Running ManAs trainers, when we conduct training in time management, we need to provide our audience with more than laundry lists of optimal behaviors. Instead, we need to show learners how to use the simplest principles of metacognitive learning—the science of teaching ourselves how to learn. In fact, this would help to correct an error in the way we conduct behavior-change training, since we often mistake learner satisfaction at the end of a workshop with ultimate success.

Some evidence: most people who take time management training have no problem with the ideas presented, as they appear to be eminently reasonable. However, as professional trainers, we know that they are being fooled; perhaps by us or by themselves. The desired end-result (a permanent change in habits, practices, and rituals) is a long way off, and their score on the smiley-sheet at the end of the workshop means little (providing the program isn't defective). In time management training, we can direct learners away from pervasive failure.

But first, we must appreciate a remarkable fact: As working professionals we carve out our own, personal time management and productivity systems in our late teens to early twenties with almost no help. The end product includes numerous habits that are repeated each day, automatically and unconsciously. Unfortunately, after our initial success, we tend to make the following errors:

Metacognitive Failure #1: Amnesia

Most of us are unaware that we create our own systems. Our self-creative act goes unnoticed, even as we fail to realize the role that time management skills play in our career success. We aren't alone—our parents remained unaware of these facts for their entire careers. However, we can't afford that luxury in the Internet-age workplace: its ever-increasing demands force us to make several mid-career upgrades.

These upgrades may be prompted by the birth of a new child, a promotion, a new home business, or a sick parent. The results are the same in each case: The systems that we have relied on for years stop working, overwhelmed by new demands. We experience a number of symptoms, including time stress, an overflowing inbox, worsening memory, and a loss of reputation. It's all unfortunate, especially as we generally don't remember we once carved out our own system from the ground up. Presumably, we have the raw capacity to do it again, but when we have forgotten that we once pulled off this remarkable act, we make the mistake of believing we're terminally stuck.

Metacognitive Failure #2: Faith in Shortcuts

Learners who find themselves needing an upgrade often start by scouring the Internet for easy-to-find tips, tricks, and shortcuts, recalling a time when one of these seemed to help. Unfortunately, applying more of them rarely makes a long-term difference. That's because time management systems are composed of habits, practices, and rituals that don't change easily and aren't affected much by the latest hot tip or trendy gadget. However, the vast majority keep up the chase for the one, little, magical bit of advice that will change everything with a mere five minutes of effortless application.

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A few learners eventually realize that they are barking up the wrong tree, deciding that chasing down tips isn't a sustainable learning strategy because it's never the primary source of world-class performance. This realization is a metacognitive act, and it leads them to try an alternate strategy.

Metacognitive Failure #3: Following a Rigid Prescription

Those who do look for alternatives often find a book or program that lays out a set of detailed practices to be followed. These prescriptions tend to be inflexible, and the learner is told that total adherence to pre-scripted behaviors is an absolute requirement for success.

In response, learners give a good-faith effort but often fail ... even when the ideas make perfect sense. The reason is simple: It's just too hard to transition from habits, practices, and rituals used for many years to a new set of behaviors in the all-at-once manner described in books and programs. Most learners are unskilled at changing even simple habits, no matter how hard they try. More often than not, they eventually give up, concluding (incorrectly) that they are just too lazy.

Metacognitive Success

We can teach learners how to escape these traps. As trainers we can remind them of their early self-creation and guide them down a flexible path that builds on what they already do successfully. It takes a certain level of in-depth preparation on our part, but in time management, we can show them how to devise their own improvement program and engage in the purposeful upgrade of their methods. As they steadily improve the way they learn, they can only get better, faster.

Note: Francis Wade will present session M200, “How to Stop Failing at Behavior Change Training: The Case of Time Management,” at the ASTD 2013 International Conference & Exposition in Dallas, Texas.