I’m on a mission to make it easier for non-academics to use time-based productivity articles from journals. I think there’s a wealth of information to be gained with just a little bit of skill at approaching these articles in the right way.
Two years ago I embarked on a journey to answer: “Can time be managed?” and “Is time management truly possible?” Up until then, I had only complained. After all, claims that the phrase “time management is a misnomer” could be heard everywhere. While I habitually echoed the cliché, which sounds plausible when repeated, I felt uneasy… I couldn’t find a shred of proof.
Now, I do have findings to share based on studies of fields as diverse as anthropology and physics.
Discovery 1 — Time can be managed, but only in marginal ways
Chasing down a meme like “time cannot be managed” is tough work. Someone who is trying to justify the statement should do more than sling around clichés. He/she must track down every single definition of the word “time” in order to make sure it cannot be “managed.” It also means testing different meanings of the word “manage” to ensure that all reasonable descriptions are accounted for.
On my journey, I learned that “time” can be thought of in two ways. Either it’s taken to be “physically real” or it’s seen as a “psychological object.”
In the former interpretation, human beings have apparently made a mistake based on our studies of young children and un-contacted tribes. We have confused “Clock and Calendar Time (CCT)” with “event sequences.” CCT, which was invented around the end of the first millennium, is a skill which must be taught, usually to children. The same applies to tribes who simply don’t use the concept.
How do they survive?
They use “event sequences” made up of chains of “before-and-after” descriptions. They acknowledge the permanence of these sequences and describe the past in terms of its relationship to key events, such as the birth of a child.
“Event sequences” cannot be managed in any way. They just are.
However, CCT is constantly being “managed” if we accept a weak definition of the verb “manage”. Instead of equating it with interpretations linked to “control” or “dominate”, we can take it to mean “manipulate, influence, shape, engineer, steer.” When we adapt this particular meaning we discover that there are ways to “manage CCT.”
For example, in the modern world, we have accepted the need to add leap seconds. In the Ethiopian, Chinese, Baha’i, and Islamic calendars a leap year is added to prevent synchronization problems at different intervals.
So, there are ways for societies to “manage” “time”. Unfortunately, an individual can only do so if he/she has the power to set up his/her own calendar, perhaps by living on a desert island. In the rest of the world, we are constrained in our management of CCT by each other.
When we flip over to the alternate definition of time as a “psychological object” we see that a similar limitation applies.
If time is nothing more than a creation of the mind (according to physicists like Albert Einstein) we should expect it to be manageable. After all, products of your imagination should be quite malleable.
In fact, there is historical evidence that it used to be. The invention of time zones went through several stages where cities like Detroit saw dramatic clock changes as the definition matured.
Today, however, there is no such freedom. Theoretically, problems like the Millennial Bug or Y2K Problem should have been fixable by simply setting back our clocks by, say, 99 years. While it would have worked in centuries past, in 1999 it was an unworkable idea which would have led to far greater problems. This particular psychological object has become so rooted in human affairs that we cannot escape its grasp. Only our friends in un-contacted tribes are exempt.
In the future, we may come up with ways to manage time as a psychological object — it’s entirely possible. But once again, it’s a severely limited possibility.
While there are ways to resolve the misnomer by finding ways to “manage” “time” they are extremely minor, living only on the margins. They have little impact on our daily lives.
Discovery 2 — We still want “time management”
However, these truths don’t stop us from trying to improve our time-based productivity. After all, the phrase “time management” was invented in order to express an improvement we, as humans, have been trying to effect ever since the dawn of our existence.
It’s a response to real errors we see taking place every day: late arrivals, forgotten tasks, email overload, multi-tasking, stress, overweight, etc. These are examples of real, human problems which don’t have easy solutions. In lieu of concrete descriptors, we refer to the default problem as one of “time management.” And we want a fix.
In response, history shows that we have assembled a variety of schools of thought. Each of them gives a different meaning to the phrase that far surpasses the literal meaning of “time” or “management.” Now, the phrase “time management” can be taken to mean just about anything, including:
– A set of processes to follow.
– A specific end-result to be achieved.
– The secret of a person’s success.
– The reason for almost any identified failure.
This short list shows that we have granted the phrase a life of its own which has evolved over time. According to criteria set by researchers Geoff Bingham and Kurt Danziger, “time management” also qualifies as a psychological object.
As such, we need to be careful when using the phrase, because they indicate that people engage in what linguists call “language-games.” Over time, a number of different ones have evolved, even as they all sharing a common moniker.
If you observe conversations on the internet you can find well-meaning people belonging to different “language-games” trying to sort out common time management problems. The results are sometimes tragic, at other times comical. Unfortunately, when we can’t see the language-games at play these miscues are inevitable.
