The Real Meaning of Time Management
by C.S. Clarke, Ph.D.
One key reason most of us have so much trouble with "time management" is that it’s called "time management" rather than "task management" or some other more accurate label. Manage time? Don’t be silly. Time’s a concept -- a measure of duration -- not an object that can be manipulated.
One issue I encountered frequently when I practiced as a psychotherapist is the need for redefinition and reframing of labels. Much research shows that what we call something affects not only what we think about it, but also what we can think about it. (Quick example: imagine just the emotional difference between calling a young animal a "dog" or calling it a "puppy.")
If we speak in terms of "time management," we think of making everything we do fit into specific durations and schedules, and try hard to make that fit happen, whether or not our tasks can actually be accomplished in that time or at that time. Do you try to fit a size 9 foot into a size 8 shoe? Do you try to get on a bus that is still two blocks down the street?
If we speak in terms of "task management," we free ourselves to think in terms of making choices, setting priorities, collaborating on schedules and reordering our processes and practices. That is the real intention of the "time management" concept. We can’t manage time, we can only manage ourselves. So, managing time is actually managing what we do and when we do it. The only way we can affect the duration is by practicing more efficient ways to do it.
Using the time management concept leads to major mistakes in other useful ideas -- like "multi-tasking," for example. Thinking "time management" leads to the conviction that doing more than one thing at a time is efficient. Not good. Someone really can do only one thing at a time effectively. That is a psychological limitation as well as a physical limitation of the brain. True and efficient multi-tasking is in the scheduling of tasks in such a way that you can start a task that has a "passive" part (doesn't require you to do anything in that time) and complete another task while the first is "on automatic," so to speak. For example, you can cook a meal while the laundry is washing. You can dictate 10 letters into a recorder and then make sales calls while your computer translates them into your word processor.
Another confusion caused by thinking "time management" is unrealistic scheduling of tasks by "average completion time" or "optimal completion time" or "ideal completion time." While you can measure such durations to get a general idea of how long it should take you or your employees to accomplish various tasks, you will never know all conditions or events that will interfere with or even help with the actual performance. So you must think in terms of "task management" and schedule flexible start times and end times based on the most probable amount of productivity.
For example, you may know that it takes you 30 minutes on average to write a two-page sales report. Based on only that measure, you can't decide that your productivity should be 10 reports in a day, because you may not be able to produce at that intensity for five hours out of eight -- even if you aren't interrupted. And you will probably be interrupted many times, cutting into the time you've scheduled. If you think task rather than time, you'll count the number of reports you typically do in a day, rather than how long it takes to do them, and base your expectations on real history. If you want to increase your productivity, you'll look into ways of doing the reports more efficiently instead of merely more hurriedly.
The forgoing examples are merely two of the many problems caused by our mistaken notions of time management. Time management (as we've come to think of it) sets us up to hurry, worry and fail. Task management gives us leisure to find better ways and means of working.
Set yourself up for success. Think "task management." Start making reasonable choices about what to do, when and in what order. Stop trying to work faster and finish "on time."