What are you managing when you manage time?

We all know what time management means, at least until we start to think about it. The phrase implies that time is a kind of resource that can be used more or less effectively to create a particular result. But when we try to pin down the qualities of time as a resource, the definitions get trickier.

For one thing, $5 is always the same amount of money, but 5 minutes does not always seem to be the same amount of time. Five minutes in an emergency room is not the same as 5 minutes curled up on the couch watching a sitcom is not the same as the final five minutes in a championship game. How are we supposed to know how much or little we can do in five minutes when the size of the container keeps changing? The calculations only get more complicated as the units get bigger.

Can we at least understand the neurological processes that determine how long a unit of time seems to last (and so how much we can reasonably expect to do in that time)? The answer to date seems to be: not so much. The way the brain measures time seems to be more complicated than the current state of science (and of the human mind) can easily understand. Multiple parts and processes seem to be involved and the workings are still not clear.

How can we manage something we can neither accurately observe nor control?

We don't manage time. We manage the way we move through time. Time management is really the ability to make effective choices about what to pay attention to at any given moment relative to the set of goals we are pursuing at that moment. We don't need to understand time to manage it because we are really managing our ability to move toward or between multiple objectives. We make the most of our time when we are very clear on how our circumstances and actions connect with a well-defined goal. We "waste" time when we move our thoughts or actions without knowing where we are going.

The primary tool for time mangement is not a clock. It's a map.


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