Take for example the time scarcity created by Type A individuals. To some, this is a problem to be eradicated.
For Type A’s, it’s a natural outgrowth of their ambitions. They have accepted that being alive means having more commitments than time will allow, forcing them to develop lifelong skills at setting priorities. Just imagine a coaching session between a professional organizer who believes scarcity is bad and a Type A client. Without a shared language-game, they end up in trouble.
Therefore, it’s critical that we account for existing language-games whenever the phrase “time management” is uttered. It’s the only way to appreciate the underlying context(s) being discussed.
Discovery 3 — There are much better ways to solve real problems than “time management”
Here’s a linguistic jujitsu trick we need to learn.
When someone mentions the phrase “time management” we need to determine not only which language-game they are playing, but also which specific problem they are trying to solve.
The fact is, most discussions in this realm surround intractable but practical symptoms of issues a person is trying to fix. The challenge is that, with a limited vocabulary, they only know to utter “time management.”
The recommended martial arts technique is simple. Set aside the issue of “time management”, while helping the other person to apply the best solution to the problem at hand. This calls for top-quality diagnostic skills.
Of course, the best way to empower others is not to diagnose their issues for them, but to teach them how to do so themselves. Once they become skillful, terms like “time management” fall away and more precise terms enter the picture. They accelerate their progress toward the answers they are looking for.
This inquiry into the existence of time management has helped me understand the confusion that slows people’s progress towards their goals. People must be able to get past the tangled question of time management’s existence/ definition in a single, short step. It’s a bypass that’s often necessary if practical solutions to real problems are to be found and implemented.
Click here to download “Can Time Be Managed? An inquiry into the foundations of time-based productivity”. Follow me on Twitter — @fwade
In my work here at 2Time Labs, some of the questions I have dismissed with short answers are core to the work we do: Can Time Be Managed? Does Time Management Exist? Is the Phrase “Time Management” a Misnomer?
These are more than esoteric issues.
Each year, thousands of research pages are issued on this topic. Remarkably, few bother to define the term and only one or two dare question the very existence of the phenomenon of time management.
Up until now, no-one has labored through the literature to answer it.
This special, free report may be a one-of-a-kind – the first attempt to tackle the question from multiple angles, using the lens of a variety of disciplines. Philosophy, psychology, physics, linguistics, business management… they have all been explored in this journey.
Join me as I explore all corners of knowledge pertaining to this topic to arrive at answers all may not agree with, but does reflect the view of an unlikely band of theorists whose views have never been assembled beside each other.
Download your complimentary copy below.
Here’s a new way to discover the research data behind time management – especially the stuff that’s most recent. Simply follow my hashtag “#scienceoftimemanagement” on Twitter. (Sometimes it shows up without the hashtag – just “scienceoftimemanagement.”)
It’s simple. I have two Twitter accounts – @2TimeLabs and @fwade. The first one sticks to the scientific findings I have discovered in academic papers that have been rigorously peer-reviewed. These studies typically involve hundreds of people and build (one step at a time) on the foundation of prior studies. They are very different from bloggers who wake up in the morning with good ideas and turn them into SEO-optimized, Top 10 posts before lunch-time!
The second one, @fwade, is may daily account that send out all manner of content related to time management. It picks up the best feeds from around the internet and RT’s them, while adding on the best content I can find on a daily basis. You won’t find me tweeting about my non-existent cats, or the reasons why Trump shouldn’t be elected President. It all about one topic – time-based productivity and all its variations.
Enjoy them both by visiting their pages and I’ll see you over there.
In this interview with Dawna Ballard, we discuss what is needed to make positive change in organizations. She’s a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and an expert in how time is abound to communication.
It’s a stimulating conversation about how to be a change leader, among other topics.
Why have there been so few studies of what happens to time demands after we create them? In this post, I go hunting for some answers.
This week, I uncovered a great article written by Judith Ouellette and Wendy Wood. It’s entitled “Habit and intention in everyday life: The multiple processes by which past behavior predicts future behavior.”
Like many other academic articles, it has an inimidating title that seems obscure but the text is quite readable once the new terms it uses are understood. The most important, for the post, is what the authors refer to as a “conscious intention.” For all intents and purposes, it’s the same as a time demand.
Their article confirms one of the ideas I include in my book: that our daily actions can be divided into two types.
Type 1) Habits we perform with a level of automaticity that requires little energy.
Type 2) Conscious intentions that require explicit thought (i.e. time demands.)
In a follow-up diary study led by Dr. Wood, approximately 33-50% of all daily behaviors are habits. The rest are conscious intentions.
