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Time management is only making our busy lives worse

By Mastery6 min read
[This article was first published in]


“Tess…started her way up the dark and crooked lane not made for hasty progress; a street laid out before inches of land had value, and when one-handed clocks sufficiently sub-divided the day” (Thomas Hardy).

Imagine your life without time; without a constant sense that you’re running behind, frustrated that, yet again you are losing the battle against the irresistible force of the ticking clock. Imagine not wishing there were more hours in the day.

We haven’t always been obsessed with time. In fact, as the historian EP Thompson highlighted half a century ago, before the Industrial Revolution clocks were largely irrelevant. Instead of a time orientation, people had a task orientation. They had jobs to do, and so they did them in the natural order, at the natural time. This worked for a largely agricultural society. However, the factories of the Industrial Revolution needed to coordinate hundreds of people, to get them working at the same time, in synchronicity; and that required clocks. So business leaders imposed clock time on their workforce (not without resistance); and eminent leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, reinforced the value of this with statements such as ‘time is money’.

Cast the clock forward 250 years, and we’re all obsessed with time. We don’t need managers to impose time discipline upon us, we do it ourselves because we’re so busy. It seems the only option in the face of the demand and expectation tsunami hitting us each day. So we schedule and cram our time, squeezing all the efficiency we can out of each day. Time management, we believe, is the solution to our busyness: if we could organize our time better we’d be less overwhelmed, happier and we’d be more effective. We are completely wrong on all three counts; and it’s damaging our lives and our careers.


Time management only makes you busier

Research does show that, if you increase a people’s time awareness – such as by placing a big clock in front of them – they do more stuff (think about how much work you get done on the last day before your holiday). It makes logical sense that, by getting more done, we’d be likely to feel more in control. More than that, it is one of the great fantasies of time management: if you get more organized you will get on top. However, that only works in a finite world. We haven’t lived in that world for quite a while. In our infinite world, we will never be able to get on top of everything, ever again; there is just too much to do. In Greek mythology, when you cut off one of Hydra’s heads, two would grow back. Like the Hydra, all that happens when we do a lot of things, is more things appear to take their place (send more emails; get more replies). In essence, if we do more as a result of managing our time better, we don’t get it all done, we just become busier.


Maximizing your time means fracturing your attention

Armed with our gadgets, we have never been better equipped to ‘maximize our time’. Our ever-present phones allow us to fill all our time productively, to communicate real-time and to juggle multiple tasks, swatting away incoming demands like some super-charged task-ninja; potent and efficient. As we seek to maximize our time, we slice and dice it into ever-smaller increments. This leads to what Brigid Schulte calls time-splintering. However, the real impact isn’t on our time but on our attention. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly. Life-enhancing conversations with loved ones are disembowelled with frequent ‘productive’ glances at the inbox; our ability to think is decimated by the distraction of the ping and the ring. We maintain a state of chaotic mental activity that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyicalled psychic entropy. This is the opposite of the optimal psychological state of flow, where attention is allowed to linger, to sink into an activity without distraction, where we bring our thoughts, actions and goals into perfect synchronicity for extended periods. Flow doesn’t happen in splinters of time; but in great big lumps of attention. Think about your last few weeks. All the moments you had of real insight or happiness came from times when you sank your attention, with reckless abandon, into the moment and the activity. In fact, one of the very features of flow is a loss of the sense of time. In maximizing our time, we rob our moments of their color.


Time awareness makes us less effective

Having heard all this you may still be thinking that you’d be willing to feel busier and less happy as long as you could be effective. Unfortunately time management hinders our performance in this area too. Effectiveness comes from two core abilities: prioritization and achievement. When we prioritize well, we choose to do the right things, not just the obvious things. Yet when we have a strong time awareness, our attention narrows and so our ability to make good choices declines. We make decisions based on the immediate demand, rather than zooming out to look at the bigger picture. We prioritize the urgent and immediate, rather than the important and strategic. In our time-driven frenzy, our gaze seldom lifts from things like the inbox and task list. Research by Microsoft, for example, suggests that 77% of UK workers feel they have had a productive day if they have emptied their inbox. It constantly horrifies me to see the number of blogs and books which focus on the goal of getting to an empty inbox or zero tasks, as if either achievement was worthwhile. No business or life was changed by an empty inbox; and anyone who gets to zero tasks simply lacks imagination!

In addition to making bad choices, research by Michael DeDonno and Heath Demaree shows that it lowers our ability to achieve as well. They found that the very sense of time (and lack of it), rather than an actual lack of time, reduces our performance. Teresa Amabile of Harvard has also shown that increased time focus reduces our problem solving ability, and our capacity to generate imaginative solutions. We think less well when we work under the shadow of the clock.


The end of the time management era

It is true, we will be able to do more stuff if we focus on managing our time, but in today’s business environment, we don’t need more repetitive, synchronised activity like we did in the Industrial Revolution. We need more thinking, more creativity and more problem solving. A focus on time will undermine all of these. It will make you feel more overwhelmed and miserable too! Time management was a brilliant invention, and helped to transform society 250 years ago. It is just not helpful anymore; in fact it’s harmful in a world of too much. It’s time to develop a different strategy; one that starts from the recognition that, in our overloaded world, the greatest shortage is not time; but attention. Put another way; time is no longer money.

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