Time Management: The Martial Art for Working Professionals

In a prior post, I made the point that within every time management system there lies a structure that is always present.

I compare it the bone structure that makes up the human hand. Although individual hands might be different, a fully functional hand must have all the component parts. They each serve a distinct purpose. While it is possible to function without all the parts, there are a few essential bones that must be either present, or replaced, in order for the appendage to work.

In the same way, a time management system must have certain basic components, without which it does not function. These basics are Capturing, Emptying, Tossing, Storing, Scheduling, Acting Now, Listing, Switching, Warning, Interrupting and Reviewing.

In fact, an effective time management system in 2007 must be able to do things that a time management system in 1970 just was not designed to do. Here are some reasons why:

  • Between the years 1950 and 2000, human knowledge doubled.
  • Scientific information doubles every 5 years.
  • A single Sunday New York Times has the same amount of information that a person in 1750 was exposed to in their entire lifetime.
  • Internet traffic doubles every 100 days.

The sheer volume of information has increased rapidly, and is increasing more rapidly. A time management system created today will probably be a hindrance five years from now for those professionals that do not understand the basic components and how they need to work together.

The great thing about understanding the basic components is that it reduces the temptation we might have to go out and buy the newest system that is advertised. Instead, we can make an intelligent choice about whether or not to include this new gizmo in our system. Does it enhance the basics, or not? Does it fit my habits or not? Will it work with the basic components?

This is not to discourage professionals from upgrading. In fact, new technology is a must if we are to continuously upgrade our time management systems. There is a simple fact behind this need for constant upgrading.

The better a professional is, the better able he is to manage his time. The better able he is to manage his time, the more that others with whom he works are willing to give him to do.

There is an old saying: “If you really want something to be done, give it to someone who is busy.”

Clearly, there are a range of practices that a professional can use, some of which are more effective than others. For example, when given a task to perform in a meeting you may have noticed the following practices or habits for Capturing:

  1. I remember things without writing them down
  2. I write things on a Post-It note
  3. I record things in a reliable place (e.g. a permanent notebook) for later processing

These are all approaches that might work, in faithfully translating the given task into action. However, Habit 3 is clearly superior to Habit 1. Professionals who use more of Habit 1 than Habit 3 are likely to be less reliable.

It’s not too different from the way in which a Black belt is different from a White belt in Tae Kwon Do. To the unpracticed eye, they might all look like they are doing the same moves, but to those experienced in the martial arts, there is a world of difference.

Professionals who are experts in time management know and understand the different practices that are available in each of the basic components or disciplines.

In the system that we are developing, professionals will also have a chance to use a system of belts to understand where they are in the development of their own time management system.

One major difference from Tae Kwon Do is that every professional already has a time management system that they are already using to manage their time, so the starting point need not be at the bottom of the ladder.

Instead, once they understand the basic components, they will be able to decide what level they currently are at in each of the components. Our experience tells us that very few people are complete Black Belts, and almost no-one is a complete White Belt. Instead, professionals tend to have a complex mix of capabilities in each component.

Therefore, the plan for each person will be different as they integrate, and learn new practices. We plan to encourage people to plot their own path, and to phase the introduction of new techniques over time, essentially giving themselves an opportunity to adapt and change to incorporate new habits that, for most people, change slowly.

The biggest mistake that we have seen professionals make in learning new time management habits is to try to learn too many new habits too quickly. The result is frustration, stress and ultimately failure as they build too steep a learning curve for themselves, innocently underestimating what it takes to change entrenched habits.

Instead, our new system will encourage them to move themselves from one level to another slowly and comfortably, adjusting their knowledge and habits as they go along. From the little that I know of Tae Kwon Do, it takes years of practice to progress all the way up the ranks.

Professionals in the workplace would do well to think of their time management practice as their own martial art.