Effectiveness and Time Management

Everybody manages her or his time somehow. Even people that may never formally have thought about time management have some implicit system. And yet, many people are not happy with how they deal with the things they have to do everyday.

Often frequent interruptions, overlapping activities, and impending deadlines prevent us from the best intentions. In fact, stressful factors like these are harmful to us; they trigger more stress, compulsive behavior, and discontinuity, and they reduce our consciousness, concentration, and clear-minded thinking. The mind ends up wandering forward and backward in time, looking for someone or something to blame for our imagined inability.1

We can become better at managing ourselves. We need to get better at it. Good intentions are not enough to achieve our goals and fulfill responsibilities. If we don’t get control of our time2, we will be at mercy of circumstances, and live in a constant turnmoil that will end up affecting both our personal and professional lifes. Sometimes, out of frustration, we can end up blaming others for our lack of self-discipline.

Being efficient is a sign that we value other people’s time. When we send the agenda of a meeting in advance, not only are we taking the steps for an effective meeting, but also showing respect for the other attendees. When we meet a deadline, we are doing our job, but also helping others do theirs. Arriving on time, punctuality, is respect for our colleagues’ time.

Shane Parrish says something similar about not having time to do something:

“I don’t have time” is really just another, perhaps politer, way of saying “it’s not that important to me."3

No wonder Peter Drucker says that _until we can manage ourselves, we can manage nothing else_4:

Executives who do not manage themselves for effectiveness cannot possibly expect to manage their associates and subordinates. Management is largely by example. In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide variety of organizations—large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American, Japanees– I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effective. And all of them had to learn to be effective. And all of them had to practice effectiveness until it became habit. (…) Effectiveness can be learned –and it also has to be learned. (…) Without effectiveness, there is no “performance”, no matter how much intelligence and knowledge goes into the work, no matter how many hours it takes

Systematic vs ad-hoc Time Management

In his Jedi Productivity series, IESE’s Conor Neill explains two approaches to time management. The systematic aproach, and the ad-hoc approach. When you are systematic, you approach the things you have to do in a way that is repeatable. In the ad-hoc approach, you manage the things as you go, no doubt with the best of intentions and all your energy, but without consistency.

Our approach to time management must be systematic.

When you are systematic, you can trust yourself to get things done. When others are systematic, you can trust them to get things done. When someone is working in ad-hoc mode, sometimes she delivers and sometimes doesn’t.5

I am already at my peak productivity

Improving your effectiveness is no obscure science. For example, there are a lot of books that explain how to organize yourself better. (Perhaps one of the most well-known is Getting Things Done, or GTD, by David Allen.) Webpages about the topic abound. Why do so many people struggle with it?

The first obstacle, in my opinion, is becoming aware that you are not as efficient as you think, that you can improve your skills in this area. A common excuse is reasoning along the lines “I always deliver my best”, or “I have advanced my carreer this far without any special attention to personal productivity. I am productive”. You probably are productive –if you weren’t, you would not fall into this trap–, but the difference between someone who is just efficient and someone who is committed to get better at it is the difference between an amateur and the pro.

I just need to work harder

Another obstacle is thinking that time management can be solved by sheer effort. If you need to read a book just to know what a time management methodology proposes, but you live with the continuous sensation that you have no time… you probably won’t read the book and use that time for doing more work.

You don’t become competent or skilled at doing something just by putting more effort. You need good techniques. You need to improve how to manage yourself and your time.

Quick results

The third obstacle is that even if we know that time management is a long term commitment, we seek quick fixes.

Managing time requires practice and habits. That is, the exercise of concrete actions during a period of time, until the habits become transparent to us, until they become second-nature to our workflow. Before that moment, there may be some improvement, but the –erroneous– perception will be that the methodology is getting in our way.

Also, don’t forget that methods won’t suit everybody “as-is”. In time, you will need to adapt whatever method you choose to your concrete situation.

The Total Control Deception

Another problem is the ilusion that it is possible to have total control of our time. Sorry to disapoint you, but it is not.

You can plan your perfect work-day at the office, but as Moltke said, _No campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy_6. Some people get frustrated when their plan falls apart.

Plan your week and day in detail if necessary, but don’t forget that it is just a plan, a guideline that will change as the day goes by. What is important is not that your plan works out flawlessly, but that what needs to get done gets done.

  1. Excerpt From: Staffan Nöteberg. Pomodoro Technique Illustrated

  2. Although effectiveness and time management are not exactly the same concept, I will use the terms interchangably throughout this article. Time management is the act or process of planning and exercising conscious control over the amount of time spent on specific activities, especially to increase effectiveness, efficiency or productivity. (cfr. Wikipedia, Time Management). Effectiveness is the degree to which something is successful in producing a desired result; success: the effectiveness of the treatment. (cfr. American English Dictionary). 

  3. cfr @farnamstreet on Twitter. 

  4. Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive

  5. Conor Neill, Jedi Productivity, 1 of 11

  6. According to Wikipedia, this quote is attributed to Helmuth Graf von Moltke, one of Clausewitz’s generals. Other Google searches results attribute similar phrases to Sun Tzu’s the Art of War. 

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