“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” — Stephen Covey
If you’re wondering about how you can become better at time management, it’s quite likely that you’re asking the wrong questions. Much like I’ve mentioned in 50+ Better Questions to Ask than How to Be More Productive, asking better questions about what we’re doing makes the doing a lot easier.
Time management, as a concept, is bankrupt. Let’s canvass some of the reasons for this, shall we?
1. You’re only going to have 24 hours in a day no matter what you do.
Unless you’re close to a scientific breakthrough that allows you to personally bend spacetime, you can’t speed it up, slow it down, optimize it, or maximize it. A second is a second, though your internal experience of a second can vary considerably. (We need not be considering extreme or quantum physics scenarios. As Einstein himself remarked, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” Time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun — your perception of time changes.) The time metaphors we live by don’t really track the reality of time.
2. The way we think about time also deludes us into thinking that we “use” time.
Yes, we talk that way and we think that way, but we don’t use time any more than a fish uses water. We do things through time.
- Energy and attention are more scarce than time. This is the main point behind assessing your TEA: time, energy, and attention.
- Most people will squander “excess time” when they get it. This has led many people to invoke Parkinson’s Law AND you might want to consider how Parkinson’s Law blocks your happiness and creativity.
Money can be managed. People can be managed. Schedules can be managed. Time can only be accounted for.
3. Self Management Woes
People who think they have time management problems really have priority management problems, which means, at root, they have self-management problems.
Teams and organizations have the same problem — as a unit, there are only so many priorities that a given group of people can address in a given slice of time. One of the chief jobs of the leaders is to ensure that people are addressing the most important priorities in any given slice of time.
While we’re thinking about priorities, let’s remember that too many priorities mean you have none. Whether we’re talking about your personal, professional, or business life, a handy guideline here is 5 plus or minus two. This is intentionally not 7 plus or minus two simply because we often forget that we are multi-dimensional beings in relationships with other people and acting on our priorities requires us to evaluate and act on those priorities in a fluid context, which is considerably harder than just remembering what they are. For instance, we may be professionals AND parents and need to consider the priorities we have in each domain and how they align or conflict in different ways at different times.
If all of this sounds complicated and hard to keep up with, then perhaps I’ve adequately explained the human condition. We are evolving beings in relation to other evolving beings, each with the capability to remember the past, choose in the present, and plan for the future.
So, the next time you’re thinking about how to manage your time, I hope you’ll consider changing the frame to how you’re managing your priorities. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (leaders can make a few changes to ask about their teams) to springboard your thinking:
- What matters now? (People change in time, so it’s natural that priorities change in time, as well. Make sure you’re not acting on yesteryear’s priorities just because you had them last year.)
- What actions can I take today, tomorrow, and this week that most reflect my priorities?
- What are the priorities of the people around me who matter? (Your family, friends, boss, coworkers, employees.) Do we have alignment, interdependence, or tension?
- What’s on my plate that doesn’t reflect my priorities and what needs to happen to get it off my plate?
- With whom can I share my priorities so that I receive the support I need to take action on them?
If you manage your priorities well, you’ll see how you really don’t have a time management problem.