As a world of busy people, we are obsessed with time management. We spend a great deal of time and effort seeking out systems and tinkering with tools that promise to help us squeeze in more work in fewer hours. Although some systems and tools have merit, they are perpetuating several time management myths. We need to unpack these myths and start doing what works. Time is ticking.
Myth 1: Improved time management increases performance
Interestingly, the relationship between time management and performance is relatively weak. Performance is about much more than time. We’ve all heard the old adage, “work smarter, not harder.” This is good advice for time management enthusiasts. It’s not about how much work you can get done—it’s about how much your work positively influences others. We need to reframe time management to be about focusing on quality, not quantity.
Does this mean we should ignore time management altogether? Not exactly. Time management does appear to positively relate to well-being. This suggests another time management-related cognitive reframing. It’s not about increasing productivity per se, but about remaining as productive as possible while minimizing stress.
Myth 2: Time management success is about managing your time
The majority of time management suggestions entail techniques for managing our task lists and calendars. This has a relatively minor influence on our time management success. The best way to maintain performance with less stress is by focusing on “filtering.” No matter how amazing your time management system, if you let too many things in on the front end, you’ll never have enough time to get everything done on the back end.
It’s time to get better at asking questions and saying no. When approached by others with a task or project, always ask for details. Never commit to something unless you have an understanding of the big picture, your role, and how much time it will take. We have a tendency to get involved in projects where we don’t add substantial value or to end up stuck in projects that morph into long-term commitments.
It’s also important to start setting expectations. We’re quick to complain about how much we have on our plate. We should be just as quick to professionally and rationally explain to others how much time we can realistically offer. Whether it be a supervisor, peer, or partner, they will respect you more if you are transparent and realistic than if you pretend you have enough time, and then ultimately drop the ball.
Myth 3: Meetings are complete time-wasters
I regularly see stories about how über-successful, celebrity CEOs such as Oprah Winfrey and Mark Cuban maximize their time by refusing to go to meetings. Obviously, you shouldn’t accept meeting requests haphazardly. But most of us have normal jobs, with supervisors and peers, and we don’t have that kind of autonomy.
Instead of this extreme suggestion, just be purposeful and strategic about meetings. For example, stack your schedule whenever possible so that your meetings are back to back. This will ensure that you aren’t jumping back and forth between manager mode (making decisions with others) and maker mode (creating something individually), which drains our energy and breaks up our focus during deep thinking tasks.
You should also be careful with online scheduling tools. If time is money, scheduling meetings is a negotiation, and the goal is to win. Instead of giving out your schedule through Calendly, MixMax, or the like, tell other people when you want to meet. This will ensure that you manage your time and energy in ways that allow you to be more productive.
Another suggestion is to block out your schedule with a “self-meeting” to chip away at your deep thinking tasks. You have the right to do your deep thinking tasks during work hours, not when you’re supposed to be at home recovering. Too many people spend all their time in meetings with no time remaining to execute post-meeting deliverables.
How to get on the right path
The godfather of management, Peter Drucker, once said, “Everything requires time. It is the one truly universal condition. All work takes place in time and uses up time.” His point is that time is the ultimate equalizer—everyone has the same amount regardless of background, experience, and resources. Those that use their time wisely have a higher likelihood of achieving self-defined success.
The key to time management, however, is being realistic. It’s not a silver bullet for performance. The goal should be to maintain well-being while producing high-quality work. Further, tools, techniques, and tricks will only take you so far. But if you can be purposeful—through habits such as filtering and being strategic about when you work with others—that will be time well spent.