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Time Management Is Not the Path to Improved Productivity, Part 1

Thursday, March 7, 2019
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We all know we can’t really “manage time.” We can’t slow it down, we can’t get more of it, we can’t control time in any way. Yet as we increasingly feel that there is more and more to do than time to do it, we continue to pursue time management as the solution.

This is a futile pursuit, and it’s time to change the way we think. The tools of time management are a calendar and a clock. For decades, time management meant making appointments with yourself—plugging the actions you need to take into random openings on your schedule.

It would be lovely if our days went the way we wanted them to, but we all know they don’t. And the first person you will break an appointment with is yourself. In addition, even if you do sit down to do the work you put on your calendar for 9-9:30 a.m., you’re lucky if you get to think about it for more than a few minutes before someone interrupts you, or a new email comes in, or your phone buzzes, or you think of something you’d rather be doing or that now seems more important.

If you work on that 9 a.m. task intermittently for 30 minutes while you also try to stay on top of your email and the dozens of other interruptions, it’s unlikely that task will actually be done (or done well) at 9:30.

The bottom line is that time isn’t our problem. Everyone gets the same amount. The reason we’re all struggling to get any meaningful work done is because of the distraction that is so prevalent in our environments today—from our open-office floor plans to our plethora of ever-present, internet-connected devices that inundate us with information and communication and encourage us to interact with them every few minutes (or seconds).

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So if distraction, not time, is our problem, then time management is not the solution. Attention management is the solution.

If the training you source for your teams looks very much the same as it always has—traditional time management that teaches us to start each workday by making a list of things to accomplish on that day, to prioritize by certain criteria, and to close the door to get important work done—then it’s time to bring a new approach to your organization. (After all, few of us even have office doors anymore!) This new approach to productivity must be based in attention management.

For busy knowledge workers, incoming work can be overwhelming, causing us to spend much of our time in “defensive” mode, without a clear picture of our total responsibilities. When work assaults us from a dozen places all at once, just trying to remember all the details becomes stressful and difficult. This frantic pace leaves workers feeling like there is no time to pause, plan, and organize. Those time management techniques from the past are no longer working. The pace is too fast. There is no time to gather the sticky notes, the much-too-long paper lists, and the flagged emails and attend to everything.

In my work with more than 27,000 professionals, I’ve found that most knowledge workers spend most of their time in a continual state of distraction, constantly switching from task to task. That leads to overwhelming stress. They're always busy, but rarely productive. A company’s most important competitive advantage is the brainpower of its people—their creativity, innovation, analytical skill, vision, and critical thinking. Yet research has shown that we switch what we’re doing about every three minutes! Working in such short intervals keeps us from applying our brainpower in a meaningful way.

Distraction exacts a serious toll on the quality of the work being done. The same research shows that interruptions cause increased stress, frustration, time pressure, and effort. Distraction leaves employees with no time or patience for reflection or to thoughtfully apply their knowledge, wisdom, and experience.

Employees need a new skill set, and leaving them to figure it out on their own puts the success of the organization at risk. In the next part of this article, I'll explain more about the skills your employees need and how you set the stage for their sustained success.

About the Author

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her clients include the likes of the U.S. Army, Old Navy, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker for 2018 in Inc. Magazine. Maura is frequently cited as an expert in major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas.

2 Comments
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This couldn't be more timely. I work in two connected pods full of cubicle rows call "the circus". I spend my day trying to drown out the chaos from three to four rows away while trying to focus in and around my phone, computer, and people coming to my desk. In order to engage in attention management I will have to use time management in order to come in earlier without all three rings in action.
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This is profound. A lot to think about here- shifting from time management to attention management.
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