‘Take control of your life’ can sound like good advice, but statements like this are philosophically empty because they can’t be properly defined. Why? Because they involve managing time.
All forms of media promise a better, less stressful life if we all focus on doing less. Or on doing more in less time. The reality is different because we’re also urged to fill every bit of our day with some activity or other. People, and not just those who suffer from OCD, are obsessed with time - and people are also obsessed with managing it. We are encouraged to be obsessed with time whether socially, at home and certainly at work. At work, timekeeping is synonymous with hard work - a Victorian dictum but nonetheless still apposite in many parts of the world.
There are fierce debates between those who say nothing really works to help the management of time and those who swear by their low-tech Moleskines or higher-tech iPads. There are those who can’t live without their time management apps, online tools or management books and experts. Whatever the system or device, each seems to always start on a hopeful note, but often ends on one that turns sour.
Time-management tools, books and courses offer us all a promise that we can gain certain and better control over our lives. But we despair because, even with the best of intentions, the ideas work for a while, then stop - either from a lack of persistence or because the system doesn’t allow for human differences.
There are hundreds of time management approaches out there, from straightforward to-do lists to complicated computer or Internet-generated services with dozens of features. Most universities and colleges offer some form of time-management courses and there are dozens of companies that make big money out of selling time management solutions in-house.
Searching for a technique that works leaves many people frustrated, anxious and, of course, guilty – the opposite of the stress-free productivity that time management is supposed to achieve. The available evidence suggests that these tools and strategies work for some people in some settings, but not for others – and in most cases not long for anyone. Why? Because we all manage and see time differently. And also, because most techniques suit the developer more than anyone else.
So, what is it that makes so many people frustrated with time management? And, is there a better way of dealing with time? Most of us frequently ask ourselves if we’re really as productive as we can be. However, do we think that, if we were able to do more, then would we actually do more? Research has it that at best the answer is ‘maybe’ and on the whole it’s ‘no’.
Pursuing productivity for its own sake is the reason why many people get frustrated with time-management tools. They can become counter-productive. Self-imposed pressure is the reason why many people get frustrated with time. It’s the same reason why their time-management is poor in the first place. Most of us have the idea that time-management ideology, whatever it is, must work. We’re told that it must work. Those who have more seniority than us tell us that it must work. And, of course, we’re often taught to constantly try hard to outperform ourselves - and our peers.
When people do try to increase their productivity, they’re most likely to add more tasks to their workload and end up where they started. Or worse, of course. This is obviously a self-defeating strategy. Most people feel able to complete more tasks when they start using time-management theory or tools, but they don’t bear in mind that they can’t keep increasing their workload forever. It’s a bit like dieting. In a few weeks, most people may well be more productive yes, but still frustrated – either because they know that they can’t sustain what they’re doing or because they’re not actually being more productive. The real problem is that they are becoming overworked and, being overworked and over-burdened, are absolutely not solutions to time-management.
Another consequence of time related non-productivity is that it often makes people lose track of their real motivation. Most of us rely on willpower or instruction (i.e. orders) to succeed. Willpower is only as good as is the ability to sustain the approach (like a diet again) and motivation has to be fed and encouraged without which it’s a tough thing to keep going.
Emotion plays a big part in time-management. Most people want to feel loved or, at least, liked more than they want to feel productive. Social media for example is good at promising to make us feel good. Don’t we all check out how many likes we get in a post or a tweet? Don’t we all worry if we don’t get a reply to a message or email within seconds or minutes? As mentioned, guilt is another driver pushing us all to do more in the time we have. With guilt comes pressure and with pressure comes stress and failure to achieve. Failure can be a positive because we learn by mistakes but failure in time-management is never regarded as positive or helpful. It’s a negative.
Why, then, is there an overall expectation to do more and more? Most office workers today (and certainly those at executive level) have some freedom to organise much of their own time and, with that, ironically, comes a lot of pressure. Freedom in an executive role is matched by responsibility: you have to think a lot more about how you manage your time in order to a) do your job, b) be seen to be doing your job, c) show your boss and peers that you can cope doing your job, d) deliver first class outputs and e) make you feel that you’re indispensable to the organisation. Interestingly happiness doesn’t factor. Being busy means to most people being needed. That’s a strong emotional rationale but it helps us little in managing our time well.
