4 Supply & Demand Isn’t Just For Economists

4 Supply & Demand Isn’t Just For Economists

“Teach a parrot the terms ‘supply and demand’ and you’ve got an economist.”

– THOMAS CARLYLE, Scottish historian and essayist

4 Supply & Demand Isn’t Just For Economists

James Denham-Steuart in his Inquiry into the Principles of Political Economy, published in 1767, first introduced the concept of supply and demand to the study of economics.  The term related to the supply of goods and the demand for them. 

But supply and demand is a far more general concept.  We can think of supply and demand in our personal finances, for instance.  Demand – the cost of our lifestyle – and supply – our income.  If demand exceeds supply we probably have a great time for a while but then things come crashing down.  Hey, isn’t that exactly what happened all over the world at the beginning of the century when cheap money was available? 

Anyway, we can also think of supply and demand in terms of time.  Demand is everything we have to do; supply is the time available to do it.  The problem of the two piles of stuff that we discussed in chapter 2 is the problem of supply (time available) and demand (things wanting to be done). 

            I think you’ll agree that just as we can calculate supply and demand in terms of our personal finances, it would be useful if we could do the same in terms of our time.  ‘If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,’ the old saw goes.  If we could measure our supply and demand – in other words, our overload – then that would be a useful thing.  It would be useful for at least four reasons:

  1. We could quantify how overloaded we are. Instead of just saying, ‘I’m completely stressed out because I’ve too much to do,’ we could actually put numbers on it.  Apart from giving us visibility into the problem, this would also be something we could use when talking to our boss.  If all we say to our boss is, ‘Hey boss, I’m completely overworked’, all we’re likely to get is an arm around the shoulder and a ‘Gosh, if you think you’ve got it bad, you should see my workload’.  That’s a pretty pointless discussion.  A discussion based on numbers is an entirely different proposition. 
  2. We could get a far better sense of what is causing our overload.  Is it that we take on too many new projects?  Do we have too much day-to-day, business as usual, routine stuff that gets in the way of the really important things?  We would get insights like these. 
  3. We could measure our rate of improvement.  We could see how overloaded we are right now.  Then, as we apply the ideas in this book, we could measure whether / how much things were improving for us. 
  4. We could see if we are doing ‘the right stuff’ i.e. how much of our time are we spending on the things that really matter to us and are we happy with that situation? 

And we do have a tool for calculating personal supply and demand.  It’s called a Dance Card or Supply-Demand Calculator – though I have to confess I prefer the first name myself. 

The name Dance Card refers to those more genteel times where, when women went to dances or balls, they were given a card with a list of the tunes that the band or orchestra was going to play.  Then, if you wanted to dance with a woman, you didn’t go up to her, wink and say, ‘I lost my phone number, can I have yours?’ or some equally awful chat-up line.  Instead, you wrote your name against a particular dance in her Dance Card.  In other words, you booked a particular dance with that woman.  The Dance Card was a booking system.  It measured supply (the number of dances available) and demand (the number of dances booked). 

            To calculate your Dance Card, your supply and demand, do the following.

Figure out everything you have to do – Demand

  1. Pick a period of time – a month, a couple of months, from now to the end of next month, from now to the end of the quarter, half a year, the rest of the year – whatever suits you. 
  2. Make a list of all the projects you will be working on during the period that you’ve chosen.  Include on the list any project which:
  • Ends during the period that you’ve chosen
  • Starts during the period you’ve chosen
  • Starts and ends in the period you’ve chosen
  • Runs through the period that you’ve chosen. 
  • Now add to the list what might be called ‘business as usual’ or ‘day-job’ type things.  These would be things like:
  • Meetings.  All your meetings may be about particular projects, but most of us have things like ‘the group meeting’, the Monday meeting’, ‘company meeting’ and so on.  Don’t forget too that you may have to do preparation before a meeting, there will be the meeting itself and you may have to do follow-ups or action items afterwards.   
  • Reports.  Maybe your job involves producing (or reading) a lot of these. 
  • Interruptions.  Whether they come person-to-person or by phone (landline or mobile), every one of us has these every day. 
  • Inbox / E-mail.  Possibly all of your e-mails are related to specific projects, but most of us have other stuff we have to deal with every day.  And anyway, there’s the time involved in figuring out whether they’re about specific projects or not. 
  • Trips / Visits.  No, not white sand and blue water and palm trees but rather you’re going on a business-related trip or somebody’s coming to visit you and that will soak up your time. 
  • Training.  Maybe you’re involved in some form of training course or you’re give training.  Maybe you’re coaching or mentoring somebody else.  
  • Annual leave / vacation / holidays.
  • Managing people.  Maybe you’re the line manager of some bunch of people and this takes up your time.  There’s allocating work, checking on stuff, sorting out problems, performance appraisal and so on. 
  • Phone calls / conference calls.  We all have some / a lot of these to do every day. 
  • Support.  Maybe you support products or systems or people in some way. 
  • Recruitment.  Maybe your organisation is expanding and you have to spend time looking at resumes, interviewing people and doing related activities. 
  • Firefighting.
  • Filling in for people.  Maybe you’re standing in for people who are away on some kind of leave.   
  • Add an additional line item called, ‘New stuff’.  It may be that in your job nothing is going to change over the period that you’re looking at.  (I’ve heard there are jobs like that though I’ve never come across one myself!)  Presumably, what’s more likely is that new things will come along.  We don’t know what they are yet because they haven’t come along – we just know it’s inevitable that they will.  ‘New stuff’ is to cover these. 

