A matter of time

Why experts say our ideas of time management are all wrong

Thinking of it in terms of productivity may not be right the way to go.

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When you think of the words “time management,” do you imagine squeezing more work into your schedule, taking more efficient breaks, or waking up earlier in the morning? While some of those strategies may increase your productivity, they’re also likely to stress you out and may not be the most efficient way to think of time management.

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That’s according to Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business graduate researcher Brad Aeon, who with his colleagues in the marketing and management fields recently conducted a meta-analysis of time management literature, looking at four decades worth of data from 158 separate studies spanning six continents and involving more than 53,000 respondents. Their conclusion, recently published in PLoS ONE, boils down to one thing: We think about time management all wrong.

“I would define time management as the ability to structure, defend and optimize your time so that your schedule becomes a reflection of your values, beliefs, and philosophy,” Aeon told Inverse. “It’s essentially about aligning the way you use your time with your ideals. This definition departs somewhat from the modern vision of time management as a productivity device that helps us get more things done at work.

“Although time management can lead to productivity, our results suggest that time management has a much stronger impact on wellbeing, mental health, and having a sense of purpose in life.”

Brad Aeon, a graduate researcher at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, believes that we may be framing time management the wrong way, adding unnecessary stress in our already busy lives. Concordia University

The strategy — We have to stop associating time management with productivity, Aeon said. Rather, time management should be reframed as a “well-being enhancer.” That seems to better fit our modern lifestyles anyway, as many people no longer work in offices or during strict hours and have to balance their careers with other responsibilities.

Why this strategy matters to you — Everyone wants to know how to be more productive, but really, what we want to know is how we can be our happiest selves while satisfying the needs of our employers, friends, families, and others.

“I believe individuals should see time management as not only a well-being device, but also a personal boundaries device,” Aeon said. “Through time management, people can become more assertive and establish healthy boundaries that will prevent other people from stealing their most precious resource. Managing time means, first and foremost, becoming aware of how you value your own time.

“If your time is valuable to you, time management will need to consist not only of organizing your time, but also protecting your time from interlopers, time thieves, and time sinks. In this sense, time management can become a matter of self-defense for individuals who want to reclaim their time.”

How you can implement this strategy — So does this mean that time management skills can’t be improved? Not at all, Aeon said.

“There is some meager evidence that time management might be, in part, dispositional, meaning that it could be a personality trait over which people don’t have much control,” he said. “But experiments also suggest that people can become better at time management with adequate training. All it takes is a little more effort and adopting new habits. I believe we can all learn how to better manage our time. For some people it might take a little more effort, but it’s certainly not out of reach.”

So what are the best methods to improve time management?

“There is growing evidence that the best time management methods, those that stick in the long term, are those that rely the least on effort, motivation, and willpower,” Aeon said. “These strategies are called effortless not because they require no effort whatsoever, but because they require significantly less effort and willpower than traditional strategies grounded in the idea that you should motivate yourself to get it done.

“The latter strategies typically fail because human beings can’t consistently rely on willpower, effort, and motivation — it’s just too hard. I mainly use habits, routines, systems, and a variety of other effortless strategies that help me do what I need to do automatically and without using up too much of my cognitive resources. I use my brain to focus on getting things done, not keeping track of them.”

We have competing demands for our time — figuring out how to best optimize our time may be the right way to save time and prevent stress. Shutterstock

There also needs to be a shift in how employers think of time management away from a strict matter of productivity.

“Many employers are time-greedy in the sense that they want more and more of their employees’ time,” Aeon said.

“But in many cases, asking workers more of their time does not lead to more productivity. Quite the opposite. A burned-out, stressed-out, anxious workforce will never be productive in the long term. Investing more time in clear communication, shorter work hours, seamless team management tools, and platforms can help employers get more productivity out of their workforce without being time-greedy. Focusing on deliverables rather than work hours can help us focus on being efficient rather than on playing the ‘face time’ game.”

The strategy's side effects — Constantly thinking about how to be more productive can be stressful, to the point that some people burn out.

“Focusing relentlessly on time management as a way to be more and more productive can lead to emotional exhaustion, stress, heart arrhythmia, high blood pressure, depression, alcoholism, death and a general sense of anomie,” Aeon said. “Ask your doctor if time management is right for you. I wish I were kidding but this is literally true.”

The Inverse analysis — We can benefit from shifting our thinking about time management from getting more done to protecting our time. That, in the end, may make us more productive and boost our wellbeing and mental health.

Abstract: Does time management work? We conducted a meta-analysis to assess the impact of time management on performance and well-being. Results show that time management is moderately related to job performance, academic achievement, and wellbeing. Time management also shows a moderate, negative relationship with distress. Interestingly, individual differences and contextual factors have a much weaker association with time management, with the notable exception of conscientiousness. The extremely weak correlation with gender was unexpected: women seem to manage time better than men, but the difference is very slight. Further, we found that the link between time management and job performance seems to increase over the years: time management is more likely to get people a positive performance review at work today than in the early 1990s. The link between time management and gender, too, seems to intensify: women's time management scores have been on the rise for the past few decades. We also note that time management seems to enhance wellbeing-in particular, life satisfaction-to a greater extent than it does performance. This challenges the common perception that time management first and foremost enhances work performance, and that wellbeing is simply a byproduct.
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