Experimenting with Time Management Systems

I read a tremendous article recently that captures the importance of experimenting more eloquently than I ever could.

I found it in the April 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review and it is entitled “Be a Better Leader, Have a Richer Life,” and written by Stewart Friedman.

The authors divides a professional’s life into four separate areas  — work, home, community and self — and urges employees and leaders alike to undertake focused improvement projects in each area.  Each project is given a start and an end date, and only a few are to be attempted at any one time in order to ensure that one’s energy isn’t dissipated.

Also, by attempting these projects, he points out that people can take the leadership lessons learned from one area into all areas.  This is because we all live interconnected lives, and there is a non-linear magic that occurs in someone’s life when a true improvement takes place.

Imagine for instance someone who decides to partake in a community project, in order to help them try some new time management skills.  They could quite deliberately accept a leadership role in order to test themselves, to see what happens with their ability to manage a new volume of work.

If this idea sounds familiar to frequent readers of the blog, then it should.

2Time is built on the idea of continuous experimentation, and the truth is that building your own time management system can only be done well with the kind of focus the author describes.

In the old world of time management, the instructions were simple to give, but hard to follow.  Authors and gurus simply said:  “Follow me.” And, “if you have difficulty doing so, try harder.”

That was essentially it.

In Time Management 2.0 the reality is very different.  In order to design a time management system that works for you you need to constantly experiment with different approaches, in order to discover your default habit patterns.  Unless you are lucky enough to have a handbook somewhere that describes your habits in detail, you are likely to be venturing into new territory.

This is not a problem, as long as you have some tolerance for the trial and error process that comes with self-discovery.  Also, it’s important to know that this self-knowledge is only a means to an end — a personally customized time management system.

What I realized while reading this article is that a professional who takes the effort to design their own time management system is likely to see an improvement in all areas of their life at the same time.  This is likely to occur because people who undertake this kind of design end up creating systems that allow them to relax into the flow state for longer and longer periods of time.

This is true whether or not they are reading a book, talking to their children, replying to a tricky email or attending a meeting.  They are simply able to invent a method that allows themselves to give 100% more often than those who are stuck in unconscious time management systems.

The author gives a few tips on how to design the best experiments.  He advocates creating experiments that “feel like something of a stretch: not too easy, not too daunting.  It might be something quite mundane for someone else, but that doesn’t matter.  What’s critical is that you see it as a moderately difficult, challenge.”

Furthermore, he advises that once users have gotten started with a few projects, that they be open to constant adaptation.  In this way, there is no such thing as failure.  Whether goals are achieved or not, there is something important to be learned, and one’s life can be transformed in both cases.

Also, it turns out that there is no such thing as small or unimportant experiments.  They all make a contribution towards the greatest of changes.

I have found that users who are confronted by the idea of building a time management system for their own, benefit greatly when they take the approach of breaking the project down into small steps, and sequence the steps they are planning to take over time.  This prevents the overload that comes from taking the typical time management program in which hundreds of new habits are introduced in a torrent that drowns most participants.

It’s a great article, and it can be purchased from hbr.org and searching for reprint R0804H.