The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities. – Stephen Covey
If you’re wondering about how you can become better at time management, it’s quite likely that you’re asking the wrong questions. Much like I mentioned in 50+ Better Questions to Ask than How to Be More Productive, asking better questions about what we’re doing makes the doing a lot easier.
Time management, as a concept, is bankrupt. Let’s canvass some of the reasons for this, shall we?
- You’re only going to have 24 hours in a day no matter what you do. Unless you’re close to a scientific breakthrough that allows you to personally bend spacetime, you can’t speed it up, slow it down, optimize it, or maximize it. A second is a second, though your internal experience of a second can vary considerably. (We need not be considering extreme or quantum physics scenarios. As Einstein himself remarked, “Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” Time doesn’t fly when you’re having fun – your perception of time changes.) The time metaphors we live by don’t really track the reality of time.
- The way we think about time also deludes us into thinking that we “use” time. Yes, we talk that way and we think that way, but we don’t use time any more than a fish uses water. We do things through time.
- Energy and attention are more scarce than time. This is the main point behind assessing your TEA: time, energy, and attention.
- Most people will squander “excess time” when they get it. This has led many people to invoke Parkinson’s Law AND you might want to consider How Parkinson’s Law blocks your happiness and creativity.
Money can be managed. People can be managed. Schedules can be managed. Time can only be accounted for. (Tweet this)
People who think they have time management problems really have priority management problems, which means, at root, they have self-management problems. Teams and organizations have the same problem – as a unit, there are only so many priorities that a given group of people can address in a given slice of time. One of the chief jobs of the leaders is to ensure that people are addressing the most important priorities in any given slice of time.
While we’re thinking about priorities, let’s remember that too many priorities mean you have none. Whether we’re talking about your personal, professional, or business life, a handy guideline here is 5 plus or minus two. This is intentionally not 7 plus or minus two simply because we often forget that we are multi-dimensional beings in relationships with other people and acting on our priorities requires us to evaluate and act on those priorities in a fluid context, which is considerably harder than just remembering what they are. For instance, we may be professionals AND parents and need to consider the priorities we have in each domain and how they align or conflict in different ways at different times.
If all of this sounds complicated and hard to keep up with, then perhaps I’ve adequately explained the human condition. We are evolving beings in relation to other evolving beings, each with the capability to remember the past, choose in the present, and plan for the future.
So, the next time you’re thinking about how to manage your time, I hope you’ll consider changing the frame to how you’re managing your priorities. Here are a few questions to ask yourself (leaders can make a few changes to ask about their teams) to springboard your thinking:
- What matters now? (People change in time, so it’s natural that priorities change in time, as well. Make sure you’re not acting on yesteryear’s priorities just because you had them last year.)
- What actions can I take today, tomorrow, and this week that most reflect my priorities?
- What are the priorities of the people around me who matter? (Your family, friends, boss, coworkers, employees.) Do we have alignment, interdependence, or tension?
- What’s on my plate that doesn’t reflect my priorities and what needs to happen to get it off my plate?
- With whom can I share my priorities so that I receive the support I need to take action on them?
If you manage your priorities well, you’ll see how you really don’t have a time management problem. (Tweet this)
Stephen Lahey says
What a compelling, reality-based approach. My goal is to live my highest priorities – this is great food for thought. Btw, one of my highest priorities is showing appreciation to people who help me in my journey – hence this comment, share, etc. 🙂
Charlie Gilkey says
I’m glad it landed, Stephen, and I appreciate the feedback and shares. 🙂
This is exactly the clarity that I needed but wasn’t getting to on my own. Thank you! “. . . consider changing the frame to how you’re managing your priorities.”
Linda Maye Adams says
Actually, I have to disagree. This is is an assumption made by people who talk about time management, and one of those assumptions is that everyone reading is a manager who has control of what they can prioritize. I’m not a manager. I’m an employee. If my supervisor gives me additional duties, I’m stuck with them regardless of whether they’re actually important to my job or not.
