The Confusion “Time Management” Has Created

The idea that “time cannot be managed” has now entered the popular consciousness, never to go away. A brief search on YouTube or Google yields a growing number of bloggers and podcasters sharing the ideas that time management is impossible showing that this particular meme – so rarely heard until recently – is here to stay.

That’s a good thing, because it’s true. The idea that “time cannot be managed’ is a fact that we have conveniently overlooked for decades, to our detriment.

Time cannot be managed by NightingaleEarl Nightingale, the famous motivational speaker, might have been one of the first to say that “time can’t be managed, only activities can.” He said it often during his career spanning from 1960 to his death in the late eighties. The problem is that no-one took him seriously. The Wikipedia page on time management, for example, doesn’t even raise the question of its existence, let alone quote his statement.

Academics, however, are now echoing Nightingale’s statement. In my upcoming book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I quote two researchers on the topic of time management’s definition and existence. Lori-Ann Hellsten wrote a 2012 time management research summary entitled – “What Do We Know About Time Management: A Review of the Literature and a Psychometric Critique of Instruments Assessing Time Management.” It’s a defining article in the field, and in the opening paragraph she states that there’s manifest confusion:

“Lack of time is a common complaint in western society. In response, there has been a proliferation of ‘books, articles and seminars on time management, along with their assertions, prescriptions and anecdotes (Macan, 1994, p. 383).’ But what exactly is time management? Despite the epidemic of time management training programs… there is currently a lack of agreement about the definition of time management and a dearth of literature summarizing time management across disciplines.”

Into the state of disarray steps Dr. Brigitte Claessens, a Dutch researcher, who plainly states in the book “Time in Organizational Research,” that “Of course, time cannot be managed in any sense.”

While Nightingale made the original statement decades ago his statement has been ignored by most. (David Allen, author of Getting Things Done, remains a notable exception.) Perhaps the the repercussions of accepting Nightingale’s the assertion are simply too ground-breaking. At the very least, it would have meant the end of careers and businesses built around the idea that time management is real and the problems people have are not imaginary in the least. In my library, for example, I have hundreds of peer-reviewed articles on time management. None of them would have been written the way they were if this essential premise had been questioned.

It’s not hard to imagine that the real symptoms and challenges people face each day have something to do with the fact that time management is a topic no-one understands, or can understand. If Nightingale, Allen and Claessens are to believed, we have all been on a fool’s errand. Time management 2.0 actually signifies the end of the journey in which we thought that time could be managed.

However, my intention in this post isn’t to answer the question of whether time management exists. The question is one I answer briefly in my new book, Perfect Time-Based Productivity. My plans are to complete a Special Report in 2015 to provide a full answer, bringing physicists and philosophers into the debate. In this post, I only want to examine a single question: what are the implications of the non-existence of time management. So what if time management doesn’t exist? What is the effect of pretending it’s real, when it isn’t?

1. No Research in “Time Management”
It explains why there are no schools for time management in academia, and there’s not single a department in any university. It could be that after some thought, academics decided that the term “time management” didn’t refer to anything real. Unfortunately, this explanation falls a bit short because the topic is so under-studied, according to Hellsten and others who have done literature reviews. A more likely explanation is that, due to its lack of definition, time management is considered to be a multidisciplinary field. Many academics consider the pursuit of such fields as self-inflicted kiss of death – a trap that prevents rising professors from ever achieving tenure or raising funding. As a result, there are only one or two journals on the topic and no regular conferences. The closest you may find is a conference on time use studies, which brings together researchers who collect and analyze data on how we spend our time.

2. No Solutions to Everyday Problems
If “time management” doesn’t exist it would explain why the unwanted symptoms that are so widespread would continue unabated. Because we have persisted for so long in pursuing a non-entity, we have made little progress. I recently gave a seminar to a group of academics on time management and at the appointed time to start, less than 10 percent had arrived. Also, in my book, I share a story of training a group of extremely bright consultants in which one participant couldn’t stop himself from multi-tasking. Our problems in the area of time-based productivity are startlingly elementary even among the highly educated.

There’s an abundance of evidence showing that technology has not helped our cause – having total, 24-7 access to email, for example, does not mean that your Inbox will be any less of a mess. In fact, it probably means it could be worse.

3. Lots of Bad Apps
Believing time management is real has meant that “time management” apps are badly developed. Developers who aren’t experts in a given field must rely on theoreticians to paint a picture of the world they are trying to simulate. When that picture is flawed, or even worse, non-existent, then the software is bound to be flawed. The same applies to time management hardware.

4 No Education in Time-Based Productivity
Not understanding that time cannot be manage has translated to a lack of standards. With no basic definition, there has been no standard productivity instruction leaving teens to develop their own methods without any guidance. The result is that people end up with self-taught systems that are flawed or uneven, the effects of which are felt for a lifetime.

5. Following Self Management – a Non-Substitute
Nightingale and others have tried to substitute “self management” for time management, but that definition hasn’t gained much traction, with good reason. While it’s accurate that time cannot be managed, and that self management is what we do, it’s not a useful explanation. Every form of management is actually a form of “self management” including examples such as weight management, money management or relationship management. While the substitution is technically correct, it’s not helpful as it takes us no further in our understanding of what to do to prevent problems like lateness or overwhelmed email Inboxes.

