Time Management is Dead. Here is the Alternative

May 23, 2018 • 7 minute read • by Saeed


“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”

—Stephen King

Time is a finite resource. The number of hours in a day are fixed.

Energy is not. The quality and quantity of available energy is boundless and renewable.

Attention is also a limited resource and a commodity. Where your attention goes, so does your learning. Where your attention goes, energy flows. And where energy flows, whatever you’re focusing on grows.

Time management is outdated

Time management experts will tell you to create to-do lists, prioritize tasks and schedule dedicated time for your activities. Discipline, prioritization, and organization are important components of productivity but they are not the be all and end all. To be sure, organization helps manage time and therefore manage energy. But how often do you realistically stick with these regiments? How many times each day does a well laid plan go pear-shaped because a colleague or a family member had a crisis?

The Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi wrote extensively, in the 4th century BC, about the importance of letting go. He makes the crucial point that a regimented, well-organized life doesn’t simply reflect a sense of duty, but a desire to control personal circumstances—which, to Zhuangzi, is a negative.

You know that putting in more time is not the answer either. If you had 36 hours in a day instead of 24 you wouldn’t get more done. You’d just waste more time. Putting in longer hours has the deleterious effect of exhaustion, disengagement and burnout. There is no scientific or labor force rationale behind the 8 hour work day. It’s simply a century old norm left over from the industrial revolution. The 8 hour work day is an antiquated marathon race.

The Brain Works in Sprints

Today, people everywhere seem to be experiencing an epidemic of overwhelm at work. We have information overload and we have distraction overload. It’s not separation anxiety but rather connection anxiety we suffer from. The technological umbilical cord of smart phones and cloud computing tether us to the office and make even more demands on our time. One of the usual arguments for “connecting” workers is that it helps them multitask and increase productivity. Recent research suggests otherwise. Technology can easily sap productivity. Some 41% of respondents to a LinkedIn survey cited “unwanted email” as the “biggest drain” on workplace productivity.

The truth is that the human brain doesn’t work well under these conditions which force it into marathons of productivity. The human brain works best in sprints. We can really do deep thinking and focus on any given task for 90-120 minutes at a time. Afterwards, a 20-30 minute break is needed for renewal. That’s why I recommend to my coaching clients who struggle with ‘time management’ to think “What can I get done in 90 minutes” instead of what can I get done in 8 hours. Focusing your energy for 90 minutes on a task is more manageable and at the end of the day, more productive.

 Manage Your Energy Not Your Time

Everybody has 24 hours in a day. But not everybody has the same energy levels. Some are more productive in the morning while others do better in the afternoon and still others work best in the evenings or late at night. The modern day workforce is beginning to recognize this and dishing out more autonomy to employees in how they get work done. Recognizing your natural energy patterns helps you be more productive with your time. It is at times where energy levels are low that you should deploy those to-do lists. It is at these times you should schedule activities that require less creativity and more automation. Take frequent breaks and build in energy boosters like walking around the block. You can’t change the amount of time you have but you can change how you feel throughout the day by hacking your time and hacking your brain.

In their influential Harvard Business Review article, authors Tony Schwartz (founder of the Energy Project) and a coauthor of Catherine McCarthy (senior vice president at the Energy Project) recommend these practices for renewing four dimensions of personal energy:

Physical Energy

  • Enhance your sleep by setting an earlier bedtime and reducing alcohol use.
  • Reduce stress by engaging in cardiovascular activity at least three times a week and strength training at least once.
  • Eat small meals and light snacks every three hours.
  • Learn to notice signs of imminent energy flagging, including restlessness, yawning, hunger, and difficulty concentrating.
  • Take brief but regular breaks, away from your desk, at 90- to 120-minute intervals throughout the day. – 2 – Emotional Energy
  • Defuse negative emotions–irritability, impatience, anxiety, insecurity–through deep abdominal breathing.
  • Fuel positive emotions in yourself and others by regularly expressing appreciation to others in detailed, specific terms through notes, e-mails, calls, or conversations.
  • Look at upsetting situations through new lenses. Adopt a “reverse lens” to ask, “What would the other person in this conflict say, and how might he be right?” Use a “long lens” to ask, “How will I likely view this situation in six months?” Employ a “wide lens” to ask, “How can I grow and learn from this situation?”

Mental Energy

  • Reduce interruptions by performing high-concentration tasks away from phones and e-mail.
  • Respond to voice mails and e-mails at designated times during the day.
  • Every night, identify the most important challenge for the next day. Then make it your first priority when you arrive at work in the morning.

 Spiritual Energy

  • Identify your “sweet spot” activities–those that give you feelings of effectiveness, effortless absorption, and fulfillment. Find ways to do more of these. One executive who hated doing sales reports delegated them to someone who loved that activity.
  • Allocate time and energy to what you consider most important. For example, spend the last 20 minutes of your evening commute relaxing, so you can connect with your family once you’re home.
  • Live your core values. For instance, if consideration is important to you but you’re perpetually late for meetings, practice intentionally showing up five minutes early for meetings.

How Companies Can Help

  • To support energy renewal rituals in your firm: Build “renewal rooms” where people can go to relax and refuel.
  • Subsidize gym memberships.
  • Encourage managers to gather employees for midday workouts.
  • Suggest that people stop checking e-mails during meetings.

A Final Word

According to research by Harvard University psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert, we spend 46.9% of our time not thinking about what is happening in front of us.

The key to being productive might be found in using that time effectively through embracing the slumps in our day – those moments when your productivity begins to ebb away, usually in the midmorning, directly after lunch or mid-afternoon. Maybe this is why Tony Schwartz has this as his favorite energy management tip: “Spend at least 30 minutes a day reading a book.  It’s a way to train absorbed attention, and to be more reflective – an antidote to life on the Internet.”

Good luck .

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©2018 – All Content by Saeed H. Mirfattah, M.A.

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