When I was a teenager, my dad was a smoker.
I don’t know when or why exactly, but it started to irk me. Suddenly I could smell it everywhere, there was just no hiding from it. And every time I would get mad at him, and he would just smile and say that yes he would stop… at some point.
But I had this fear that his habit was stealing time that one day he would have needed to spend with his family. I remember reading everything I could put my hands on to get him to stop but was left with only headaches and contradictory advice (maybe I didn’t know where to look, or maybe it was the 90s and I could not just Google it). Thank god the day came when he stopped by himself, just like that, but I still remember that frustration.
Fast forward a few years and I am a working millennial. Getting back home from work, I often feel too tired to do anything but the most familiar stuff. TV. Youtube. Facebook. Just a minute, of course. Just long enough to finish binging my contacts’ shared videos of moonwalking bears eating ice cream in slow motion (if it’s not a real thing yet, you know it’s bound to happen.) Then I will stop… at some point.
The day I realized I was thinking in terms of “at some point”, I heard my dad’s words echoing from the past. That’s when it really hit me:
I had an issue with the way I was thinking about my time.
It was not a matter of sharing a social time cigarette once in a while anymore. I had become a fully accomplished time smoker. And it was time to quit.
Quitting meant I had to become an active manager of my time. Easier said than done, though, as trying to rationalize my time management and productivity quickly made me feel the same frustration I experienced when trying to convince my dad to quit smoking.
Indeed, despite a large amount of documentation available on those subjects, we are still unable to agree on the validity of the techniques we keep hearing about. Worse, when we start looking for answers, sometimes it feels like we haven’t even been asking the right questions, even though we are pretty clear about what we are trying to achieve.
So I did what I understand to be a good thing to stop an addiction: I shared.
Opening myself to others about the issue made me realize that not only was I not alone in this boat, but that it’s actually a huge ship full of people!
Then just like someone wanting to quit smoking a few decades ago, I had to go through tons of hearsay, some blog articles, and too few research papers to try and carve some truth out of them. After much discussion, myth-busting and tea, in no particular order, I found six traps we easily fall into when it comes to managing our time.
Trap 1. Time management equals professional time management
When it comes to work, I have always been very conscientious and organized: I like to plan ahead and stay on top of things as much as possible. You could say that at work, I rarely smoke time.
But as a friend, there was a time when I was not super available (read “super not available”). To be honest, I just didn’t put enough effort into reconciling the things I wanted to do with the people I wanted to see and had to sacrifice one or the other (or both!) on a regular basis.
The thing is, the idea that time management is purely a professional activity is simply not true. It would be like saying that you have quit smoking because you don’t smoke at the office, even if you still do outside work (it could be a step along the way to quitting, though.)
So instead of thinking we should “manage time but only at the office”, we need to constantly be our own time managers.
Time does not stop flying the moment you leave the workplace.
If anything, I’m sure it’s quite the opposite.
So why do we keep associating the act of conscious time management with our professional environment?
One reason is probably that the not-too-old thing that created the need to track time scalably was the industrial revolution when people started to be thrown at highly scheduled tasks for maximum efficiency.
Another one is the matter of perception, namely the rational ignorance effect, which refers to the act of “refraining from acquiring knowledge when the cost of educating oneself on an issue exceeds the potential benefit that the knowledge would provide” (Wikipedia). Indeed, when it comes to getting information about our time (see further down), most of the tools at our disposition are tedious to use, making the cost of tracking time very high, so that consciously managing time is often experienced as a constraint. And, by definition, we want to avoid constraints in our free time.
If I’m hammering this point home, it’s because it took me a few years to get it, and I learned it the hard way (goodbye my friends!)
Trap 2. Time management equals keeping busy
Back in my super-not-available days, I was keeping myself always busy. This was a time when, among other things, I was working to educate myself on new topics, trying to mentally prepare my uncertain future projects of an even more uncertain future. And regularly (read “all of the time”) I was refusing to go for an evening out to meet or see again people that life had put on one my potential paths because I sincerely thought I could not afford to take a break if I wanted things to go through.
It is not just a matter of maybe-missed personal or professional opportunities. It also could have helped with my self-education!
Taking a break from the always-doing-something rhythm will increase your productivity.
It can be talking to a friend to “clear your mind”, or taking the time to reflect on what you have worked on and what you will work on.
And because I have an intuition this might work on more than… well, work, I now always take the time to reflect on the day, typically when walking back home after work or right before going to bed.
Trap 3. I don’t need to measure my time to manage it
John is the old manager we all wish we had. He understands what we work on, having been there himself, but also the human aspects of the team dynamic, as well as the need to protect the team from external constraints so that they can work at peace and efficiently. However, when IT offered to integrate a tool that would reduce the time his team spends on either software A or on the phone with clients, John did not have the facts to make an educated decision: neither him nor anyone in his team had ever thought of measuring the time spent on said software or on the phone.
