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.