The way we act — like spending 13 hours a week on email — suggests that we don't really know what we're talking about when we say "time management."
Over at Harvard Business Review, Amy Gallo pulled apart a handful of the most common myths about time management, including the feasibility of managing your time at all.
Here are the takeaways.
Myth 1: That "time" is the most important thing.
Jordan Cohen, author of "Make Time for the Work That Matters," says that we should think about productivity instead of time, since "time management is a misnomer."
It's like being healthy versus dieting. "You can diet all you want," he says, "but you won't necessarily be healthier."
Myth 2: That you should do as much as you can in the least amount of time.
HBS professor and "Progress Principle" coauthor Teresa Amabile says that over-commitment is one of the worst things we can do for our productivity.
"If you don't keep an eye on the commitments you've made or are making, there is no time management technique that's going to solve that," she says.
The difficulty here is that over-commitment can be an organization-wide, cultural problem. If your manager is constantly overloading everybody, it's time to speak up.
"It is possible to say no," Amabile tells HBR. "It is possible to negotiate."
Myth 3: Some universal system can solve everybody's time management quandaries.
There's a huge market for curing people's time management woes: David Allen and Tim Ferriss have become best-selling authors by showing people how to start "Getting Things Done" or transform their lives with a "4-Hour Workweek."
Instead, becoming a time management wizard is a matter of figuring out what works for your workday. Gallo supplies the steps:
Try lots of different approaches — really try them. Don't change the way you check email for a week and declare it a failure. Set metrics for measuring success, give the approach time, and consider involving someone else — your boss or a coworker — to help you evaluate whether it really worked.
Myth 4: You have to make a revolutionary change.
Rather than rearranging your whole work day, Amabile says to tinker.
"Small tweaks can make a big difference," she says. "The best approach is to start out with a few small things. Progress in this context might mean that you find yourself with some additional time each day when you can reflect and think. Even if it's just an additional 20 or 30 minutes each day, that's progress."
If you're looking for a place to start, begin by using a few hacks to shave off 10 minutes of email a day.
Myth 5: Your time management depends on you.
Instead, your schedule is largely populated by your organization.
If it's an organization-wide issue, like over-reliance on email when better processes are available, then you probably need to talk to a senior manager.
"It requires a redesign of how work gets done, where decisions get made, how they get made," Cohen continues. "There's only so much that a system can take."
And if you are going to request that meeting, come armed with suggestions and deep knowledge of the subject, since Elon Musk, Marissa Mayer, and other top-flight execs demand staggering levels of preparation from their employees.
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