Charlie Gilkey says
Thanks for commenting, Linda! I hear where you’re coming from AND that’s not my assumption. Even within the additional duties you’re stuck with, you can choose which of them you’ll not do – some are more important than others.
I say that NOT as someone who’s always been self-employed, but as someone who, as an employee, strategically chose which things I could not do and be okay and which would result in a negative performance review or worse. Later on, I got to where I’d let me boss know about the “priorities” he gave me, sort them by what I thought was important, and then see if that lined up with what he was thinking. I also knew which results my boss would end up “on the line” about and made sure that, on those metrics, my unit was above board or at least met standards, and for the things we weren’t able to do, we had valid reasons why we were behind.
That’s what makes Question #3 so important. Whether we manage ourselves or are managed by someone else, we all have more to do than we can have time available.
Linda Maye Adams says
Welll, I still have to disagree because there’s an assumption that employees always have control over what they can prioritize. Sometimes they don’t have any say in it at all.
Very interesting insight. I agree time management is all about prioritizing what’s on your plate. Everyone is only going to have 24 hours in a day. Those who can prioritize better can get more done within that time.
I would also add that along with prioritizing you need to look at delegating as well. No need to do everything yourself. Delegate the non-strategic tasks to subordinates to focus on what is important.
Maria Brophy says
Great article, Charlie! And I agree totally – and have to often remind myself – that what I focus on is a reflection of my priorities.
As a mom, my son is my number 1 priority, even above running my biz. Sometimes it’s easy to be too busy to spend enough time with him. Then I remind myself, ‘that where I spend my time is my true priorities. And he is the main one. (that straightens me out for awhile).
When I fall out of healthy habits, I remember that another priority is health and strength. I schedule extreme hikes for myself (an 8 day one coming up, on the John Muir Trail) – and that forces me to stay in shape (it’s life or death out there on those mountains).
The hardest is prioritizing work, balancing that with family and health.
Sometimes I pull it off, but often one area suffers while the others thrive!
Great article, I was searching for some insight to help me understand my girlfriend. She is extremely smart and capable of anything but she struggles to manage her life. She constantly feels tired and overwhelmed but to everyone around her she is energetic and organized. I thought she had time management problems but she is extremely productive and uses short amounts of time to do more than most. Living with her I realize that her problem is prioritizing. She plans to do the wash but she watches TV and surfs her phone and never gets to her priority, the wash. Then she ends up with no clean clothing. The other night we went to a romantic hotel with friends and we had a few priorities. We wanted to eat a great meal, spend time with friends and spend time alone at the end of the night. The priority of each was about the same but the night wouldn’t be good if any of our priorities were not met. Well, we spent too much time with friends after dinner and we never got time alone because we were too tires and tipsy. If we kept to our priorities we would have had a few less drinks and the resolve to leave our friends at 10:00 as planned. My priorities were dependent on her sticking to her priorities and her pattern is that she doesn’t do that. I was disappointed that our alone time was not a priority to her. For me, priorities are extremely important. If I know I want to mow the grass on Friday for our party on Saturday and spontaneously get invited to a local football game I might go to the football Friday night and mow the yard with a flashlight when I get home. When I manage my employees it’s more important that they fit our agreed priorities in the day/week than anything else they could do. Missing on agreed priorities is always disappointing for yourself or those counting on you. In most cases if you’re not disappointed it wasn’t really a priority to you.
Tom Southern says
I think it comes down to whether or not you like or enjoy what you’re doing – and if you want to be doing it.
Prioritising, happiness, creativity, motivation, call it whatever you like, is easy when you actually like, or want to be doing, what you’re doing.
Most of us don’t. We’re doing what we have to do, need to do, think we should do, get bullied and pressured into doing.
That’s the difference.
Good work i like this..
Nicole Chaplin says
Thank you, we appreciate your feedback. Time management is a very interesting topic.