I did a quick search to see how many articles mentioned the original paper and the number came to over 1600 since it was published in 1998. By academic standards, it’s quite popular.
However, it’s interesting to see that very little research has been conducted on conscious intentions, while there has been a great deal of research on habits. That strikes me as odd.
It appears that the average working professional cares more about conscious intentions than habits. By their very nature, habits take care of themselves without much explicit effort. For example, we brush our teeth without thinking about it, day and day out. What we care about are the tasks we must complete each day and the amount of time we have to do them in. We are concerned about these conscious intentions because they are a primary and essential step we take to fulfil every single one of our goals.
This concern may be translated into a question that uses the language of the paper: “How can I effectively convert a high percentage of conscious intentions into positive actions?”
In answering this question, academics seem to have dropped the ball. My research shows that when it comes to conscious intentions, they seem to be more interested in peripheral questions such as “What are the factors that go into creating conscious intentions?”, “Why do people form the goals they do?” and “What are the obstacles people face in fulfilling their goals?”
These questions are important, but there are more basic questions that are not being researched, such as: “How do people process conscious intentions? How do they navigate time limits and due dates?” These are questions that are closer to our concern for converting intentions into action.
Why aren’t these questions being asked and answered by researcher?
1. Academics aren’t learning from other fields
A light reading of recent research in fields such as quantum physics and philosophy reveal that there is a growing concern that without human involvement, there is no such thing as time. When the existence of time itself is being questioned, it’s a bit strange to continue exploring “time management” or (even worse) “time control.” Yet, that’s what researchers in the field of time-based productivity have done for years (including yours truly.) Without adequate input of knowledge of other fields, a discussion about “time management” (if taken literally) is actually a bit of a fool’s errand.
2. Academic funding is skewed
The academy’s preoccupation with habits and behaviors isn’t echoed by the public, who only think about changing habits or behaviors now and then – hardly as often as they think about conscious intentions and time limits.
This vast difference of interests has meant that little academic research has made its way to the adult learner, who picks up a book, listens to a webinar and sits in a classroom in order to learn how to navigate an unyielding increase in conscious intentions. The majority of time-based productivity learning makes no reference or use of recent academic research. Most of the content used is based on the experience of one person, plus those who follow his/her advice. This falls far short of research standards: it’s all “anecdata” a term for stories taken as fact mentioned on the Harvard Business Review blog.
The reason for this mismatch between the academy and daily reality may be that there is a lot of funding flowing to habit research due to the high cost of destructive practices like smoking and drug addiction. Getting rid of bad habits actually saves lives, so a breakthrough in this area has high stakes, which attracts society’s attention. Boosting one’s time-based productivity isn’t as fraught with health risks.
3. Academics Aren’t Skilled Enough (as Individuals)
Another possible explanation is that academics who study time management (mostly psychologists), are simply not equipped to answer the common questions people have. As I show in Perfect Time-Based Productivity, in the moments after a conscious intention/time demand is created, humans follow a defined process, without exception. Although these processes are similar in design, they are also idiosyncratic and unique.
The uniqueness derives from the fact that these processes are self-created. Their effectiveness varies widely between individuals in ways that are barely understood at this time – the research that should give us basic answers just isn’t being performed.
The skills these researchers are lacking do exist, but they are to be found in management or engineering schools in fields such as simulation, Business Process Management (BPM) or Total Quality Management (TQM). They all study the flow of tangible objects in processes and systems – but they don’t routinely study psychological objects like time demands. As far as I can tell, psychologists aren’t taking these classes to learn these skills which are essential to analyzing the flow of time demands in human affairs. By the same token, engineers aren’t flocking to Psych 101 so that they can learn how to model ways in which psychological objects are processed.
Only a multiskilled approach would work. Unfortunately, these are the studies that are the toughest to perform well, often posing huge obstacles to graduate students who must pick a field of study. This is just not the shortest or simplest path to take.
Hopefully, this state of affairs will change and we aren’t completely stuck. The stresses on professionals around the world are increasing, and we need to do more to help them attain the level of productivity they desire.
The ultimate Lifehacker is not someone who scours the Internet looking to find random tips, tricks and shortcuts. Instead, we should all take a leaf out of Melanie Wilson’s blog, in which she conducted a year-long experiment in 2013, tackling and implementing one new improvement technique each week.
Her approach was simple. Each week she singled out a popular or well-defined productivity hacks and tried to make it work, faithfully reporting the results back to her readers. By the end of the year, she’d tackled 46 consecutive hacks, ending the year with a multi-week experiment: writing a nonfiction book in 21 days.
