9 Pieces of time management advice I hate
Everybody could do with improving their productivity. That is the great thing about the field of time management and productivity. It is all about incremental improvements. You make some changes and you see how they work. If they work, you keep them and if they don’t; you try something different. Then, you work through the whole process again. A peak performer will always be trying new things and will love experimenting. They will always seek out time management advice but they know that not all time management advice is equal. This article is dedicated to the time management advice I hate.
Time management advice comes in all shapes and sizes. Some of it just makes no sense and some of it is so badly explained that any sense it contains is lost. When I first started my working life, I worked for a bank; not in banking but in Training & Development and Health & Safety. As you might imagine, these roles have a huge list of requirements and generate a substantial quantity of paperwork and administration. I asked for help with my time management on numerous occasions but I found that the time management advice I received only left me more confused, frustrated and stressed.
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Time management advice I hate
The following list contains just a small portion of the time management advice I hate. I have also found that many of the clients who hire me for productivity coaching have been offered at least one of these golden nuggets at some stage:
1. It’s about managing time
This may sound childish but it absolutely is not about managing time. As long as you have the idea of managing time in the back of your mind, you will struggle to be productive. The number of hours in the day, days in the week etc., are already determined. Nothing you can do is going to change them.
Productivity is about managing how you use your time. It is important to stress this because it emphasises the fact that how your day pans out is dependent on the choices you make about how you use your time. When you accept this fact, it empowers you to take responsibility for the choices you make. You realise that there is no outside force piling up problems for you.
If you are ineffective, it is because you are making the wrong decisions and focusing on the wrong tasks and activities. Yes, emergencies will arise but somebody who has taken responsibility for managing how they use their time will be able to respond accordingly and get back on track as quickly as possible.
2. Do the hardest task first
I really hate this piece of time management advice even though it is one of the most common pieces of advice. The idea is that you get your hardest task out of the way first and then the day should be plain sailing after that. Everything else will be so much easier so you will just keep going. There are 2 reasons I hate this advice.
There will be plenty of times when you just don’t have the motivation and energy to push through the most difficult task. Should you waste endless hours trying to push a rock uphill or; should you identify the most important tasks you can get done and get them done; allowing yourself to return to the most difficult task when you have the most energy?
The other really irritating thing about this advice is that it ignores prioritisation. Your most difficult task is not automatically your most important task. In fact, your most difficult task may not be important at all. It is far better to focus on completing the most important task you can complete with the time and resources (e.g. energy, money, equipment) available to you at that moment in time. This way, you are always maximising your resources to get the best possible results.
3.What gets scheduled gets done
This makes it on to my list of time management advice I hate because it is so badly explained that it ends up causing more problems than it solves. I certainly acknowledge that what gets scheduled gets done however, that does not mean that you should schedule everything.
In the desperate hope of getting everything done, people end up sticking everything in their calendar by assigning it a time. Then, their calendar is full when along comes something important which absolutely must get done. Now, everything in the Calendar gets thrown around in order to make space for this important activity.
What most people end up doing here, is pushing everything else back in their calendar to make space for the new arrival. Most of the activities in the calendar won’t be badly affected because they were not time or date specific. However, the activities which were time and date specific are now going to be late.
The right way to use a calendar is to only enter tasks and activities which have to be completed at a certain time or date. When you do this, you should have plenty of space left in your calendar. Therefore, when a new task or activity arrives, you just need to take a quick look at your calendar and you will quickly see which adjustments need to be made. Simply put, when you leave space in your calendar, you leave flexibility; when you pack your calendar, you create clutter and confusion.
Note: If you have important daily rituals you can put these in your calendar. If they are flexible i.e. can be moved when required, you can enter them in a different colour allowing you to quickly identify them.
4.You should only handle any piece of paper once
I am sure that this piece of time management advice is well intentioned but I am going to reduce it to the absurd to highlight just how unrealistic it is.
The idea is that you handle a piece of paper (which constitutes a task) and you deal with it immediately so that it is out of your way. However well intentioned this is; it is completely impractical. You simply cannot remain control of your day effectively.
Remember for your day to be effective, you must retain control of your day so that you can make the right choices. But, using this system, if I want you to give priority to work you are doing for me, I just have to hand you the relevant paper/document and now you have to deal with immediately.
