A thought experiment:
Suppose you’re scheduled to meet someone about whom a colleague has raved, “They’re the best time manager I’ve ever known.” What do you imagine of your new acquaintance? Maybe they’re up at 5am every day, no exceptions. They probably start with a workout, a nutritious breakfast, and sitting meditation, in that order. They’re at their standing desk and deep in the zone by 7:30. By the time they break for lunch, they’ve made—as usual—huge strides toward their number one goal (they prioritize goals easily). It’s only after an hour of sushi and strategizing that they bother to check their email, conquering the entire inbox within forty-five minutes. Whatever comes in after that will have to wait for tomorrow… the afternoon stretch is calling, and it will be just as predictably productive as the morning one.
Would it surprise you to discover that this superlative time manager usually sleeps ‘til at least 10am, checks email before even getting out of bed, and thinks meditation is a bunch of hooey?
Time Management Isn’t One-Size-Fits-All
Like all difficult-to-develop skills, time management has acquired a kind of other-worldly sheen thanks to repeated polishing by breathless narratives in the blogosphere about tools and techniques used to practice the skill rather than the principles guiding the practice.
This person who is great at managing their time gets up at 5am and never checks email in the morning, therefore great time management means getting up at 5am and never checking email in the morning.*
When in fact, effective time management—like nutrition management or sleep management or any other form of self-management—is predicated on:
The existing circumstances of the person doing the managing.
What sort of work do they do? What helps them to do it? What gets in the way?
What they hope to gain from their management efforts.
Someone working a forty hour per week job who hopes to carve out time to write a novel has a different endgame from the single mother of four whose most pressing desire is to support her children while still actually seeing them on a regular basis.
By adopting wholesale the habits—as opposed to the principles—of effective time managers, well… let’s just say that night owls who force themselves to start their days at 5am will likely find that their time management suffers as a result rather than improves.
The Benefits of Customizing Your Time Management Approach
Time management is something of a misnomer—no one can guide or govern time. It marches on at its own pace, impervious to our efforts to manage it. Rather than wasting energy fighting the inexorable, those who make the most of each day turn their attention to themselves, noticing which time management efforts bring a measure of peace and which exacerbate the struggle. Then they make choices. What works for someone else might be worth trying, but effective time managers are just as willing to discard tools and techniques that don’t work for them as they are to try something new.
Mimicking the habits of those with proven track records is easier—in the short term—than building your own from scratch. But in time, tools and strategies that don’t fit start to chafe, and eventually you’re so uncomfortable that you have little choice but to quit them. Then what?
By customizing their approach, effective time managers trade short-term ease for long-term:
It almost goes without saying that when you track your time—as an example—in a manner and with a tool that suits you, you’re much more likely to continue tracking your time than if you adopt an approach that makes the effort a chore for you.
Tools and approaches that go against your grain in some way won’t be as effective as those that more closely work with it. For instance, kanban boards (for project management) can be fantastic for those who process information visually, while strong auditory processors may not get as much out of them.
You have more freedom to adjust and tweak and come up with your own way of doing things when your practice of time management principles is guided by your situation and circumstances rather than someone else’s.
How to Tailor Your Time Management When Your Options Are Limited
Most of us don’t have the freedom to manage our time in only the ways that work best for us. Concessions must be made. But attunement to our individual needs and limitations can help us work in as close alignment with them as possible.
So we pay attention:
Am I most productive in the early morning like the time management headlines claim? Or does it not really matter when I work so long as I’ve had enough sleep and some exercise?
Do I tend to feel overwhelmed at the start of a new project or is that when I’m most motivated?
When am I most likely to get distracted? What are my most common distractions?
Do any of my non-work activities negatively impact my ability to stay focused when I’m working? Do any of them positively impact it?
When time is limited, am I more or less likely to buckle down and concentrate?
And so on. Knowing ourselves helps us manage our time effectively even when we can’t have things precisely the way we want them.
"I’m your classic introvert, in the Jungian sense. I’m not shy, but I need lots of solitude to be at my best. But most of my workplaces have been extrovert-friendly. It’s as if people think the more noise and interruption, the more productive. Definitely not true for me. Whenever I could, I’d go in early so I could get some quiet time. Headphones have also been a go-to for me when I need to be left alone for a while."
- Holly H., Marketing Specialist
Effective time management is at least as much about who we are as people as it is about tips and tools and philosophies. No single tool on the market can bridge the gap between an introvert and her extroverted workplace. No one-size-fits-all philosophy can resolve the differences between a night owl and his daytime schedule. To sustainably get the most from each day, we have to know our strengths and limitations and be willing to work with both.
Anyone Can Manage Their Time Effectively
If you didn’t know better, you might get the idea that effective time management is the sole purview of card-carrying morning larks who wish every day was Monday, put ghee in their coffee, and somehow manage to #alwaysbehustling while at the same time curating a gorgeous Instragram feed documenting what appears to be a magazine-ready life. It’s just hype. While it’s true that there are time management principles (we even wrote a book about them), ‘get up early’ is not one of them—it’s a technique, and one that’s probably useful for people who do their best thinking in the early hours of the day. But people who do their best thinking in the afternoons and evenings can manage their time effectively too.
*This is bad logic. Correlation is not causation. | Photo by Malvestida Magazine