Skip to content

Time Management Won’t Work (and what to do instead)

The popular word for it is “overwhelm.”  It’s when you feel like you have too much to do in the time you have to do it.  You work hard all day, sometimes not sure exactly what you accomplished.  You leave work feeling incomplete and pressured, mindlessly have dinner with the family, and then take up work where you left off continuing into the late hours. Rubbing your forehead, you hear the lament of that familiar inner voice, “Why can’t I get on top of this work?  There aren’t enough hours in the day. I need to manage my time better.”

While there is always the possibility a person may have more responsibility than they can cover, something else may be at work here besides “I need to manage my time better.”


The Myth

The idea that time is manageable is a false belief, a myth. Attempts at managing time won’t work.  No person manages time.  It’s beyond our control. The sun rises and sets, calendar days come and go, and the clock moves minute-to-minute regardless of what you do.  Because time is out of our control, a perspective that involves trying to “manage” it can have the psychological effect of constant discouragement and create a feeling of being trapped or being a victim.

Of utmost importance, however, is you must exploit the time you have to the full.  It’s your only strictly limited, unrecoverable resource. Once it’s passed you can never get it back.


Manage What You Can

If you can’t manage time but you want to capture the moments for best use, you must manage the only thing you can – yourself.  Productivity does not depend on time management; it depends on self-management toward the specific end of efficient, outcome-centered time use.  You must manage self to achieve the chosen purpose in the time you have. Time management gurus seem to talk around it but do not get clear that self-management is the key to getting things done.[1]  This is an important distinction since the perspective of working on something you can control – self – can create a sense of empowerment and responsibility.

You can determine what is the best, most effective use of the time you have by establishing, committing to, and focusing on your values, mission, goals, and priorities.  Productive use of time comes from disciplined action in accordance with well-defined priorities and as a result, goals and mission can be completed and values be maintained.


The Benefits

The leaders we know want to thrive in their relationship to self, others, and their work but are busy, tired, and attention strapped. Through conscious self-management these leaders learn to manage increasing demands on time, attention, and energy; achieve laser-focus of thought and action on what is really important to them; and how to finish every life-episode without regret.

Other specific benefits we find to acting on this self-management approach are that you can

  1. Be more focused, less harried, scattered, or distracted.
  2. Be doing the most important things.
  3. Streamline your decision-making processes.
  4. Live with greater margin and balance.
  5. Be a model of responsible living for your co-workers, subordinates, and your family.


It’s never too late – 10 tips

It’s never too late to use these 10 tips for managing yourself most effectively in time.

  1. Decide on and commit to a clear sense of personal values and personal purpose.  Step out of the craziness of your schedule and spend some time alone. Imagine you are standing in a field alone with nothing and no one around as far as you can see, and you are stark naked.  It’s just you as you came from the womb.  Now ask some questions.
      1. Who am I in this place with no socio-economic, relational, or organizational identifiers?
      2. How am I unique, different from everyone else, in my personality, styles, education, talents, and experience?
      3. How do I want to use this uniqueness?
      4. What’s important to me?  Not to others, but to me?
      5. What do you want to achieve before your time ends?  How do you want to spend your days?
      6. Your answers to the above questions will give you your “why” and all of the following activities must be founded on your answers so do what is necessary to get clear answers.
  2. Vision
    1. Envision your life when you accomplish the whole of your purpose/mission.  How will it look, taste, feel, smell, and sound? What emotions will you experience when you see it done?
    2. Next, break that big vision into parts in smaller time frames of two to five years.  Chip and Dan Heath call these “destination postcards” and they are “vivid pictures of the near-term future that show[s] what could be possible.[2]  Don’t go any farther in time for now.
    3. Your vision statements should be challenging, create emotion in you, and draw you to the vision.
  3. Goal alignment – Identify your personal and work goals that align with your foundation and vision.  Include metrics and timelines.  From these goals you will establish your priorities.
  4. Plan to plan, then plan.  If you don’t plan to take time to plan you won’t plan as needed.
    1. Weekly. Create a routine at the beginning and end of the week to evaluate, celebrate, and reset regarding progress toward your goals and prepare for the coming week.
    2. Daily.  Create a routine of brief morning and afternoon review, evaluation, celebration, and reset, in priority order, for what you will do the next day.
    3. Create and plan for processes that will lead to the achievement of your goals.  Then, if you are faithful to the processes, the goals will take care of themselves.
  5. Focus, Focus, Focus. 
    1. Ask yourself two questions to stay focused on your priorities, “Does what I am doing right now serve my designated priorities?”  and, “Am I the only one who can do this?”
    2. If “yes” is your answer to the above questions, get it done. If “no,” delegate it or drop it.  You may resist delegating for at least two reasons: 1) you could underestimate the capabilities of others and overestimate yours (Dunning-Kruger Effect)[3]; and 2) it seems like too much trouble and it’s easier to do it yourself.  Get a realistic view of things and do the math to take into consideration the time and money costs for you to continue to do a task versus what it costs to delegate the task to an employee. Take a risk on delegating to others.
  6. Be efficient. – Work toward your greatest efficiency in the time you have. Be organized to get on a task and get off. Tune in to your inclinations toward indecision, overthinking, and perfectionism which can create unnecessary delay.  Improvement in these areas will increase productivity.
  7. Self-care – Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually.  You’ll perform more effectively in the time you have. Schwartz and Lehr, in their article “The Making of a Corporate Athlete,” have given excellent insight into a variety of routines that lead to maximum productivity.
  8. Boundaries – Create boundaries to protect your priorities.  A door that is always open is a sure way to have your priorities compromised.  Close your door and let people know the next time you will be available. Give every meeting an ending time, no matter how brief whether the meeting is by phone, in-person, or on-line.  Let others know how much time you intend to give to the meeting, notify participants when 10 minutes remain, and stop on time.  Learn to say “no” to the good and “yes” to the best use of time for you.
  9. Improve soft-skills – Improve your skills in interpersonal relationships, conflict management, problem-solving, decision-making, adaptability, critical thinking, and communication.  Poor skills in these areas can unnecessarily waste time.
  10. People – Make intentional time with people a priority.  They are your most valuable resource.  Teach them what you have discovered about self-management in time.[4]

Notice that none of the above items have anything to do with managing time.  They are all about managing self.

It is challenging work to establish these foundations, goals, priorities and routines that will govern how you manage time.  Sometimes old unhelpful habits are deeply entrenched and hard to change. Many people abandon the process, for lack of support and discipline, and go right on wasting their time because they won’t manage themselves.  In the end, regret will be a frequent visitor in their thoughts.

How about getting honest that “I just need to do a better job of managing myself?”  Take a retreat, hire a coach, but whatever you do, get the support and accountability you need to do this work of creating governing priorities and routines that will guide you, moment-by-moment,  toward greater productivity, streamlined decision-making, more focus on the things that matter, and ending your days without regret.

[1] Claessens, B.J.C., Van Eerde, W., Rutte, C. G., & Roe, R.A. (February, 2007). A review of time management literature. Personnel Review, 36:2.  10.1108/00483480710726136.

[2] Heath, C. & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York: Broadway. p. 76.

[3] Dunning, D. (2011) The Dunning-Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 247-296.

[4] Manz, C. C. & Sims, H.P. Jr. (July, 1980). Self-management as a substitute for leadership: A social learning theory perspective. The Academy of Management Review (pre 1986). m 5, 000003; ABI/INFORM Global  pp. 361-367.

Back To Top