The list of hacks she tested read like a who’s who of guru-driven advice ranging from David Allen’s Getting Things Done, to Mark Forster’s Do It Tomorrow to a number of others that you probably have never heard of, such as “David Seah’s Emergent Task Planner,” “The Time Warrior” and “Gamification.” While she does have affiliate links set up with a few of the products she’s testing, she’s hardly advertising.
Instead, she breaks each post into the same four sections, as she did in week 2 when she assessed the “Covey’s Quadrants” technique. In that week the first three sections were captioned:
– How Covey’s Quadrants Saved My Sanity This Week
– How The 12 Week Year Made Me Crazy This Week
– Did Covey’s Quadrants Help Me Get Things Done?
In the fourth and final section she moved onto the next hack she planned to assess:
– The Productivity Approach I’ll Be Using for Week 3.
Here, she invited readers to join her in trying out the technique reviewed the following week. Her followers do make the occasional comment, but this is primarily a one-woman experiment, all based on her first-hand experience.
On a recent podcast in which I interviewed Melanie, I made the comment that it’s like watching a reality show, in which she unfolds a brand new episode each week. As I followed the course of events from one week to the next, I found myself with a nervous feeling of anticipation. Would she find the perfect technique that meets all her needs? Would she get to the end of the year and conclude that Lifehacking is just a self-indulgent waste of adult time? Was she going to refute everything I knew to be true from my own experience, invalidating a lifetime of personal lifehacking?
This is the power of doing real-life testing… on a real life. You’ll probably find yourself, like I did, flipping to the techniques you have known and and tried, wondering if her experiences matches up with your opinions. As she surprises you with some of her findings, you’ll find that it’s hard to argue with each post. Why? Because it’s factual. Like a good researcher, she doesn’t make leaps in logic, telling the reader that they need to follow the systems that she uses, or doesn’t use. She never concludes that her experience is one everyone should share – she sticks to the format you’d expect of someone who works in a lab every day wearing a white coat. Like Sgt. Joe Friday she’s just following the data.
This sets her blog apart from so many self-improvement, time management and productivity posts making their way around the Internet. Many of them consist of no more than untried, untested and un-researched opinions in which authors don’t bother to provide any evidence for their suggestions. They just repeat the stuff once read in a book or blog, without offering any new perspectives, content or information. After they are done, others reply with their opinions, leading to a round of lightweight dialog or heated disagreement, after which everyone gets tired and goes home, none the better.
The lifehacking community needs more people to do what she’s doing – basing their advice and conclusions on empirical data. Whether the data comes from the researcher herself, or from other trusted fieldworkers, we need to be informed by more than the amateur blogger who wakes up in the morning with rehashed and random ideas for improvement.
This would take us out of the rut we’re in at the moment in time-based productivity – where the over-abundance of Top Ten Lists are choking a readership that’s becoming tired of seeing the same old tips repeatedly recycled. Her blog is a sparkling example of what can be done with some hard legwork, which is where all breakthrough thinking originates. I hope she helps take Lifehacking back to a time when it was about sharing stuff that works based on factual experience, rather than empty suggestions designed to do little more than generate SEO traffic, Likes and Re-tweets.
It’s an intriguing thought. Are there similarities in the ways that CEO’s and college students manage their time?
It’s a topic that I’m giving some attention to due to some research that I uncovered while reading an article about the ways that law students manage their time.
My first effort to delve into this topic came in the form of a recent article I wrote for the Jamaica Gleaner – How to Manage Your Time Like a CEO.
Kathryn Welds’s blog is a super one, if one because she tackles one brand new topic with every post, sharing some of the latest research in the field.
She makes mention of the work here at 2Time Labs in her recent post: How the Brain Perceives Time
It’s an assumption made by many time management books and programs – the behaviors described not only work, but they work for everyone. They might make a passing reference to the need to do a little customization here and there but it’s hardly a central thesis of the book. The author’s message remains: “Just follow what I do as closely as you can.”
A more challenging idea that few dare to confront is that we all need custom systems.
Recent research conducted in 2004 by Brigitte Claessens – Perceived Control of Time: Time Management and Personal Effectiveness at Work – backs this up. Here are a few of the findings summarized.
1. The Skill and Training Effect
The report states: “…more conscientious and emotionally stable people completed more of their planned work than others. Also, those who participated in a time management training program prior to this study completed more of their planned work than others.” This finding showed that there are individual differences in performances, driven in part by current levels of exposure to training.
2. Differences in Starting the Day
41% started their day by reviewing their plan for the day, before checking email. 35% skipped the plan and jumped straight into email. 24% made social contacts and engaged in communal activity such as drinking coffee and having a snack.
