The myth of time management: 7 contrarian tips

If you're still trying to do more in less time, you're buying into the myth. Focus less on efficiency and more on effectiveness - using these proven approaches
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time management tips

Are you trying to manage your time better so you can get more done? Sorry, but that’s actually a waste of your time.

If you’re like most people, you’ve been trying for years to find a better way to organize all the work and to-do's on your list so you can do more of it. You’ve been trying to find ways to work faster and smarter, all in the name of being more productive. If you’ve been doing that, then you’ve bought into the myth of time management.

[ Need more help reclaiming your calendar? Read also: 5 time thieves and how to beat them. ]

The time management myth: Do more in less time

The time management myth is that you have to get more and more done in less and less time. 

But that leads you into a vicious cycle with no end. The truth is you will always have more to do than you have the time to do it, and you will drive yourself crazy trying to find better ways to get more done.

Focus less on being efficient and focus instead on being effective.

The better approach is to manage your focus, prioritizing the important items and letting go of the less important work that distracts you from true productivity and making an impact in your world.

In other words, focus less on being efficient and focus instead on being effective. If you get really efficient at getting more done, but you are not doing the right things, then you are not maximizing your impact.

For example, if you’re keeping your inbox empty and returning all messages within minutes of receipt, you are being very efficient at responding to everyone else’s needs and interests. But what about YOUR agenda? What about the strategic, important work that YOU want to get done? How effective are you being in achieving YOUR objectives?

The reality: You need to say "no" more often

The reality is that less is more. In order to improve the impact you have in your world, you need to say “Yes” to fewer requests and “No” far more often. This means you must be more aware of the choices you have, and exercise the courage to make better choices.

Saying “no” may make you feel like you’re not good enough – or feel uncomfortable because you will appear to make some people unhappy. But it’s not up to you to make others happy. It’s up to you to maximize your impact and contribution, whether at work, at home, in your community, etc.

So with that foundational belief, here are seven things you can fix today.

1. Clarify what’s truly important to you – and for you to do

This takes time and some analysis every day, and sometimes multiple times throughout the day. Many people will be making requests of you all day long. Bosses, peers, subordinates, spouses, kids, friends, clients, vendors … If you simply throw all those requests into a to-do list, you will be overwhelmed in no time, and will constantly struggle to best use your time.

2. Prioritize your work choices

What are the three most important things you need to achieve or address today? Dedicate quality time to those as early in the day as you can. One approach is to keep a short list of important goals with no more than 20 items on it. (This is not your massive to-do list!)

Then each day, force-rank the items on this list so you know which are your top three for that day. Then spend 30 to 120 minutes of focused effort on moving them forward.

You can spend the rest of your day on all the other “urgent” stuff after you’ve invested quality effort on this important stuff. i.e., do what matters most first.

3. Delegate – after filtering out the unnecessary

Before starting any task, ask yourself: Who else you can get to do it?

Before starting any task, ask yourself: Who else you can get to do it? Can you have a direct report get it done? If not, can you teach a direct report to get it done so they can do it next time? If not a direct report, how about a peer, a colleague in another department, a service provider, independent contractor, spouse, child, etc.?

Just because something could be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Don’t automatically delegate every “to-do” that comes your way. Be ruthless with filtering out those things that, if left for later, will become less and less important to do over time. Something that appears important today may appear unimportant a week later.

4. Create conditions of accountability for delegated work

Those who under delegate do so because they’ve been burned by poor delivery. It’s not enough to do the hand-off portion of delegation. You also need to create conditions of accountability by:

  • Being clear on what’s expected, and by when. But don’t assume you were clear. Test for shared understanding before the new work begins and check in often.

  • Establish compelling consequences to maximize motivation. These need not all be negative, or only related to future pay raises. Positive consequences can be growth in skills, enhanced respect from colleagues, attendance at high-profile meetings and events, etc.

  • Have ongoing checkpoints based on empirical evidence. Don’t ask how things are going and accept “fine” as an answer. Inquire as to what evidence supports “fine” as an assessment of work status.

5. Manage performance continuously

Many get into time management quicksand by allowing poor performance to go on too long

Many get into time management quicksand by allowing poor performance to go on too long. As a result, you spend too much time correcting problems and taking on work you should not be doing yourself. 

One reason this occurs is you don’t have a strong foundation upon which to measure and correct performance, without having to resort to ineffective and “difficult” conversations. By implementing the four fixes above, you can transform performance management into a simple, comfortable, and continuous improvement process.

6. Improve your communications

How much time do you lose each day due to ineffective communication? Poor communication leads to having to repeat conversations or emails; time wasted by people doing the wrong things; time lost to tasks not getting done at all, and more.

As George Bernard Shaw has said, “The problem with communication is the illusion it has occurred.” To fix this problem, stop thinking of communication as the messages you send to people.

Instead, think about engaging with people rather than communicating with them. Always spend a little time confirming you’ve achieved a shared understanding as a result of any communication. 

Don’t do that by simply asking if you were clear, or if the other person understood you. You’re likely to get a simple “yes” reply, which only confirms that the other person heard your words. Instead, ask questions like, “What actions do you think you’ll take as a result of this conversation?” Or, “What do you think about this issue?” 

7. Take full ownership for your time management challenges

Don’t blame others for giving you too much to do, or too many people inviting you to too many meetings, or getting too much email, or your staff not getting enough done on their own. You, and only you, can make more effective use of your time by applying these best practices.

Don’t fall for the myth that your time management is the core problem you have. It’s more of a symptom of leadership challenges you’re facing. Instead of seeking to better handle your time, or organizing your to-do list, or using a better scheduling or collaboration tool, apply the leadership approaches above: They have been time-tested over many years by hundreds of successful IT leaders. 

[ Want to give your team a greater sense of urgency? Get our Fast Start Guide: Creating a sense of urgency, with John Kotter. ]

Bob helps IT managers and teams get more done while improving user relationships and reducing organizational conflict. He provides online training as well as group and 1:1 coaching programs that get problems solved fast.