Everybody I know has tried some type of time management, yet most are still stressed out. Despite all the books and seminars on time management, none of the techniques seem to be working in real life.

That's not the case with other business skills. Sales training measurably increases revenue. Seminars that teach managers how to coach measurably increase morale. Technical training measurably increases productivity.

As a result, over the past 20 years we've seen huge changes in how salespeople engage with customers, how companies are managed, and how technical skills are applied to create consistent innovation. In these areas, skills training is delivering the goods.

Not so with time management. Despite billions of dollars spent on time management over the past 20 years, everyone is, if anything, even more stressed out and overworked than ever before. How come?

The problem lies in the premise of time management. Every time-management system is based on two concepts:

  1. Increased efficiency. Decrease the time it takes to do certain tasks.
  2. Increased effectiveness. Prioritize so that important tasks get done first.

Theoretically, the combination of the two should allow you to achieve your goals without the stress of being constantly pressed for time.

Theoretically.

In reality, no matter how efficient you become or how effectively you prioritize, there will always be too many important tasks for the time you have available to do them.

In government circles, this is known as the First Law of Social Work, which is that "the needs of the community always expand beyond the resources available to meet those needs." In other words, no matter how many social workers you hire, there will always be too much for them to do.

The same thing happens at the workplace. Suppose you think that an extra hour each day would allow you to get all your work done on time. You take a time-management course that successfully carves out that extra hour. Immediately, that hour will be filled with more than an hour's worth of "important" work that needs doing.

Now, this might seem like a net gain, since you're technically getting more done in the same amount of time. However, since your stress level remains high, the quality of your work continues to suffer. You remain stressed out, perhaps even more so, since you've added "managing time" to your ever-expandable daily do-to list. Net gain is zero.

Look, the problem isn't how you're managing your time. The problem is that you, your boss, and your environment have implicitly defined your job as "attempting to do more than is possible in the time you have."

To prove this, here's a thought experiment.

Suppose you take that time-management course that successfully carves out an extra hour each day. You decide to spend one half-hour doing those tasks that were not getting done. You decide to spend the other half-hour completely idle, sitting back with your feet on your desk.

Within five minutes, somebody will notice that you're idle and give you something "important" to do. This will happen even if (especially if!) you're self-employed, because there is always more that you can do. And all of it is important.

There is a way--only one way, in fact--to win the time-management game. You must learn to say no to your co-workers, your boss, your customers, and (especially) to yourself. This means doing stuff like...

  • Shutting off your computer at 6 p.m.
  • Turning off the email on your phone
  • Shrugging when something "important" doesn't get done
  • Leaving the office when everyone else is working crazy hard

...maybe not all the time, but at least some of the time. Just as important, it also means saying no to the demands of family and friends, and the demands you put on yourself to achieve in other parts of your life.

I know only three people who have the moxie to consistently say no, and they're the only people I know who aren't stressed almost out of their mind. They're also very successful, but became so after they started saying no more often.

Here's the trick. They don't try to manage time, because that's impossible. Instead, they manage their own emotional reaction to the unending stream of demands and expectations from other people and from themselves.

So, don't take yet another time-management seminar. Instead, train yourself to start saying no more often. And then stick to it.  

Please note that this means doing nothing sometimes, not as another task ("I will now do nothing for 10 minutes") but because you've said no to enough demands that once in a while you actually don't have anything to do.

I'm learning to do this myself and it's terribly difficult, because I am by far the most demanding boss I've ever worked for. My tendency is to fill every waking minute with something. 

But I'm trying to say no more often. And I'm forgiving myself for not getting everything done that I want to get done. It's a start, but I am committed to achieving the idleness that means I'm winning the game.

Published on: May 6, 2015
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