It’s disappointing: you start the new year looking for some solid advice on improving your time management, but all that’s available is yet another list of top 10 tips. You feel let down because they offer little help in moving you towards the working professional’s ultimate destination—an evergreen time management system.

An evergreen system is one that never gets frozen in time. Its methods and tools are continually being evolved by its owner, and constantly being renewed. Here are a couple of reasons to keep your system fresh.

Reason #1 – our lives are dynamic. Things change at work; we get promoted, or selected to lead up a project, or our boss forces us to do the work of two people. At home, we get married, start an exercise program or need to take care of an aging parent. Somewhere in between, we start a part-time Masters degree.

As these commitments make their way into our lives, we find ourselves needing additional capacity… more time… more refined time management techniques to deal with a new level of demands. None of us wants our system to become the bottleneck that causes stuff to fall through the cracks, so we keep it evergreen just so that it can keep up.

Reason #2 – technology is expanding. Every other day we are presented with new choices of productivity tools that simply cannot be ignored. Case in point—there are quite a few professionals who swear that they’ll never use a smartphone, which has caused them to fall behind in developing the latest productivity skills. In the next five years, there will be a further explosion of new mobile products, apps and services, forcing us to make choices about if and when to use them.

Most people are lazy: they go out and buy the latest gadget, and allow it to shape their time management habits e.g. texting while driving to “save time.” Keeping our system evergreen is the opposite—it means thinking about our system’s needs in an objective way so that we look for the tools we need before they even appear at Best Buy.

We need to learn how to tinker with our systems effectively to keep them evergreen—they don’t stay fresh by themselves.

Many time management gurus are like most auto mechanics, who aren’t interested in teaching you anything useful—they just want you to follow their instructions: “bring in your car.” Gurus often ask us to do the same:”just follow my instructions”. They generally don’t want us tinkering with our systems, doing our own thing, and departing from their advice.

We are on our own.

Fortunately, we can find our way to an evergreen system by coaching ourselves, and by using lessons from other familiar disciplines.

1. From Professional Sports

“Andragogy” refers to the field of adult education. One of its key principles is that adults already have existing skills (unlike children) and that improvement efforts must build on the abilities that already exist. Top sports teams follow this principle, and start all new players off with an assessment of their skills.

In time management, you already have some good, or even great skills. You need to start with a skillful assessment of your strengths and weaknesses compared against best-in-class practices before deciding to follow a tip or purchase a gadget.

2. From the Martial Arts,

Not everyone who enters a dojo needs (or wants) a Third Degree Black Belt. Most will end up with a more modest achievement in keeping with their aspirations. In much the same way, you need to set goals for your time management system, using your knowledge of world-class standards. Don’t go over the top. Don’t follow someone else’s prescription. Instead, be modest, and set a time to achieve the next rung in the ladder, and then the next, in a way that inspires you rather than scaring you silly.

Making progress at your own pace is the only way to avoid the failure that so many experience from trying to implement too much, too quickly.

3. From Your Math Teacher

If your grade school teachers were any good, they taught you some pretty complex math skills in small, tiny steps. You barely noticed what was happening as they led you slowly, but steadily, through a range of skills.

Research shows that an adult’s time management skills are just as complex as math skills. Changing them is much easier if you are able to break down the changes you want into small steps that appear to be easy to complete. This is self-coaching at its finest.

4. From Your Piano Instructor

It takes several years of consistent practice at increasing levels of difficulty to become a top-class piano player. You discovered this in perhaps your third or fourth lesson, leading you to re-evaluate your goal of soloing at Carnegie Hall. Fortunately, your instructor showed you how to spread out the small steps you needed to master over a period of several years. She had a plan for taking you all the way and it involved, as Malcolm Gladwell says in “Blink,” at least 10,000 hours of dedicated practice.

One reason why recent graduates aren’t made into Vice Presidents immediately is that they don’t have the personal time management systems to accomplish very much, a fact which executives understand acutely, but rarely share. They must learn how to replace today’s time management habits with new ones, executing a plan that might take weeks, months and even years of practice.

5. From Your Attempts at Weight Loss

If you have ever tried to lose weight, you might appreciate how challenging it is to learn new habits, and unlearn old ones.

We humans have a difficult time changing habits, and researchers have labored to find a magic formula. So far, they tell us that we over-estimate our willpower, and need much more help than we think. This help must exist beyond the boundary of our memory and emotions, in the form of support groups, coaches, reminders, incentives, dis-incentives, plus more. The key is to build in layers of support that simply don’t allow failure when the urge to eat a sugary snack kicks in.

While this might sound simple enough, the research also states that we need custom support systems, and can’t simply recycle the supports that a colleague used. This step takes self-knowledge, and very smart tactics.

If we take what we know from these areas in our lives, we can assemble evergreen time management systems that never go stale, and are powered by our innate love of learning. For many of us, tinkering effectively can be a big challenge, but also a lot of fun.

Featured photo credit:  a pen on a book point at a day is New year via Shutterstock

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