Figure out how much time it will take to do it

Now figure out how much of your time is going to go into each of the items on your list over the period that you’re looking at.  Use hours per day, days per week, total, hours, total days or whatever measure seems most appropriate to each line item.  Be sure to record each of the amounts of time in the same units.  I find days are best for this. 

            Add all of these up.  This gives you the total amount of work you have to do in the period in question.   

Figure out how much time you have available – Supply

Now figure out how many workdays there are in the same period.  (Convert that number to hours if you’ve been using hours in the previous section.)  This is how much time you have available. 

            We have a fill-in-the-blanks Excel spreadsheet called a Supply-Demand Calculator that will enable you to do this quickly.  It’s shown here.  If you want a copy send me an email at the address shown in the front of the book and I’ll send it back to you.  There are also some examples of supply demand calculations next in the chapter to help you. 


            Here are a couple of examples of supply demand calculations just to help you in drawing up your own.  Figure 4.1 contains one for a six-month period.  (The calculations assume 20 days in a month and 5 days in a week.)   

 120 202020202020
JobNeeds JanFebMarAprMayJun
Project A72 days 121212121212
Project B24 days 8844  
Project C10 days    244
Selling2 dpw 101010101010
E-mail / Inbox / Admin1 dpw 555555
Holidays10 days      10
Total work to do206 353531333141
Figure 4.1 Supply demand calculation #1

The column headed ‘Job’ lists all of the things that this person is involved in – their ‘list’.  The next column indicates how much work is estimated to go into these things over the period under investigation.  Days per month (dpm), days per week (dpw), hours per day or just plain days are all good ways of calculating how much work needs to be done.  Then the remaining columns show how this time will be spread out over the period under investigation – in this case, six months. 

There are two other items of interest.  The top row shows how many days are available per month.  The total of these is 120.  (Note that rather than trying to allow for the different numbers of working days in different countries, I have assumed that every month consists of 20 days.  You could adjust this up or down for your own situation.  For example, in Europe, December is definitely not 20 working days in most companies.)  The other item of interest is the total of all the work this person has to do – in this example, 206 days.  In the example then, the person has an overload of 86 days.  As a percentage of 120, this is more than 70% i.e. over 70% more work to do than time available to do it.                           

The supply demand calculation in figure 4.1 was for a person who does a mixture of projects – which take reasonably predictable amounts of time – and other kinds of work.  However, supply demand calculations can be done by anybody – even if your work is very unpredictable.  If your job is like that then the best thing is to

Figure 4.2 Supply demand calculation #2

record what actually happens say, in a particular week or over several weeks, and use this as your start point.  Figure 4.2 shows a supply demand calculation for such a job, with actual time spent in a given week.  This one was put together using Excel, but you can do these calculations any way you like.  A piece of paper – as shown in figure 4.1 – is absolutely fine.   

Your turn #1

Okay, so now go do a Dance Card for yourself.

And once you’ve done it …

I don’t know whether you were surprised by your supply demand calculation or not – most people are.  But whether you are or not, I hope that two things are abundantly clear.

You’re only going be able to do some things – and the corollary of this is that you’re not going to be able to do a whole bunch of other things.  The things that you do decide to do better be bloody important.

