Here’s a controversial thought: there’s no such thing as time management.

Time has been marching inexorably forwards since the Big Bang, about 13.7 billion years ago. Good luck trying to manage that.

I’ve been thinking about this recently, in the wake of a demanding period where I was (happily for me, as an independent consultant) juggling four separate work assignments. What does it take to make the most of the time we have available? How do we maximise our impact when we’re immersed in a high volume of work?

Correcting the Fallacy of Time Management
Given the relentless passing of time, all we can do is manage our energies and focus our waking hours doing what needs to be done. Thus we can really only sensibly talk about managing ourselves, about being effective in deploying our skills and energy.

We’ve know this for many years – at least since the publication of Peter Drucker’s 1966 classic The Effective Executive. Yet still the books and courses on time management issue forth.

With the orientation shifted from managing time, to managing focus and priorities, here are a couple of thoughts on how to make the most of the time we have …

Using Speed and Informality to Conquer Procrastination
It seems to me that a lot of our time management worries stem from hesitation and deferring grappling with a demanding task. We worry; we defer; we filibuster. We’re not able to get the job done because we hesitate in the face of something which is challenging. And this manifests as a time management problem.

It is, of course, not a time management problem at all. It's an issue of feeling immobilised in the face of a seemingly intractable task. Or one that will, we fear, leave us exhausted in the process of expending the cognitive effort to get it done. We can't face it, so instead we play a game on the iPad (Candy Crush or Panda Pop, anyone?). Or make a cup of tea. Or send a text to a friend. Or check tomorrow’s weather. Or work on something easier which is a lesser priority. Far less challenging options, all of them.

The solution here is not to deploy time management techniques such as making a To Do list or prioritising.

Rather it is to make the task at hand tractable by breaking it down. A tactic I have found very effective here is to utilise the blank index cards that I sometimes use in workshops, and write down different aspects of the task at hand, each one on a separate card, and then lay them out on a table or on the floor. The process of simply making the facets of the issue at hand visible, and then rearranging them helps get a handle on an otherwise insurmountable task.

Of course, sticky notes or sliced pieces of A4 work just as well as index cards. Use whatever you have to hand.

If the task you’re procrastinating doing involves writing, then do multiple drafts or versions in quick succession without agonising about getting it right. Just keep moving and refine your working draft with each iteration.

Another version of this use of informality for writing (report, email, article, meeting minutes etc.) is that rather than typing them directly into a computer in the usual way, make a start by dictating into your smart phone or tablet, use voice-to-text, then email or upload the text and paste it into a document on the computer. There’ll be some mis-typings and a bit of verbiage, but you’ll have a working draft and that will be enough to get you started. The article you are reading now gestated via a series of verbal bursts into my iPhone.

This approach works not only because it breaks large and nebulous tasks into bite-sized pieces, but also because it circumvents the perfectionist tendency to want to get something word-perfect at the first attempt. It uses speed and informality to short-circuit the feeling of being challenged by a task that makes us apprehensive. We outflank the task (and the feeling) and so outmanoeuvre them. Not ‘saving time’, but maximising the impact of the time available.

Going Slow to Go Fast
A discomforting reality about much of working life is that we spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning up work that was poorly organised in the first place. We then spend time working on disparate tasks to mop up the original problem, and we complain about having insufficient time to do so. The truth is, there was plenty of time to do the initial task, but mopping up a mess that’s spread takes more time than following through on a task that could have been organised properly in the first place.

Think, for example, of a meeting to which some people should have been invited, but weren’t. The agenda wasn’t properly thought-through and there’s no follow-up. The people responsible have to deal with the complaints, and the resistance of those who weren’t invited; they have to try and knit together something coherent from the tangled threads of the meeting outcomes; and then try to build consensus and get action in a lax and free-wheeling environment.

Small wonder they ‘don’t have enough time.’

The obvious (but not often practiced) solution is to spend time getting things right in the first place and then progress from there. A couple of examples …

The continuous improvement approach developed by Toyota at its peak and tagged as Lean advocates making decisions slowly by consensus, and then implementing these rapidly (in Japanese, the principle of nemawashi). For example a proposal is developed and input sought from many players, which generates consensus. By the time the formal proposal is put forward, agreement has already been reached and the final meeting is a formality.

Similarly, putting the effort up front into the structure, content and layout of a report is likely to limit the prospects of delays as clarifying queries about data sources, interpretation and implications have to be answered. All the more so if this preparation takes into account the knowledge base of the report’s intended audience.

Likewise, putting the effort into clarifying data definitions and counting rules before launching into an analysis means an analytical effort is more likely to proceed unimpeded.

Preparation, and a programmed approach, could just be some of the most powerful ‘time management’ techniques we have.

There is a fascinating analogy here, which I am grateful to the CEO of ANSTO, Dr Adi Paterson, for communicating to me: how is a planet able to orbit around the sun more quickly? Counter-intuitively, the answer is: by slowing down. This is because the planet’s slower orbit allows the sun’s gravitational to pull it closer, so that the planet will have a shorter – and therefore faster – orbit.

The takeaway: to go faster, go slower.

Now who would have found that in a book on time management?


Director I Michael Carman Consulting

PO Box 686, Petersham NSW 2049 I M: 0414 383 374

Jeffrey K Liker (2003) The Toyota Way McGraw Hill.

© Michael Carman 2016