A big issue is that many people in many organisations worldwide have no real clue as to precisely what they should be doing with 100% of their working time. When companies strip out layers of management or swathes of employees for whatever reason, research has it that by and large little difference is made to the output or productivity of that organisation. The notion of not knowing what an executive should be doing with all of his/her time is one of the core reasons, of course, why people want to be invited to as many meetings as possible. Most executives’ diaries are meetings heavy. Should they be at all of those meetings? Research has it that the answer is a big ‘definitely not’. Activities like other people’s meetings which they attend (because they want to, think they need to, are frightened not to) takes away responsibility for time accountability. Again, attending meetings means profile and profile counts towards the need to being needed.
Many professionals have to juggle multiple projects, as well as the demands of family and social life. It’s easy to drop a ball - and we all do that from time to time. However, in the process of dropping not just one but maybe several balls, people feel unproductive, feel that they’ve failed, feel apologetic and guilty, rarely seek help, pile on more work and feel unproductive again. At the least, they will feel dissatisfied and, not that infrequently, depressed.
One solution, as we are often told, is to be ultra-clear about priorities. Not vague, but absolutely pin precise. That allows us to adapt what we do to match our priorities. But there’s no one size fits all here. Life just isn’t like that. Some people are more conscious about time than others: they have a better awareness of how much of it they will spend on a particular task – or will need to spend on a particular task. Others are prone to be optimistic when budgeting time. This is a common fallacy and is a pitfall, particularly if some of our tasks are ‘nice’ and some ‘less nice’. We choose ‘nice’ every time until we’re forced to tackle the ‘less nice’. In addition, many time budgets go out of the window as soon as something stops us working within the set budget or interrupts it.
Many of us prefer to do one thing at a time, while others feel comfortable juggling multiple tasks. Again, one size definitely won’t fit all. The norms and expectations about time vary a lot between workplaces and different cultures. The most recurrent issue for many in most organisations is the daily mess we have on our own desks. That can be metaphorical and/or real. After a short while, the desk remains a mess as we pile on the tasks and the never completed paperwork. That leads to people tackling only the most recently demanded tasks and of course those in the queue get ignored or forgotten totally. Some will argue that forgotten tasks can’t have been that important in the first place - much as is the case with documents that are filed in a cabinet. However, how would you feel if a team member asked you for the critical research which was yours to deliver and it’s non-delivery had stopped a project dead in its tracks? How would that mean to you and how would you feel as the colleague?
Some people are great believers in the idea of short bursts of task activity, but our days may not run like that. Companies like Apple, Google and Adobe, among other technology giants, find this kind of approach useful – and some businesses actually insist on it. They argue that short bursts of work are highly productive and they encourage staff to do all sorts of other things in-between.
Flexibility is the core aspect of any management of time. People will not always get everything done and that’s OK, but whatever OK means to an organisation has to be accepted by that organisation. It means accepting that occasional failure - and not always meeting schedules - are OK. Or, better, OK may mean managing things so that failure is less likely (training, instruction, enough time) and that schedules are realistic (allowing enough time, thereby ensuring success and less errors).
Some would say that we should be able to manage our own time easily. There are businesses that set a task or project for a team or group and then ask that team or group to tell management how long the task or project will take. Management may seek an improved answer and compromise may rule, but at least the team then has to manage how the target delivery is met. That seems a fairer way of distributing tasks and the time it takes to do them. Businesses that operate this way by and large declare that productivity is kept high.
Bear in mind that productivity is not an endless race, just a tool with limits. Therefore, it’s worth trying to establish if what’s expected of you is reasonable. That requires negotiation and of course it’s not always possible to do things according to your own wants. Negotiation is also often not an option. Reports are essential for all sorts of reasons on Tuesday morning, a full pitch with visuals has to be rewritten by tomorrow afternoon, a calculation has to be rechecked in a lab by yesterday. There are all sorts of reasons why pressure mounts and time is not our own to manage. But these examples should not be the rule, but the exception. If any business exists on the rule alone, then something will snap and it could be you.
And that’s where the holy grail sits really. The holy grail is you. There is one thing we can do to have a healthier relationship with work: we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. There’s lots of pressure to always do more and within sometimes ridiculous time-scales. If that’s occasional well so be it – that’s life. But if it’s regular, something is wrong. It’s hard to push back because either we don’t have the power to do that (and it’s scary to contemplate, so we say yes) or we think that saying no smacks of failure. That leads to a failed or incomplete task and self-criticism; self-criticism is terrible for our ability to succeed and be productive. Self-criticism triggers a stress response and the part of our brains that we need for time-management will go offline. Anxiety takes the place of sense and sensibility. Less gets done, not more.
We can't manage time; we manage ourselves in time. Time is a measurement and we can't control its quantities. They’re finite. No matter what you do, you can’t create more time. We can only control what we do in time. But we can’t always do that because we’re managed by what others want or need to do in time.
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