If you regard hugging your children or learning to play the piano or climbing Mount Everest or whatever, as important, then you’re going to have to find the time for them.  And that will mean taking time away from a whole bunch of other things. 

If you find that you are overloaded, what can you do about it?  Well,  there are only four things you can do and here’s an easy way to remember them – What, When, Work, Quality.  Let’s discuss them in turn:

What:  What means what you’re doing.  If you could find a way to not do some of these things then that would reduce the demand.  If you could find a way to not do enough things then, the demand would equal the supply.  This is also the ideal scenario because the things go away and they don’t come back. 

When:  When refers to when things are being done.  If you could find a way to move enough of the demand out beyond the period you have just looked at, that would also solve the problem.  It’s obviously not as good as the previous option because the stuff doesn’t go away – it just gets delayed.  And it may be that all you are doing is moving the overload off into the future a bit like a ruck in a rug. 

Work:  The two previous options are about reducing the demand either by not doing things at all or by delaying them.  This one, Work, tries to increase the supply.  How does it do that?  Well, maybe it’s an option to delegate things.  They get done and you don’t do them – nice!  (And don’t instantly rule out this possibility just because you don’t have a team or people who report to you.  It’s often possible to delegate things.  Ever tried delegating something to your boss?  Try it some time.  It’s very satisfying!)   The other possibility is that you work longer hours – nights, weekends, holidays etc.  Clearly, this is the least attractive option and not one we want to consider in a book like this. 

Quality:  Finally, while nobody sets out to do a bad job, if you do try to hold an overload situation (a supply demand imbalance is another way to think about it) then the quality of what you do will suffer in some way.  You’ll take shortcuts and hope they don’t come back to haunt you.  You’ll put a band-aid on something whereas if you’d had the time you could have sorted it out for once and for all. 

Generally, if people are overloaded, they do some kind of combination of the four of these things so that:

  • Some stuff doesn’t get done at all (What)
  • Some stuff is delayed (When) – generally people do the things that the people who shout loudest are looking for
  • They work longer hours (Work)
  • They take shortcuts wherever they can (Quality). 

One final point that’s worth mentioning here is the following.  Sometimes when people see that they have an overload situation they say something like this.  ‘Ah, I’m overloaded now but that’s because [and they always have a reason – it’s before Christmas, it’s after Christmas, it’s the summer, it’s not the summer etc.] but once I clear this I’ll be out on the prairies and running free.’  For most people that’s not actually true.  Here’s a Dance Card done for (let’s call him) Charlie for the month of July 2012.  (It’s a real one for a real person – only the names have been changed to protect the innocent!) 

CharlieNumber of daysJuly 2 2012   5July 9 2012   5July 16 2012   5July 23 2012   5
1 Project A12    
2 Project B10    
3 Project C2    
4 Project D0.5    
5 Project E0.5    
6 Project F0.5    
7 Project G1.5    
8 Project H5    
9 Projections for the department0.5    
10 Fire fighting5    
11 Training2    
12 Quality Audit.5    
13 Inbox / Email5    
14 Vacation1    

The demand is 46 days work to do; the supply is 20 days available.  So this person is 26 days overloaded which, as a percentage of 20 is 130%. 

So that is Charlie’s Dance card for July 2012.  Now maybe we tend to think that if he carried on doing the same job for next ten years (a fairly depressing thought for most of us, I think you’ll agree!), and if we could see his Dance Card for July 2022, ten years from now, we would see 20 snow-white days just waiting to be allocated to things.  But this is not actually true.  Charlie’s has things already booked for July 2022.  They are items 9 -14, the day-to day stuff that he does all the time, irrespective of what projects may be going on.  If we do the arithmetic, we see that nearly half his time is taken up with this stuff.  So the idea that there’s a ‘hump’, which just has to be cleared, is an illusion.

Your Turn #2

To round off this chapter, make a game of declining things.  Do this by declining – for a whole day – every second request that comes your way.  You can use the techniques you’ve developed so far or try some new ones.  How might you come up with some new techniques?  Well, you can dream them up for yourself or ask other people.  Ask your work colleagues at coffee break or lunch.  Ask friends and family if they have good ways of saying no to things.  Maybe you know, or work with, somebody who’s good at saying ‘no’ to things.  Note what they do and how they do it. 

And what are you going to do if the greatest of all bosses is heading your way and it’s time to say ‘no’ nicely?  Are you going to chicken out or got for it?  As with all of this stuff, it’s your choice.