The case against time management

There will never be enough time to do all the things you wish to do, so a new approach is called for. Starting with acceptance.

The case against time management
Photo by Heather Zabriskie / Unsplash

There is a popular narrative around the importance of ‘time management’, especially in our hyper-connected world and ‘always-on’ culture. I think trying to manage time is a fundamentally flawed endeavour and I’ll explain why.

Firstly, requests for your time tend to come in dribs and drabs. So whilst you can attempt to manage individual requests it’s actually not until too late that you can see the holistic picture.

Does this sound familiar: “I’d have never accepted that meeting now I know this meeting is this week too”.

But it’s too late by then. Not because you can’t cancel or rearrange individual meetings but because it requires too much thinking time to evaluate, and you don’t have the time to ponder. And in any case you’re now into fire fighting mode.

Secondly, does it often happen to you that the ‘time management’ you’re doing is deciding which of the three simultaneous meetings to attend. It seems like you’re picking one of three options but you’re forgetting the fourth, somewhat lost option, to do none of the meetings. There is always a large degree of opportunity cost in those cases. That is, the value you lose by foreclosing an alternative use of your time.

Of course, at any given moment in time there are a million and one things you could be doing with that time. So you’re actually better than you think at saying no - since you are in fact neglecting 999,998 things you could be doing without a hint of regret or a second thought. It just these neglected opportunities didn’t occur to you. Maybe ignorance is bliss then… We’ll come back to this thought.

Lastly, consider the day (not every day I hope?!) when you finally, at last, breathe a sigh of relief after a day of back-to-back calls to reflect - “how on earth did that happen!!” It’s not that your time isn't your own; it’s that your overall time demands are not looked at except in hindsight. Which is of course too late. And it’s only in hindsight that it’s obvious that you’ve not been able to ‘manage time’.

Well, what to do then? If you cannot manage time then what do you do? Despair doesn’t seem like a fruitful option. Well how about this - go with the flow and stop trying to fight time. So it comes down to acceptance really. There are too many big rocks for the jar. The order doesn’t matter, so stop faffing with the big rock, pebbles and sand, the jar is too small. Can you get rid of any of the big rocks? Probably not. Can you accept you can’t do everything that you might wish to do or to the standard you’d wish to do it. Yes. So it’s not that ignorance is bliss, it’s more correct to say that acceptance is bliss.

It’s why my house is messier than I’d like. A clean house is a big rock. But so is work. So is getting my kids to school. So are a number of other responsibilities (do I have to be an adult?!). I just need to accept that I can’t have my cake and eat it. It doesn’t mean cleanliness is not a big rock. It’s not an issue with the order of my priorities. It’s a fundamental truth that our time in earth is constrained and we will never be able to do all the things we want to do. And in fact say I could be more ‘productive’ and somehow get the cleaning done as well. Guess what would happen? Something else would emerge that I’d been neglecting (remember the 999,998 things that didn’t occur to you earlier), and so it goes. The universal truth is that there will always be more responsibilities and never enough time.

Acceptance doesn’t mean not giving a damn. But it is liberating at a deep level. You can use this acceptance to be more intentional. For example, why not block out time for meetings with yourself essentially. Defended time to work on what matters most to you.

Another useful approach is to take a moment to reflect on how you’ve spent the week. Because it affords some chance to course correct. Weekly reflection is a good practise and helps to see what sort of trajectory you are on.

But ultimately it still comes down to the reality that we don’t manage time. Time manages us. Time is the river. It’s best then that we course correct with our one good oar and accept our leaky boat. Because it’s better than falling in.

You might challenge and say that the opposite of management is chaos. But when we look at nature, this isn’t managed, but neither is it chaotic. In fact an organic order emerges.

Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished. — Lao Tzu

In summary; it’s a flawed approach to think that you can be efficient enough with your time to achieve all the things you want to achieve. Stop trying to achieve the impossible and instead:

  1. book meetings with yourself to do things that matter to you,
  2. reflect each week on how you’ve spent your week and what you want to change next week,
  3. repeat.