Are time management practices a waste of time?
Apr 04, 2023
Vikki Louise is a freelance writer and coach focusing on time, productivity and rest. She also hosts the Feminist Time, Productivity & Rest podcast. She’s based in Manchester and a new mum.
Time is our most precious and valuable resource. It’s the one thing we can never buy back later in life, even though tech entrepreneur Bryan Johnson is spending a cool $2 million per year trying to do just that. But most of us don’t have that kind of money, and have been sold a simpler solution to the stress of ticking clocks: time management. It’s a glorified procedure said to accelerate productivity, eliminate time-wasting habits, and create the mystical work-life balance we’re constantly chasing — all for a budget-friendly price. But does it work? Our sceptical journalist tested how much time these techniques really save.
Time management is more than a tool — it’s a massive industry. There are thousands of ways to practice it, from buying planners to color coding to downloading apps that promise to make everyday logistics easier than ever. But does it actually work? Has the time management boom made us more accomplished and serene, or has it left us busier, more stressed, and less successful than before?
“Time management was never designed to give you freedom,” says Richie Norton, serial entrepreneur and award winning author of Anti-time Management. In fact, he explains that the “industry deliberately designed time management so a manager at work could control you and your time, what you do, where and when.”
To test this theory, I’ve explored three commonly used time management solutions and asked the all-important question: Is time management actually a waste of time? And if so, what should we be doing instead?
Unless you’ve been hiding under an internet-proof rug, you’ve come across the idea that for something to be improved, it must first be measured. This shows up in how we manage our time, health, finances, and more. It’s not a groundbreaking methodology, but is it an effective one?
Tracking our time has become known as taking a “time audit,” meaning you’re running a check on how your time is spent. This is done by collecting data on how long we spend doing certain tasks. It can be done with pen and paper or on Google Sheets, but that’s not stopped plenty of apps from being built specifically for facilitating this process. It’s typically recommended to perform a time audit over a few days or weeks to give an overall idea of how long a task can take.
Time tracking dates back to 1888, when a jewellery maker invented the first “time recorder” and the idea that we should use time to determine pay. It’s also around this period that employees started clocking in and out of work. Today, Straits Research projects the time tracking industry will grow over 20% per year from 2022 to 2030, when it will reach a massive $47.1 billion in value. But is this money well spent?
The biggest advantage to time tracking is that it’s an easy first step for time management novices: it doesn’t require them to change anything or make any decisions upfront. According to the app Timely, time tracking also helps you identify exactly what you do with your day, how long things take, where you’re wasting time and where you’re getting distracted. The goal is to use all this data to make better decisions about how you allocate your time.
This time spent tracking your time, however, isn’t being spent on high-value or revenue-producing tasks. This is true for all time management techniques, and some of them can be worth it. But in my experience as a coach who has worked with hundreds of clients around the world, time tracking often leads to higher stress. Anxiety arises around fears of not doing enough, being perceived as lazy, falling behind, or not driving enough billable hours (if the time sheet is used to charge clients). Sometimes, simply looking at how we spend your time can leave us feeling unfulfilled, unmotivated and unhappy.
According to Richie, “There is an inherent problem with time tracking. Most people track the wrong things. Most people follow a process which will never reach their purpose. The key to fulfilment is this: value your time. Don’t time your values.”
When I worked in financial investing, I often heard the phrase, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” Surely the same is true of our time. We live in a fast-paced world that’s changing rapidly. New factors like ChatGPT and remote work have changed our workflow, so the time we spent on a task three years ago might not indicate how long it will take today. What’s more, this tracking doesn’t account for certain realities of human life that impact how we work: sleep, hydration, diet, alcohol level, stressors, or even where women are in their menstrual cycle. All this ultimately leaves me questioning the validity of the time data we’re tracking.
If each of us had $1 for every to-do list we’ve written and misplaced, the world would be teeming with millionaires. This easy, ubiquitous concept is pretty self-explanatory: it’s a list of things you intend to do. Praised for its ability to lessen our mental load, the to-do list is said to help with planning, prioritising and remembering everything that needs to be done. It provides us with a visual representation of what we want to do, and can act as a checklist. It seems simple enough to follow… But is it?
It’s great that to-do lists are simple, cheap and easy to make — but ignoring items on these lists is all too easy. Our brains evolved to keep us safe, and high value tasks typically expose us to stressors like other people’s opinions, potential failure or rejection. In fact, a 2022 study from Zippia found the average employee spends 51% of their time on low to no value tasks.
Simply writing down tasks doesn’t make the difficult ones easier to accomplish. Checking off any item on the list will release dopamine, and since our brains are smart, they’ll go for the fast, easy tasks over and over again. Not only does research from the science blog I Done This show that 41% of all to-do list items are never actually completed, but a never-ending list can actually leave us more stressed as we chase the elusive moment we cry out, “all done!”
Elon Musk, billionaire founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, claims he’s able to “do it all” by intentionally planning his day out in five-minute blocks. It’s perhaps the most famous example of “time blocking,” which means setting aside specific amounts of time to focus on a certain task. For example, you could commit every morning between 9AM and 10AM to answering emails, or schedule a twenty-minute meditation in the evenings.
Time blocking requires you to decide in advance what you want to do and how long it will take. It’s a centuries-old method that luminaries like Benjamin Franklin have long relied on. Today, the #TimeBlocking hashtag appears on over 20 million TikTok posts.
Time blocking is often considered an improvement on the to-do list: it forces you to focus on when your tasks will get done, instead of facing an ever-expanding litany of tasks. This method allows you to know exactly what you should be doing at every moment, thereby curbing the time waste that comes with constantly making decisions about what to do next. It’s a particularly useful tool for multi-taskers and people who are easily distracted.
On the other hand, the method has massive time wasting potential because human error often causes us to underestimate how long things take (how often have you said “I’ll be there in ten minutes” and actually been there in ten minutes?). Plus, it doesn’t account for unpredictable factors like sick kids, boilers breaking or traffic on the way to work. Time blocking done correctly takes a lot of time and effort - especially if you’re using Musk’s intense five-minute method.
I can understand why Robin Sharma famously suggested, “Stop managing time. Start managing focus.” Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that time management hacks pay off; It can’t make us actually carry out our important work and leaves us with a huge margin for error. And the truth is, time is no longer a problem in the fast-paced, technological world we live in. We can make complex calculations or reach millions of people in a matter of seconds. It’s powerful and problematic, as we now have access to an infinite number of distractions. So forget the tips and tricks about managing the clock; understanding how you concentrate, prioritize and make decisions is really how you should be spending your time.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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