The topic of time management is not a new one. The higher one climbs the corporate ladder, the more time must be divided between tasks, projects and other people. Yet, paradoxically, the more senior a person is, the less likely they may be to admit to time-keeping problems.
In fact, the more a person refuses to acknowledge time management issues, the more often they focus on symptoms instead: specifically, how they manage their 24-hour working day.
But why bring this up now?
First, the current work-from-home setup has made time management a bigger issue for more people. The transition moving from offices, with their structured hours, to our own homes has broken our normal work-life routine. Today, time management has shifted from an outside regimen to something focused strongly on self-discipline.
Understandably, this has had a serious impact on efficiency and management.
Second, time management is like regular exercise and healthy diets: everyone knows what should be done, but if life was so easy, it wouldn’t be a struggle to uphold! Rather than asking what we need to do to fix the problem, it might be easier to ask why we are so keen on doing the opposite, and how we can fight the appeal of “rebelling” – unconsciously or otherwise.
What is Time Management?
As a former lawyer, since law school I’ve always turned to the “reference” or dictionary definition of a concept before trying to grasp its intricacies. It is important, after all, to have a clear understanding of whatever is being talked about before trying to take it apart.
Today, as one of Pluma's certified executive coaches, I have retained that practice. When people struggle with management issues, the act of specifically defining and framing the meaning of what we are talking about can help cut right to the heart of the issue. It is one reason I teach clients to identify where their assumptions may be wrong or to look at factors which might be missing.
Let’s try this method with time management...
Here’s the definition of time management from the Cambridge Dictionary:
“the practice of using the time that you have available in a useful and effective way, especially in your work”
The key factors in this definition are:
- using the available time (the 24-hour day or allocated time for work)
- in a useful and effective way
Let’s be honest: that should be a no brainer, right? And yet, for decades, articles, books, Harvard researchers and professors have been discussing how to do just that…
Let’s take another example and see what it says. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition of time management:
“Time management is the process of planning and exercising conscious control of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency, and productivity.”
Here, the key factors are:
- process of planning
- exercising conscious control
- to increase effectiveness, efficiency and productivity
Break down your own time-keeping habits using these key factors and identify which one(s) you neglect. Ask yourself: what do you hope to gain by neglecting them?
Let’s take our introduction, where senior managers might not admit to having a time management problem and instead focus on other aspects as problems. They might try to explain the situation using one of the examples below:
“I planned to get this done within two weeks, but then there were urgent matters which came up and the other team needed input, which took priority. Hence the delay.”
“I needed data/information/confirmation from the other person/team. I kept chasing them, but they did not reply and I got delayed.”
In both examples, all three elements are missing, as based on the Wikipedia definition.
Whenever you work with other people, time is not fully under your control. No matter how well you plan, unpredictable disruptions occur. But does that really come as a surprise? Why did you not put in “buffer time” to prevent this?
One of planning’s biggest flaws is the failure to integrate assumptions, experiences and knowledge from the beginning – even though we know things can and will go wrong!
But why is that? To what end do we sabotage ourselves?
Maybe when you plan your week ahead (or the next two weeks or the next project), you unconsciously cling to the hope your time won’t be stolen? Planning everything in detail, front to back, can also give a false sense of satisfaction and promise. Then, when things do fail, people often blame external culprits for those well-laid plans being messed up.
Returning to the topic of control, Wikipedia wisely mentions “conscious control”. You ought to know your time will be affected by others, yet by not taking that into account are you really allocating time wisely? Though it is easier to point a finger than accept not taking control of the time you had – including working with others – is that really applying time wisely?
When managers explain why their projects went wrong, many share lengthy complaints that they had to dedicate time to other things or were slowed by other people. But did they really surrender control because they had no choice, or was it because the new task seemed more appealing or had special importance? How much time did that new task take? Was the timeline really dedicated to the task at hand? If not, why wasn’t more time allocated (be it a buffer or additional hours)?
For some people, the preference for a new task is simply one of procrastination.
Ultimately it comes down to this:
- If time is a struggle, it’s a self-control issue. Time is internal, not external. Everyone gets 24-hours in a day, and how you allocate that time is your decision. If you surrender your time to someone or something else, it’s still a choice.
- If you remain a “victim” to time, as if it were an external factor, there is no self-empowerment. How then can you expect to empower others efficiently?
Failing to accept this means time management issues will continue for the rest of your career, likely being passed on to everyone below you. After all, you can’t break someone out of a pattern if you can’t dig yourself out first. In the worst-case scenario you will tell fellow sufferers the old fable that it is an unavoidable problem, advising them to try and handle the symptoms of this “corporate illness” as best they can.
Many people never consciously notice this is how they justify the problem, but it is among the most common explanations from sufferers.
Fixing Time Issues and Building Integrity
The root cause of time management problems isn’t planning or control.
It is time integrity.
I was a Leadership Trainee at Executive Coach International (ECI) when I first heard of “time integrity.” They defined “integrity” as: do what you say, say what you do.
ECI expected us to apply integrity – very consciously – to our use of time.
To my surprise, I quickly realized how often we fail to heed time. How often do we say things like: “give me a minute to get back to you” or “I need about three hours to get that done” or “I’ll meet you at 4 pm at the meeting room” or “I’ll call you at 10 am tomorrow morning”...?
ECI would hold me accountable to the minute. And that is when I realized I too often committed to saying things without thought. My integrity was regularly in doubt.
What’s the point of saying things if we don’t actually mean it? How does our unwillingness to use words accurately make us feel about ourselves? What changes are made to our lives if we commit to the time-scales we actually utter?
Little by little, by sticking to my commitments, I changed my planning and my control over the day. I checked deadlines for feasibility. And I found the amount of time I self-assessed as needed was often totally off-base. Even with the best of intentions, my deadlines just weren’t accurate. I had to learn to fine-tune my time commitments.
It made me conscious of how much control I had, especially when depending on others. To increase my integrity I introduced buffer time to shore up promises or to let me shift to tighter deadlines if they came up. I now made deliveries conditional, ensuring I said what I could do – and then doing it. By enhancing my own time integrity, people around me realized they could rely on my deadlines and, even if it was conditional, prepare responses accordingly.
I stopped being a victim and felt empowered, leading to greater effectiveness, efficiency and productivity. I learned to fine-tune time until my integrity was at a satisfactory level. And from there I tried seeing how far I could go. I improved to the point where I was pushing my accuracy to within 90% of my stated timelines. Now, I felt I could show people around me how to manage their own cases, projects and clients – all to deadline.
If you are wondering how to start on this route, pick a task that needs to be finished within a given timeline and see how often you ask for extensions or find yourself delayed. Aim to improve your time integrity by 5% to 10%. That is, close the gap between the time you’ll say you’ll get things done and the time you actually complete it. Take things from there, increasing momentum by adding further projects where time integrity is required, and setting buffers or conditions as required.
Let’s be honest: do I slip up? Of course I do! The key is that each time I see I was off, or want to blame external factors, it has become an automatic reminder that time is my own and no-one else’s. I just need to reset my integrity.
When it comes to time management the best formula (or at least the one I have most benefited from) is one I rarely see recommended in articles, books or papers.
The trick is to make time your ally, not your enemy. And to do that, ensure how you spend your time is a reflection of who you are – and how much integrity you display as a person.