Thursday, May 09, 2013

Training in time management

Time management is one of the most requested courses in leadership training. It's something that people wish other people would do better (so they could meet their commitments) and something individuals want to do better (so that they could feel more competent and more confident). That's why there are lots of different courses and models of time management.  But it's harder to find approaches that are evidence-based. 

The general loop goes something like this: I want to have better time management so I can be more effective and feel more confident and my boss wants me to have better time management so I meet deadlines and keep my people on the right track. I sign up for training in time management and I am given information about tasks to do that will condition me to manage time better. I might even be given new tools that are designed to help me meet my most important priorities first.  As a result of new information and new tools, I develop more confidence. And because I am more confident, it seems like the training must have worked.

Not so fast.  What may have worked is a kind of placebo effect. By changing your state of mind about time management and your expectations, you have more or less magically gotten to a result. That result will only be sustainable if it's based on actual beliefs and skills.  If it is just an artifact of having moved your attention to your priorities, it will last only as long as those priorities last.

Time is notoriously hard to perceive much less manage.  There is lots of science on how we represent time internally and few useful conclusions yet. In many ways, to manage time is to manage something that you cannot see. Imagine that someone asked you to speak for five minutes. Would you know how long five minutes is without looking at a clock? Now imagine the question is this: how much information will someone remember after you speak for five minutes? What kind of match is there between the amount of information you could speak in five minutes and the amount that someone else would take away from listening to you?  Finally, imagine that five minutes takes place in the waiting room at Emergency.  How much longer or shorter are those five minutes than the ones you had in mind a moment ago?

You see what the problem is.  Even with a very small amount of time, the variability in what it can usefully hold is large.  It's like filling a container to an optimal level but the container keeps changing in volume.  What this indicates, is that the problem we are trying to solve might not be the right problem. Maybe time is not something we manage. Maybe if we manage our outcomes, mental state and attention, our time will manage itself.

Let's go back and look at someone who seems to be a role model of good time management. That means they are managing scheduled work and surprises. It means they are moving faster sometimes and slower at others to accomodate collaboration.  What else does it mean? The faster way to improve your time management is to find someone you admire and find out what that person is thinking and doing as they move through their day.   Try it for awhile. The more attention you give this person, the faster you will begin to mange your time better. You might not even notice it happening until someone comments that you've been super productive lately.

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