Many managers and coaches feel an immediate burden when they review an employee or client’s performance and think to themselves, “They need some better time management skills.” As they review their limited options, they quickly conclude that none of them fits their needs and none of them are likely to work. The fact is, in order to make a lasting difference, they need to go beyond the options that currently exist and create a much larger context for the employee to succeed.

Let’s start by looking at the options that you have as a time management coach.

Toss Them a Bunch of Tips

This approach is the simplest. Just observe the employee closely, and when you can find a pearl of wisdom that applies to an observed shortcoming, toss it their way. For example, “Hey Andrea, ever hear of a To-Do list?” Some look for websites like Lifehack with lots of relevant tips and forward posts in the hope that the employee/client will be able to go ahead and “just do it.”

This rarely works because the skill of “time management” is a complex one that’s made up of a number of intricate habits, practices and rituals assembled over several years. It isn’t the kind of skill that’s improved much by shortcuts, tips and tricks; there are no miraculous, instantaneous results. Instead, successful improvements come from shifting ingrained patterns of behavior in a systematic way over time. It helps to know this before you attempt the first coaching session.

Buy Them a Book

A better option than “tossing tips” is to buy them a good time management book. At the moment however, all the well-known authors say essentially the same thing:

“Follow the methods in this book exactly as I have laid them out and you’ll be successful.”

The problem is that very few professionals are actually able to achieve this goal. If you compare notes with others who have read the same time management book, you quickly realize that you both have cherry-picked ideas from here and there, to the point where your individual systems may bear little resemblance to each other. This is actually a good thing, but it means that when you buy your employee your favorite productivity book, don’t expect him/her to end up doing things the way you do.

This is due, in part, to human nature. There can never be any one-size-fits-all approach to anything but the most simple of habit patterns. When it comes to complex patterns, we are just too different from each other in too many ways to use a single approach effectively. Instead, we all need custom methods that suit our individual goals and idiosyncrasies.

Furthermore, when you consider the impact of new technology, it’s hard to imagine how an author could claim to have stumbled upon the ultimate solution.

Dezhi Wu’s research also shows that we have different needs at different points in our careers. In her book, “Temporal Structures in Individual Time Management”, she has found that college students manage their time better than their professors and administrators. One reason might be that they are forced to deal with more information and therefore develop fresh systems that are able to cope with more inputs. Unfortunately, her research implies that once today’s students become tomorrow’s professors and administrators, they too will be surpassed in time management skill by their students – probably because they, like the rest of us, rest on their laurels and stop coming up with fresh new methods to deal with technology shifts and life changes.

In short, don’t expect your employee or client to use the book the way you did.

Send Them to a Program

In my first year of employment at AT&T, some of my colleagues attended a time management program based on a popular daily planner. They all came away with shiny new 3-ring binders with custom refills and I remember what one attendee told me:

“The binder was the best part. All the other stuff they tried to teach us was nonsense.”

Most programs take the same one-size-fits-all approach that books take, which is a drawback, but the benefit comes when participants learn the truth from each other – they aren’t going to be doing “all this stuff” anytime soon. While this may run contrary to the expectations of the time management coach, participants take comfort in confirming their suspicion that each person plans to do their own thing. It reinforces the fact that what professionals need is not another prescription to be blindly followed, but skilled training in how to put together their own custom system.

What’s annoying is that the time management coaches seem oblivious to this fact. They might mention that “no-one actually uses all this stuff”, but they give little help in assisting trainees in learning the more challenging skill of self-designing a custom system. They are on their own.

They also ignore the most recent research on habit change, which regular readers of Stepcase Lifehack will recognize readily. Changing habits, practices and rituals is often slow, painstaking work that requires setting up a savvy set of supports. The best approach is to take small steps, focusing on a few at a time.

In the program, what’s inevitable is that your employee will be handed a slew of great ideas to implement…all at once, with no hint of the fact that they need a support system.

The lack of help in focusing on a few habits within a good support system dooms most participants to failure, It’s no accident that many graduates of these programs revert to their old, familiar practices after only a few days.

A New Mentality

As a manager, you can make up for these shortcomings. Knowing that they exist is a big plus and they can be introduced into conversations quite early in the game with a time management coach. Understanding the bigger picture frees you both to narrow your focus down to a handful of habits or practices to work on. You should also show clients or employees how to upgrade whenever the need arises and teach them to expect this to happen several times in their careers.

Fortunately, recent research shows that your unique relationship with your trainee is often the best form of support and you can leverage this fact to hold the employee or client accountable for taking the small steps that can eventually add up to a huge improvement.

Employees and clients who are armed with these insights are then free to find ideas from the Internet, books and programs in order to discover the latest improvement opportunities. Instead of struggling, they can take charge of driving their own improvements, using you as their guide.

(Photo credit: Silver Whistle Next to Play via Shutterstock)

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