Instead of thinking about how many times you are handling paper, set yourself up with an effective time management system/process. This will ensure that you handle each piece of paper, each task and each activity as few times as necessary.
5.Just copy ‘Person X’
Again, this is piece of time management advice is common and well-intentioned but; is usually badly explained.
You can learn a whole lot by learning from others. In fact, if it is done correctly, learning from others will greatly reduce your learning time; meaning you get better at the task; much quicker.
There are two problems with copying others; you don’t always have the context and; you not every strategy works for everybody.
In terms of context, it is not enough to know what someone is doing; you must understand why they are doing it e.g. if their end goal is different than yours, they might not be the best person to copy. Also, their strengths and weaknesses may be different to yours. My friend is a manufacturing accountant. When he first started in his job, there was one guy who still used pen and paper for many aspects of the job because he wasn’t very good with computers. My friend, who is very good with computers, would have wasted a great deal of time learning the specifics of the job from him.
It is also worth noting that what works for one person may not work for you so, experiment with new strategies, measure your progress and make any necessary changes.
6.Use 'this' productivity app/tool
A couple of years ago, I was one of the experts in a roundup article where we were all asked to name our top 3 productivity tools. The most common answer was pen and paper.
That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use technology but you should keep a couple of things in mind.
Different technology suits different people who may have different needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’. What works for your colleague may not work for you so before you move everything to new technology; do some trial and error work to see if it suits your needs.
Also, when it comes to time management systems and processes; if you can’t make sense of it with pen and paper, you are not going to make sense of it with technology.
Don’t just take other people’s recommendations blindly. Identify your own needs and try a few different systems to see what best suits your needs. It may even be pen and paper.
7.Make a to-do list
A to-do list is not quite as simple as it seems. Too many people think that it is just a matter of writing everything down and then crossing them off once you have completed them. There is far more to it than that and sadly most people get it badly wrong.
For starters, you must defend your to-do list. Never let anybody put something on your to-do list. Before it gets onto your to-do list, you must consider whether it actually needs to be done and, if it does need to be done, whether you are the person who should be doing it. If the answer to either is ‘No’ then that task should not be on your to-do list.
If a task is time or date specific it should not be on your to-do list; it should be in your calendar.
If no action is required i.e. it is just for reference, it shouldn’t be on your to-do list; it should be filed appropriately.
If it needs to be done and, it can be done in a couple of minutes, it shouldn’t be on your to-do list; you should just do it.
Projects should never appear on your to-do list; only tasks.
If there is a very large number of items on your to-do list, they should be sorted into contextualised lists.
That is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to to-do lists. To-do lists are excellent but only if they are properly organised and managed.
Managing a to-do list is not as simple as it seems
8.Learn to multitask
This piece of time management advice really belongs in the land of the deluded. The idea that anyone can multitask is just complete nonsense. You cannot focus on two different tasks at the one time.
Some people genuinely think that they can multitask but what they are doing is rapidly refocusing. They are performing an action on one task before moving to the next task. There are very, very few people who can do this well.
For the remainder of us, every time that we switch between tasks, we lose time as we must get refocused on the new task. If you are constantly changing your focus between tasks, the time losses can add up to substantial amounts of time. Research has shown, time and time again, that it is much quicker to focus on one task at a time, get that task finished, then move on to the next task.
9.You want to feel that good stress
Another stinking piece of time management advice that causes more problems than it solves. For starters, there is no good thing as good stress. What you think of as good stress is in fact pressure. Pressure and stress are very different experiences, both psychologically and physiologically.
Thinking that it is ok to feel stressed leads to people damaging their own health, both mentally and physically. While you can recover relatively quickly from a short bout of stress; prolonged exposure to stress can lead to far more serious health consequences.
While pressure can be good for your productivity, as long as you feel that you are in control; stress is never good. To paraphrase South Park ‘Stress is Bad, Mkay’.
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So, there you have it, nine pieces of time management advice I hate. Some of these nuggets of advice should immediately be consigned to the dustbin of history. If you are going to follow any of the remainder, you should ensure that you thoroughly understand the advice you are choosing to follow. Even then, implement the advice with care and assess its impact. I am not trying to discourage you from seeking to improve your productivity; in fact, I encourage you to work hard to improve it. However, you must always remember that there is good time management advice and there is bad time management advice. There is great wisdom in knowing the difference.