Research that Challenges “One-Size-Fits-All” Time Management

claessensIt’s an assumption made by many time management books and programs – the behaviors described not only work, but they work for everyone. They might make a passing reference to the need to do a little customization here and there but it’s hardly a central thesis of the book. The author’s message remains: “Just follow what I do as closely as you can.”

A more challenging idea that few dare to confront is that we all need custom systems.

Recent research conducted in 2004 by Brigitte Claessens – Perceived Control of Time: Time Management and Personal Effectiveness at Work – backs this up. Here are a few of the findings summarized.

1.  The Skill and Training Effect

The report states: “…more conscientious and emotionally stable people completed more of their planned work than others. Also, those who participated in a time management training program prior to this study completed more of their planned work than others.” This finding showed that there are individual differences in performances, driven in part by current levels of exposure to training.

2. Differences in Starting the Day

41% started their day by reviewing their plan for the day, before checking email. 35% skipped the plan and jumped straight into email. 24% made social contacts and engaged in communal activity such as drinking coffee and having a snack.

Furthermore, 59% preferred to work on large, difficult tasks first. 24% had no routine for working on tasks and 18% preferred to work on small, enjoyable tasks first. Another 18% worked on items that were important to other people.

A book or program that attempts to either ignore these differences, or force all learners to follow a single prescription is likely to fail.

3. Individual Differences are Important

There were four distinct planning and execution styled detected in the research. Almost all the respondents indicated that they “felt their style suited their own preferred way of working.” One reported that “The work style I employ wouldn’t work for anyone else, because we are all so different.”

They indicated that the differences were based on personality, experiences at work and also that one’s style style “develops and changes over time.” 76% were satisfied with their style, but shared that for some tasks on particular projects, either more or less structured styles were needed, “which they found hard to do.”

Also, those who were satisfied would NOT recommend their style to colleagues, believing that “it wouldn’t be possible due to the individual differences.”

4. Focusing on Priorities Can Make Things Worse

The researchers tested the effect of a focus on priorities on both a) feelings of control over one’s time and b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work under certain situations. There was no effect on the former and a negative effect on the latter. Also, focusing on priorities can increase what the authors called “work strain.” The authors surmise “<it is>…because one has to continually assess the importance of the tasks that come along and as a consequence may find it difficult to decide on the priority order of activities.”

5. Developing a Timetable of Activities Helps

“Anchored planning” is defined as “the detailtedness (sic) of planning goals, activities, and time frames.”

Having a timetable was positively related to a) feelings of control over one’s time and b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work under certain situations. Also continually monitoring progress against this timetable was positively related to b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work. Having contingency plans was positively related to a) one’s feelings of control over one’s time.

The finding around anchored planning support other research results summarized on the 2Time Labs website, conducted by Dezhi Wu and also Masicampo and Blaumeister. That is, “planning into (sic) some detail increases the perception of control over time and the perceived ability to perform one’s work.” This supports the emerging view that maintaining and monitoring an individual, detailed calendar of activities is a superior time management technique  to others that exist (such as trying to use one’s memory or keeping multiple lists.)

6. What You Think About Your Abilities is Important

  • Your a) feelings of control over your time is a greater contributor to well-being variables such as job satisfaction and also external ratings of your effectiveness, than b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations.
  • Your b) belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations is a predictor of self-ratings of job performance.
  • Both self-evaluated and externally-evaluated effectiveness is affected by your a) feelings of control over your time and not by b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations
  • Your b) belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations is negatively related to external ratings of effectiveness

The final result implies that you can trick yourself into thinking you are much better than others think you are in your time management skills.

Furthermore, a) your feelings of control over your time AND b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations has a more direct effect on your performance than actual behaviors.

 7. Individual Differences are Critical When Teaching Time Management

The authors say it well: “Although we expect most people to profit from time management behaviors, our and other studies demonstrated that there are individual differences in planning and executing behaviors. Therefore, we argue that time management training programs should be developed to serve different kinds of people. This could be done by means of a ‘diagnostic’ or screening tool, for instance in the form of a diary study, prior to the actual time management training after which people with the same kinds of problems with time (for instance personal planning problems) could be invited to participate in custom-made programs. Currently, most time management training programs ask participants prior to the actual training program to note and evaluate their time spending, but they do not use this information to select respondents for a particular type of time management training. As a result, participants may receive a training in all elements of time management behaviors, including those in which they were already competent. This can reduce the learning effect as relatively little time is used to discuss their particular problems and to teach them the behaviors that might be beneficial to their particular situation.”

The research we have done here at 2Time Labs into adult learning principles (andragogy) also makes this clear. Our teaching experience backs this up.

8. Making Good Time Choices Can Reduce Burnout

The authors state: “…we found a direct effect of task assessment behavior on work strain which implies that by carefully assessing assigned tasks not only with respect to the time available but also to one’s capabilities, and by accepting the tasks that one feels able to perform within these boundaries, one feels less pressured at work.”

In Summary

I recommend this piece of research heartily and am only saddened that there are fewer people who appear to be using it. The work I do to link these ideas with you, an interested reader, is apparently unique as few of the authors, bloggers and class developers that I follow actually check out the source of their ideas. The authors echo this sentiment – “… we argue that time management trainers take notice of and implement results of scientific time management studies in time management training programs to ensure that participants are made familiar with behaviors that have been identified as beneficial to job performance and personal well-being.”

Being unique has some advantages, but I also wonder who is reading this kind of article. If you have made it this far, then I’d like to know. Please leave me a comment to let me know that yes, you do exist… and whether to not you’d like to hear more summaries of time management research here on this website.