The Pedagogy of Time Management



pedagogy pronunciation /ˈpɛdəˌgoʊdʒi, -ˌgɒdʒi/[ped-uh-goh-jee, -goj-ee]

–noun, plural -gies.
1. the function or work of a teacher; teaching.

2. the art or science of teaching; education; instructional methods.

It’s not a commonly used word, but it is a useful one to consider when we think about the ways in which time management teaching has failed.

While time management is a practice used by every single working adult in the world, it’s strange that there is no standard training in this skill, or even a common or accepted body of knowledge.  There is no text-book in the subject, and there are very few academic papers written on the topic, according to a recent literature review by Claessens et al.   The discipline falls neatly between the cracks of well defined academic disciplines such as engineering, business, psychology and human resources.

Most people, as a result, end up being self-taught.

It’s not until their adult years (and usually well after they join the workforce) that a handful of professional look for some kind of formal training, which is usually delivered in a particular format that can be summarized as follows:

Here is what I do… copy my example.

In other words, the contemporary teaching method is to follow the example of a respected guru in the field who has put together a book or class that describes in some detail the particular habit pattern that works for them.

The gurus are well-intended, but their efforts fall short as evidenced by the number of people who take their programs or read their books and struggle along for a few days before reverting to what they have always done for years.

Fortunately for us, there are some recent books that highlight a new way of teaching  time management that might be useful for professionals the world over.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin make the point that we are dead wrong when we think about high achievement.  To put it simply, it’s impossible to reach world-class levels of performance without putting in thousands of hours of structured practice focused on areas of weakness.  According to a review of the book at the Steve Cheeseborough blog, this practice is more than just fooling around at the driving range (in the case of golf) or playing a few tunes on the guitar that we remember:

  • It must be designed specifically to improve performance
  • It can be repeated a lot
  • Feedback on results is continuously available
  • It is highly demanding
  • It isn’t much fun, or at least is “not inherently enjoyable.”

This is the kind of practice that is desperately missing in the corporate world. According to military-veteran, now corporate employee/blogger, Brett (the author of Brett’s blog,) this is different from the military.  Here is an excerpt from his review of the book:

Early on in Chapter 7 (of Talent is Overrated), Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The same problem has infected time management pedagogy.  Over the years, the  emphasis has been placed on the easy part… sharing the ideas and habit patterns that gurus are eager for us to adopt.  What they ignore, to the detriment of all, is the fact that tough practice is needed in order to turn any new habit pattern learned in class into a set of reliable practices.

A modern pedagogy of time management would correct these errors and would:

  • recognize that each person comes into the learning situation with a set of habits that they have taught themselves over the years that are hard to change
  • give up on one-size-fits-all solutions and instruct learners how to adopt new principles into their current systems
  • break down the changes that learners need to make into small chunks that they can master over time
  • teach learners how to use deliberate practice in order to incorporate small behavior changes
  • emphasize that making habit changes is the hard part, and that learning which habits to change is, bar far, the easy part
  • show that time management skills come from practice, and not talent, as evidenced by how much they have learned over the years, and how they learned it
  • help learners see that they must continue to improve their approach to time management due to rapid changes in technology, information overload and the increase in time demands that are placed on them each day

With a new pedagogy, we might be able to introduce improved methods of teaching and learning that could be introduced much earlier in a professional’s career, and help them implement better systems at every point in their career, as soon as the need arises.