do one thing and not another is by choosing.

So to say We don’t have time to do X really means X is not important enough for me to use my time on it.

This second phrase is a very different. It expresses how the resource of time is prioritized. This invites a conversation about why one use of time might be better than another.

But often we used the phrase “I don’t have time” to avoid having to say more honest things like:

  • Your idea isn’t important enough
  • I made a mistake and didn’t consider this earlier
  • I don’t want to take on the risks of changing the plan now
  • I don’t like you and you smell funny

But people who say “we don’t have time” are saying it to avoid a conversation. They want, mostly, to blow you off and move on.

Case in point: If I told you I will give you a billion dollars for going to lunch with me tommorow, no matter what commitments you’ve made, you will likely change them so you can get the billion dollars. Time is not an issue – the priority of two competing things is. Depositing a check for a billion dollars will trump most everyday life commitments easily. And by the same token, a sufficiently brilliant idea would cause any leader to make changes, including adding more time to the schedule. The real question is whether the proposed idea is good enough to warrant change.

The Countermove: when told “We don’t have time” by a project manager or co-worker, the best questions to ask are:

  • What is (your) time being used for?
  • How was this decided?
  • What were the goals of this use of time?
  • Can I explain why my idea is a better use of time towards those goals?

All these countermove questions force a discussion and more importantly some thinking to take place. Any idiot can say “we don’t have time”, but only a good leader will happily explain why.

Obviously, pick your battles. On healthy teams people can intuit which of the first list of better phrases is actually meant, and on unhealthy teams, the dude who challenges every single decision, every single time, is going to be ignored for that reason alone. But if it’s a battle worth fighting, or it’s a habit you want people to start breaking, use your countermoves.

See also: “We don’t have money”, “We don’t have enough staff”

What phrases irritate you? Leave a comment.

13 Responses to “Things not to say – “We don’t have time””

  1. Anton

    When I hear from my friends the same thing – “we do not have time”, I usually say that it is not about time but it is rather the problem of desire, weather the person *wants* to get the things done or he/she doesn’t

  2. David C-L

    I say “we don’t have time.” And yes, I say it to avoid a conversation, to blow the person off and move on. I contend that sometimes– frequently– that’s a more productive choice than telling someone their idea “stinks” or is a “low priority” or even that I screwed up. It’s a convenient political shorthand.

    Sure, it’s bad to use “we don’t have time” as a reason to exclude good ideas from consideration. But ideas which arrive late and for whatever reason don’t contribute to a project’s primary goals? I think sometimes those conversations NEED to be avoided.

  3. Chris

    The phrase that drives me nuts is “Best practices”. It almost always means I’m telling you what to do, and nothing you can do or say will make me change my mind, so live with it. What’s worse is “industry best practice”, without specifying which industry, and without saying whether my industry falls within the class of industries referred to. Drives me wild… I’m betting I’m not the only one, too.

  4. Mark Prins

    Over the past years I quite often heard the following start of a sentence being said to myself, colleagues, customers, etc:

    “I (or we) realy love/appreciate/like/welcome what you have done, but…”

    This sentence always ends in something done ‘wrong’, which was actually the point he/she/they wanted to make.

    Not only is the sentence negative judgement in a gift-wrapping, but most of the time it also feels like they are trying to wave away the good things done as being acknowledged (albeit very briefly).

    Most of the time it results in the receiving party to become offended and will start defending his point of view and the dialog comes grindingly to a halt.

  5. Scott

    David C-L: I agree with you. It’s a shorthand and it works a lot of the time (And I suspect I’ve used it more often than I think :)

    But I’d never let someone get away with using it on me for something important.

  6. August

    Great Post !

    Some answers to new idea question that drives me nuts:
    – Later
    – I put it in the 2 do list (after 238 items);
    – No;
    – Make some joke about the idea;
    – (no answer) or um-hum;
    Some common phrases that drives me nuts:
    – We don’t have money for that;
    – It’s too expensive, lets buy the cheaper one;
    – No, let’s take it easy, first we sit on our butts for three months then we see what to do next;
    – (After sitting on a problem for 4+ months instead taking any action or delegating to someone) WE NEED TO DO IT NOW! ITS PRIORITY! OUR LIVES DEPENDS ON IT!

    (Sorry about the bad english, not my native language)

  7. Neil C. Obremski

    I am in a bit of a lead position, and when people start getting afield of the main focus I tell them to save it for next quarter. If they’re dedicated enough to the concept, they’ll write it out and put it into our bug tracker or email for persistence. I try to remember what people suggested, mostly to give credit where credit is due if we DO do it … that’s a lot of do-do!

  8. Scott

    Neil: That’s a great trick. “We don’t have time for it now, but we may have time for it later. Put it on this list”.

    Of course then you do have to go back and look at the list later, but I found sometimes people forget :)

  9. Jason

    “We do it that way because that’s the way we’ve always done it”


  10. suba

    When someone tells me this, I usually reply ‘It’s never about time, it’s always about priorities’.

  11. Mike

    “Strategic”, as though it implied a strategy.

  12. Rolf

    “we NEED to do this and that”, without providing any reason.
    “we NEED to do this and that”, meaning “I want someone to pick up that task and guess about my goals, but I won’t assign it.”

  13. Kamona

    Cool! I completely agree with this. I often tell this to my friends and family, and it usually irritates them, only because they know I’m right. :P


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