Furthermore, 59% preferred to work on large, difficult tasks first. 24% had no routine for working on tasks and 18% preferred to work on small, enjoyable tasks first. Another 18% worked on items that were important to other people.
A book or program that attempts to either ignore these differences, or force all learners to follow a single prescription is likely to fail.
3. Individual Differences are Important
There were four distinct planning and execution styled detected in the research. Almost all the respondents indicated that they “felt their style suited their own preferred way of working.” One reported that “The work style I employ wouldn’t work for anyone else, because we are all so different.”
They indicated that the differences were based on personality, experiences at work and also that one’s style style “develops and changes over time.” 76% were satisfied with their style, but shared that for some tasks on particular projects, either more or less structured styles were needed, “which they found hard to do.”
Also, those who were satisfied would NOT recommend their style to colleagues, believing that “it wouldn’t be possible due to the individual differences.”
4. Focusing on Priorities Can Make Things Worse
The researchers tested the effect of a focus on priorities on both a) feelings of control over one’s time and b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work under certain situations. There was no effect on the former and a negative effect on the latter. Also, focusing on priorities can increase what the authors called “work strain.” The authors surmise “<it is>…because one has to continually assess the importance of the tasks that come along and as a consequence may find it difficult to decide on the priority order of activities.”
5. Developing a Timetable of Activities Helps
“Anchored planning” is defined as “the detailtedness (sic) of planning goals, activities, and time frames.”
Having a timetable was positively related to a) feelings of control over one’s time and b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work under certain situations. Also continually monitoring progress against this timetable was positively related to b) one’s belief in his/her capability to handle their work. Having contingency plans was positively related to a) one’s feelings of control over one’s time.
The finding around anchored planning support other research results summarized on the 2Time Labs website, conducted by Dezhi Wu and also Masicampo and Blaumeister. That is, “planning into (sic) some detail increases the perception of control over time and the perceived ability to perform one’s work.” This supports the emerging view that maintaining and monitoring an individual, detailed calendar of activities is a superior time management technique to others that exist (such as trying to use one’s memory or keeping multiple lists.)
6. What You Think About Your Abilities is Important
- Your a) feelings of control over your time is a greater contributor to well-being variables such as job satisfaction and also external ratings of your effectiveness, than b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations.
- Your b) belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations is a predictor of self-ratings of job performance.
- Both self-evaluated and externally-evaluated effectiveness is affected by your a) feelings of control over your time and not by b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations
- Your b) belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations is negatively related to external ratings of effectiveness
The final result implies that you can trick yourself into thinking you are much better than others think you are in your time management skills.
Furthermore, a) your feelings of control over your time AND b) your belief in your capability to handle your work under certain situations has a more direct effect on your performance than actual behaviors.
7. Individual Differences are Critical When Teaching Time Management
The authors say it well: “Although we expect most people to profit from time management behaviors, our and other studies demonstrated that there are individual differences in planning and executing behaviors. Therefore, we argue that time management training programs should be developed to serve different kinds of people. This could be done by means of a ‘diagnostic’ or screening tool, for instance in the form of a diary study, prior to the actual time management training after which people with the same kinds of problems with time (for instance personal planning problems) could be invited to participate in custom-made programs. Currently, most time management training programs ask participants prior to the actual training program to note and evaluate their time spending, but they do not use this information to select respondents for a particular type of time management training. As a result, participants may receive a training in all elements of time management behaviors, including those in which they were already competent. This can reduce the learning effect as relatively little time is used to discuss their particular problems and to teach them the behaviors that might be beneficial to their particular situation.”
The research we have done here at 2Time Labs into adult learning principles (andragogy) also makes this clear. Our teaching experience backs this up.
8. Making Good Time Choices Can Reduce Burnout
The authors state: “…we found a direct effect of task assessment behavior on work strain which implies that by carefully assessing assigned tasks not only with respect to the time available but also to one’s capabilities, and by accepting the tasks that one feels able to perform within these boundaries, one feels less pressured at work.”
I recommend this piece of research heartily and am only saddened that there are fewer people who appear to be using it. The work I do to link these ideas with you, an interested reader, is apparently unique as few of the authors, bloggers and class developers that I follow actually check out the source of their ideas. The authors echo this sentiment – “… we argue that time management trainers take notice of and implement results of scientific time management studies in time management training programs to ensure that participants are made familiar with behaviors that have been identified as beneficial to job performance and personal well-being.”
Being unique has some advantages, but I also wonder who is reading this kind of article. If you have made it this far, then I’d like to know. Please leave me a comment to let me know that yes, you do exist… and whether to not you’d like to hear more summaries of time management research here on this website.