6. It Stymies Further Research
Believing time management exists without evidence has led us to completely ignore even tougher questions about whether or not time itself exists. Physicists have trouble defining “time” and many claim that it has no reality outside of human existence. Einstein claimed that time is an illusion. Julian Barbour, the brilliant author and researcher, echoed the sentiment.

Philosophers also have trouble defining what time is. J.M.E. McTaggart came up with the idea of two kinds of time which he named the “A” and “B” series. According to Wikipedia, the A-series orders events according to them being in the past, present or future. The B-series eliminates all reference to the past, associated temporal modalities of past and future, and orders all events by the temporal relations earlier and later than.

These fundamental distinctions have divided philosophical opinion and McTaggart’s 1908 paper, “The Unreality of Time” doesn’t help: it argues that time is unreal because our descriptions are either contradictory, circular or insufficient. He says “Our ground for rejecting time… is that time cannot be explained without assuming time.”

These are fundamental questions that phrases like “time management” cover up. They leaves lay-persons having conversations that are superficial because underneath the common, everyday usage of the term there turns out to be little commonality on which to build.

In Perfect Time-Based Productivity, I introduce a viable alternative – a model of what we do everyday. Human beings uniquely create a type of psychological object called a “time demand” – an internal, individual commitment to complete an action in the future. We start creating time demands in our early teens, no long after we discover the concept of time. We try to manage them in different ways using our memory, paper, calendar, smartphone, tablet, laptop, white board, administrative assistant, Gantt Charts and other means; whatever we can use because their completion is vitally important to us both in terms of our survival, and our success in life.

I argue that time demands are an inescapable reality for functioning adults, given our human limits.

While time itself cannot be managed, we certainly do our best to manage time demands before we even know what they are, or before we can explain what we are actually doing. With adult awareness, we can do much more than unconsciously engage. The opportunities for improvement are enormous.

Why The World is (Not) Working Against You

businessman in the cubeAn interesting article  from Eric Barker’s excellent blog – Barking Up the Wrong Tree – describes some of the work Dan Ariely is doing to work out the irrational behavior we demonstrate in the world of time management.

Among the great points he makes (all supported by recent research) is the notion that the world and its numerous distractions have made it hard for us to stay focused on our commitments. Some say its a conspiracy. Eric states that “It’s like we’re surrounded by scheming thieves: thieves of our time, thieves of our attention, thieves of our productivity.” They are all working together against our being focused on what we want, in favor of what they want. He concludes: “Not having a plan, goals or a system in today’s world is dangerous because the default isn’t neutral.”

While it might certainly feel as if we are victims of a larger plot, the fact is we need to own up to the monster we have created, albeit unwittingly.

For example, many have written about the benefits of streamlining your smartphone to include only the apps you need. Or opening only one tab at a time when you browse. Or refusing to interrupt a task because a phone happens to ring in the middle of its execution.

These tactics are all meant to preserve your attention and they all make logical sense. However, they remain difficult to implement on a consistent basis. For most people, they are far from becoming routine habits.

Even when we understand this situation fully, we just don’t know how to make the transition from being available to every distraction to limiting ourselves to a single task at a time. Here are some of the things we have to do.

1. Assume Responsibility

In this matter, like many others, we underestimate our agency. We have set things up in our world to be as distracting as they are. This is good news – we can reset them to support, rather than hinder our progress towards our goals.

2. Make Electronic Adjustments

This means carefully refining the “interruptional environment” around us – turning off (or on) beeps, buzzes, vibrations, flashing lights, pop-ups. Our first attempt won’t be successful and it may take several tries. For example, I just switched smartphones and now the old phone still has some strange beeps that I haven’t disabled because I can’t find what’s triggering them.

It takes perseverance to set up the right combination for your needs. Ideally, there should be the capability to turn all of them off, as envisioned by the MyFocus button described on Nathan Zeldes’ blog.

3. Refashion Your Social Environment

The MyFocus button has another purpose, which is why I’m such a fan of the idea behind it. It also serves as a virtual “closed door” to other people. When it’s switched from green to red, it’s a polite signal to other people that you are not to be disturbed. It’s like a closed door to someone’s office – only to be knocked on in emergencies.

Training other people to respect a MyFocus button or even a closed door might take some skillful negotiations, especially if the person outranks you in the company. They may believe they have a permanent right to override whatever you are doing, in favor of the task they have at hand.

In any case, it takes work.

4. Shut Down your Open Office

There’s a correlation between privacy and productivity, much to the chagrin of Office Managers throughout the world who are continually trying to cut costs. In the early 1990’s I attended training conducted by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister. They established that the most productive programmers had more floor space than their counterparts. With more square footage (which was easy to measure) often came a door, walls and control over their visual and auditory environment. Plus, it meant that you were less likely to be interrupted by someone walking by who happened to remember the score to last night’s game and wanted someone to share it with.

Eric quotes the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain to reinforce the point: “…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.”

Now, the fact is, you can’t easily build your own office with the ideal mix of space and privacy. It’s the rare company that will even give you a choice. What you can do, however, is start a movement to boost productivity by shaping the physical environment. This will take nothing short of a campaign, and some savvy change management skills. Unless you happen to be the boss, you must use soft power to convince the powers that be that the investment in more privacy is worth it.

All in all, there’s a lot that you can do to take charge of your environment. These elements all add up and can make a  profound difference to your daily peace of mind as a professional.