Why are people so bad at using their time?

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Here’s an article from the Kellogg School at Northwestern about maximizing time management, based on research into how Italian appellate court judges schedule their days, case loads, and workflow. The first logical thing you might say is this: “Well, I’m not an Italian, nor am I an appellate court judge.” Indeed, and that would be logical of you to say. (Unless you are that.) Here’s the key takeaway back at your (our) level:

“For knowledge workers and managerial positions, there is evidence from time diaries that all sorts of workers schedule their workflow ineffectively, in the sense that they tend to jump from one task to another too frequently,” Persico said. “They spread themselves thin, and then they achieve less than they would if they worked on something until completion.”

That sounds about right: the basic issues, of course, always come back to a slew of poorly-planned meetings and e-mail as a massive time suck.

Here’s the next question we should be asking, though: why are we so bad at using our time?

There are obviously a number of ways to answer this, and a lot of it varies situationally (by person, by business or organization, or by family or whatever area of life you’re discussing).

Some of the key causes of poor time management on face include:

  • Rushing from one activity to another
  • Being unclear on what’s important or really matters
  • Not caring
  • Strained relationships with stakeholders/influencers (time management becomes a way to avoid them)
  • Constant wavering between alternatives
  • Being too down in the details on projects

There are other ideas: “documentation clutter,” for example (#paperwork), or chasing perfection. A lot of these things ultimately come back to “Maximizer vs. Satisficer” issues at work, obviously.

I’d add one more before we try to get into solutions: a lot of people believe that when they become busy or important at work, the goal is “Multitasking!” People love to shriek and run around and talk about how much they multitask. The thing is, multitasking is a myth. It’s not even supported by brain science. So we should probably stop talking about it — and while we’re at it, let’s stop talking about how busy we are, because “being busy” is a function of your choices and your time management skills. If you’re always busy, well, you’re probably not very good at either thing. It’s truly that simple.

How do we get better at managing time?

Humans are visual learners, mostly, so let’s start with a visual about time management:

Alright, so the basic idea here seems simple: everything in your life can operate according to two prisms. It can be important, or it can be urgent. In very rare cases, it’s both. (If you’re a middle manager, replace “very rare” with “constantly.”)

So where do you want to be on this graph?

The secret to mastering your time is to systematically focus on importance and suppress urgency. Humans are pre-wired to focus on things which demand an immediate response, like alerts on their phones — and to postpone things which are most important, like going to the gym. You need to reverse that, which goes against your brain and most of human society.

It’s similar to this chart, although the above one has cooler characters:

You can also read about that four-quadrant system of time management.

So how do you start moving into the right quadrants here? Some key ideas:

There are a million and 19 ‘better time management’ links online — if you Google that phrase, there’s 439M results — but I think it comes back to this:

  • Try to have clarity around what’s important in your work or home life
  • Prioritize those elements
  • Figure out low-key time to deal with the other things that come up
  • When something is presented as an immediate, hair-on-fire priority, try to determine if it really is that
  • Be OK with saying no
  • Track the time you spend; use “Big Data” to be a more productive person

Here’s the thing about the above, though. Almost none of it is possible in a work setting, most of the time — hierarchy isn’t going anywhere, and most people set their priorities off of what their boss says is a current priority. The problem is: most bosses can’t set their own priorities, so they’re kicking unclear priorities down to others. That’s, in a nutshell, why most organizations are total train wrecks — well, it’s that and a pursuit of dollars (which you need to keep being an organization) ahead of things like clarity, communication, and compassion for people.

Remember: your brain always wants to respond to the immediate. That’s why notifications work well, for the most part. That’s why texting works well. That’s life. It’s all about push and pull, you know? So you’re always going to chase/prioritize/focus on the immediate. That always makes time management issues a little bit harder — but it can be done with a degree of self-discipline.

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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Blogging, largely about work and how to improve it. How I make (some) money: http://thecontextofthings.com/hire-freelance-writer-ted-bauer/

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