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Time Management Won’t Save You

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Dane Jensen for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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A major source of stress for many is the pervasive feeling that there is never enough time. In response, many of us turn to time management. We try to squeeze hour-long meetings into half-hour sprints by being “more efficient” or we slot smaller tasks into gaps in our calendar to minimize unproductive time. And yet, paradoxically, time management often increases the stress we face instead of reducing it. As we become more efficient, we make room for even more tasks and feel even more pressure. When we are feeling overwhelmed, we are better served by attacking the root causes: the sheer volume of tasks, decisions, and distractions.

The Trap of Time Management

The move to remote work following the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic provided an interesting natural experiment that illustrates the paradox of time management. More than three-quarters of people report that working from home saves them time, typically related to commuting and business travel, and about half of remote workers report that they are more productive.

Despite these self-reported time savings and productivity gains, data from enterprise software firm Atlassian shows that the average workday has expanded by a full 30 minutes globally — the opposite of what we would expect with people using their time more productively. Compounding the issue, the additional 30 minutes of work has come mostly at the expense of what is typically leisure time in the evening.

Time management promises us that if we become more efficient, we can make space to accommodate all of our to-dos comfortably. And yet, time management is like digging a hole at the beach: the bigger the hole, the more water that rushes in to fill it. In a world of potentially infinite demands, freeing up an hour on your calendar is akin to setting off a signal flare announcing your capacity to jump on another project or take on an additional role.

This is not to say that time management has no value. Productivity is important. But in a world where burnout is running rampant, we also need strategies for eliminating volume instead of simply accommodating it. There are three things you can do to escape the trap.

1. Reduce the Volume of Tasks

To-dos represent an agreement: “I’ll handle the budget update for next week’s meeting,” “I’ll pick up something for dinner on the way home,” or “I’ll send you the updated PowerPoint deck later tonight.”

As soon as an agreement is in place, it begins to create the pressure to deliver. If we have to break or renegotiate the agreement, we add the additional stress of a challenging conversation and the guilt of letting someone down. To reduce the pressure from task volume, hold the line upfront so you aren’t forced to renegotiate later. How you hold the line depends on whether your pile of to-dos tends to grow from tasks you are assigned or from tasks that you choose to take on.

For tasks that are assigned to you, think in terms of priorities not time. When a superior asks you to do something, responding with “I don’t have time for that” may feel too abrupt. Instead, consider asking: “Where would you like me to prioritize this against x, y, and z?” This accomplishes two things. First, the onus for prioritization is placed on the superior, not you. Second, it reframes the exchange from a binary choice to a collaborative discussion about what is most important.

For tasks you are considering adding on yourself, calendar-block first. We often overwhelm ourselves because we are overly optimistic about our capacity. We look at our calendar, see some daylight, and think, “Okay, I can probably get this done for Friday.” And then Friday comes, and — lo and behold — we have to renegotiate.

The challenge is that your calendar usually only shows the claims on your time that involve synchronous work (tasks that you perform with other people at the same time that they do): meetings, phone calls, coffee chats, and so on. Your to-dos are a parallel list of agreements with other people for asynchronous work (tasks that you perform on your own and not in real time with others) that has a claim on your time. The solution? Merge your calendar and to-do list by blocking time on your calendar for each one of your to-dos. By getting a complete view of the commitments you’ve made, you can see your real capacity before you agree to take on more.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Dane Jensen is CEO of Third Factor, an inter-disciplinary leadership development firm that operates in sport, business, academia, and government. He is affiliate faculty at the Kenan-Flagler School of Business at the University of North Carolina, teaches at the Smith School of Business at Queen’s University in Canada, and is the author of the book, The Power of Pressure (Harper Collins, August 2021).


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