The first explanation I can see for that kind of situation is the illusion that we have a complete understanding of the things we use and the activities we engage in (for example I can drive a car so I might believe I know how it works, while I actually only know how to use it). And because everything we do is rooted in time, we get the impression that we fully grasp it. Yet in this case, when push came to shove, the team really had no idea. Another time-related example is described in a study reported by The Atlantic: people fail to estimate correctly the time they spend working (and the more they work, the worse it gets!)
I have an intuition this might be linked to a second point, which is that where time is concerned:
We actually remember things that emotionally impact us.
So that when it comes to taking a time-related decision – that is any decision at all – and we dig in our memories for lessons about what to do or not to do, our process may be heavily skewed by our emotions.
There is another subject with issues similar to time, but that people approach in a more mature fashion: money.
Just replace the word “time” with “money”, so that the task at hand is actually “money management”. Now imagine yourself trying to explain to someone, anyone really, that you don’t know what money is spent where. Sure, you can argue that you are not completely clueless and have a rough idea about where it went, but you don’t know. At best, you are guesstimating. Unfortunately, we are really bad at estimating – the internet is chock-full of references about it, be it regarding time or people’s skills.
So if you can measure and avoid the guesstimation, just do it.
Trap 4. There is nothing like pen and paper to follow my time
Well, yes and no. But mostly no, though, according to most of the people tracking their time that I get to meet (a number that grows at an amazing speed!).
The issue of pen and paper is that it’s all manual, meaning that both the tracking part and the summary of your time usage are left entirely to you, which makes the whole process:
- tedious: starting every activity by writing its name on a paper is not sustainable. It is bound to make you hate the whole process
- imprecise: because it is tedious to write everything down, you are probably not going to keep track of the two minutes spent on Facebook or Candy Crush on the train.
That’s why most people who are aware of the benefits of time tracking already have a set of tools that does at least some things automatically: it can be a spreadsheet (which does sums pretty easily for the connoisseur) or a computer or phone activity tracker, or even an all-in solution (I work on and use this one!)
Trap 5. Time management is only about me
In a previous life, I remember working with someone from the sales department who came one morning to my desk with something that needed to be done urgently. Unfortunately for that person and her grand plans, I already had my hands full of things that also “just could not wait”.
What my ex-co-worker had forgotten for a second is that “we are not alone”, in the sense that most of what we do and/or plan depends more or less directly on other people. People who don’t necessary have the same goals as ours or would not go the same way about them.
Put another way:
Time management often has a social component that is hard to ignore.
So that if you plan something that might involve other people, you should be careful to somehow involve them in the process of planning.
Trap 6. The plan will come together
You know that time, maybe even “those times” – I know I am in that case – in your life when you had a meeting or exam or something else important enough to require you to be at a certain place, at a certain time. And you checked Google Maps. And Maps said it should take 30 minutes to get there. And you thought “Oh great I will leave 30 minutes before said time then”. And you didn’t quite make it. Maybe it was a late train, or there was too much traffic.
Well, right when you thought “30 minutes will be enough”, you had a plan-will-come-together moment.
As you probably and correctly surmised, a plan-will-come-together moment is simply when you mistake a plan, i.e a potential way things could happen, for reality. A reality that has yet to happen, and may never do. And this is a classic.
Typical obstacles include, but are most definitely not limited to, weather or other “natural” unexpected bad turn of events, other people (see the previous point), zombie apocalypse or even bad planning.
To resist the plan-will-come-together moments, a simple exercise I first read about in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast, and Slow is to not put a plan in motion immediately after its conception, typically at the end of a meeting. Rather, have the people involved take a blank sheet with one goal:
Think about everything that could go wrong with the plan.
Those few minutes will help a lot in understanding the uncertainty inherently associated with planning.
Trap 7. The plan is the only thing that matters
I know I said “six traps”. But you have stuck with me this far, and I am starting to like you. So I will leave you with a seventh one. As a freebie.
Those six pitfalls may seem obvious once you spell them out, but the biggest trap of time management is even more obvious: don’t forget why you track and manage your time! Do you want to know yourself better? Do you want to reduce the time you spend watching bad TV shows (so you can focus on the good ones, or on reading the books that inspired them, or any book at all really, or blogs)?
Time management is a huge project, and if you lose track of how and why you started it, then you will lose motivation, clarity and sometimes any benefit at all.
But it is also a beautiful project, a way to build the self we want to be. Because as Laura Vanderkam wonderfully puts it
“[it]is not about figuring out how much time we waste. It is about making sure we are not telling ourselves stories about our lives that are not actually true.”