For years, we’ve been told that time management is the solution to all our problems. If we can successfully prioritize our tasks, focus, make lists, delegate and complete tasks, we’ll be able to have more free time and less stress. Is this true…or are there hidden pitfalls?
There are thousands of books, apps and tools devoted to helping us get a handle on the constant mountain of work and communication cascading toward us. We’re told to get our inboxes to zero, prioritize our work according to specific systems and set S.M.A.R.T. goals.
Clay Clark makes this comment (which is all too common):
Have you ever noticed some people are able to stay organized while getting a massive quantity of work accomplished, while others appear to be busy but never actually produce results? Time management is the key to becoming a successful entrepreneur.
But is it possible that time management isn’t all it’s cracked up to be? Think of how many of your conversations go like this:
Friend: Hey, how’s it going?
You: I’m so busy. I feel like there’s never enough time!
Friend: Yeah, I know. I’m hustling all day long! I’m exhausted.
It’s strange, right? If the objective of time management is more free time, why do we always feel so rushed? Why is there never enough time in the day? Why is stress the constant anthem of every student, parent, employee and supervisor? Isn’t proper time management supposed to solve these problems?
Maybe all the tools, apps and books aren’t the solution we thought they were.
Oliver Burkeman puts it like this:
And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn’t reliably bring calm. Some interpreted it to mean that every email deserved a reply, which only shackled them more firmly to their inboxes…Others grew jumpy at the thought of any messages cluttering an inbox that was supposed to stay pristine, and so ended up checking more frequently.
So what exactly is the problem? Why isn’t time management making us happier?
Here are 5 reasons.
It Creates Unnecessary Anxiety
One of the cornerstones of time management is appropriately handling the constant tasks that come your way. Depending on which productivity system you’re using (Getting Things Done, The Four Quadrants, etc.), you must handle every task in a specific way.
For example, with Getting Things Done, everything must be captured, clarified, organized, reflected upon and then engaged. While this may seem simple, it can quickly get overwhelming when put into action. In theory, everything is to follow these five steps, including emails, phone calls, memos, projects, meetings, grocery lists, home projects and anything else you may encounter in life.
Trying to apply this methodology on a grand scale can quickly turn into a full-time job in and of itself. This in turn can create massive amounts of anxiety.
Additionally, if you’re “effectively” managing your time, your task list will grow at a terrifying pace. Every day you’ll find yourself confronted with an enormous list of things that must be done, and the thought of trying to accomplish all that can send you into a panic.
It’s important to realize that though time management is a helpful skill, it shouldn’t rule your life. There will be times when things simply slip through your system. You have limitations, just like everyone else. Even the best intentions fail. Time management can be a helpful tool but can create anxiety if you’re not careful.
It Creates A Never Ending Cycle Of Feeling Like A Failure
The promise of time management is more freedom. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of good time management can be a constant, nagging sense of failure.
The more you’re able to wrangle your tasks into the appropriate categories and systems, the bigger your task list becomes. The bigger your to-do list, the more you’re aware of all that you’re not getting done. At the end of every day, you’re confronted with a lengthy list of things that you failed to accomplish.
The end result is that you constantly feel like an underachiever. Like you should be able to get more checked off each day. Failure constantly haunts you.
This shouldn’t be the case. It’s essential to remember that your life isn’t defined by what you accomplish. You aren’t superhuman. You have energy limits, time limits, and frankly, things that are more important than work (family, friends, etc.). Time management systems evaluate success and failure only by tasks completed. Life is about more than that.
It Can Create More Work
Parkinson’s Law states that a project will expand to fill the time available. In other words, the more time that you have available, the more work will fill that time. This applies directly to time management.
The more effective you are at getting things done, the more likely you’ll have more work sent your way. We see this most clearly with email. The better you are at responding, the more responses you’ll get in return. Your email load expands exponentially based on how quickly you clear emails from your inbox. It’s a never ending cycle and reaching Inbox Zero is only possible for about 10 seconds.
Pareto’s Law, which states that 80% of output comes from 20% of input also applies perfectly here. It’s not uncommon for a few people to do an inordinate amount of work in any organization. The 20% usually are the most effective at getting things done, which in turn means that more work is assigned to them.
Obviously, the solution is not to do less work. It is crucial, however, to learn to say no when people want to keep assigning things to you. Once things begin to compete with higher priorities, it’s time to slow down.
It Takes You Out Of The Moment
Theoretically, time management is supposed to help you enjoy every moment more. In fact, one of the core tenets of the Getting Things Done system was that your mind would be like water, allowing you to focus 100% on the task at hand. You get all your work done and then you stop and enjoy the other aspects of life, like family, church, friends, sports and a good cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. With a constantly expanding task list always on your mind, it’s incredibly easy to get pulled out of the moment and begin pondering how you’re going to get your next thing done.
Instead of focusing on playing with your kids or spending quality time with your spouse, you’re thinking of the twenty remaining things on your to-do list. Instead of keeping you in the moment, your mind is pulled in 40 different places.
When thinking about productivity and time management, it’s necessary to put them in their place. Work isn’t life and life isn’t work. Fewer things are more important than being in the moment with important people. And fewer things will make you more stressed out than constantly reflecting on your endless checklists. Don’t throw away your checklists, but learn to keep them clearly separate from other important parts of your life.
It Can Actually Cause You To Focus On The Wrong Objectives
The ironic thing about time management systems is that they can help you get a lot of the wrong things done. They can cause you to become so focused on keeping everything systematized and checked off that you miss the bigger picture. It’s a missing the forest for the trees sort of scenario.
Author Cal Newport talks about his struggle with productivity systems:
I was good at full capture and regular review, and, accordingly, was quite organized. This was a good time in my life to ask me to submit a form or tackle a complicated logistical process. You could be confident that I would capture, process, and then accomplish it.
But I was missing the intense and obsessive wrangling with the hard problems of my field – the type of habit that made people in my line of work exceptional. My commitment to GTD had me instead systematically executing tasks, one by one, like an assembly line worker “cranking widgets” (to use a popular Allen aphorism).
I didn’t need to be cranking widgets. I needed to instead be crazily focused.
If you spend all your time focused on getting small, unimportant things done simply because they’re on your checklist, you won’t accomplish anything truly meaningful. Time management systems can be helpful when it comes to organizing the various tasks that come your way, but if you’re not careful they can put your attention on the unimportant. It’s essential to ensure that you’re always focused on the projects that will truly make a difference, both in your workplace and life in general.
The solution isn’t to abandon time management altogether. Rather, it must be used appropriately. Productivity systems are helpful servants but terrible masters. If your life is dictated by your system, you’ll miss out on the good things in life. You may get more things done, but you’ll also be anxious, constantly busy, distracted and focusing on the wrong objectives.
Time management skills aren’t the be all end all. They’re tools. Use them as such.