Time management training doesn’t work

By Maura Thomas

Today, knowledge workers use devices and platforms we wouldn’t have dreamed of 15 years ago, in workspaces we probably didn’t see coming, either (goodbye, private offices; hello, telecommuting).

But while work has changed, the training we get about how to manage our time looks pretty much the same as it always has. Traditional time management teaches us to ‘start every morning making a list of things to do that day.’ But once you check your email, that list is already woefully outdated. Time management teaches ‘Prioritize A, B, C.’ But these days, everything seems urgent and competes for the highest priority. Time management teaches us to ‘close the door’ to get important work done, but it doesn’t address our spinning brains and the lure of the internet at our fingertips (let alone the fact that we no longer have a door). Whatever ‘schedule’ we came up with is typically out the window by 8:01 AM.

The problem’s not just that we’re getting distracted from work; it’s that we’re getting distracted from important work by other work. How many times have you sat down to do more thoughtful, in-depth tasks, only to be lured away by incoming emails from clients or colleagues? Knowledge workers are so overwhelmed by incoming information, they spend much of their time ‘playing defence,’ operating without a clear picture of their total responsibilities. Work comes at them from half a dozen places all at once, so they get quickly overwhelmed trying to remember it all. The pace is frantic, with a new interruption every few minutes, so it feels like there is no time to stop and organize it all. The ‘time management’ techniques they learned in the past are failing them: there are too many sticky notes, the paper lists are way too long and there’s always more to add to them, and flagged emails quickly fall below the scroll and get buried.

In my experience working with hundreds of companies and thousands of employees, I’ve found that most knowledge workers spend their days in a state of constant distraction and task switching. The results are perpetual stress, and being busy instead of being productive. More than a quarter of the time someone switches tasks, it’s two hours or more before they actually resume what they were doing.

All this distraction takes a toll on the quality of work. Employees who manage their attention poorly are constantly in reactive mode. That leaves them no time to reflect and thoughtfully apply their knowledge and experience to offer you an edge in your business — the very reasons you hired them in the first place.

The truth is, we have to work differently now. And we need a new kind of training to be truly effective. Companies need to offer training on productivity skills that empower employees to overcome these new challenges. This training should have three components:

  1. Clarity around role priorities rather than specific task priorities.
  2. Attention management skills rather than ‘time management’ skills.
  3. A comprehensive workflow management system.

With requests coming from all levels inside and outside the organization, it’s easy for employees to get caught up in being reactive all day. But when they are clear about the most important parts of their job and the direction of the company, they gain clarity over what to prioritize. Leadership needs to be clear on how day-to-day behaviours align with various job roles, and how each role relates to the mission of the firm. When employees are taught to focus on their most important job roles, it’s easier to filter the irrelevant noise and take effective action. The ability to identify and stay focused on the big picture (the company mission and how their job serves it) provides a beacon for employees that illuminates the important over the (seemingly) urgent. For example, as a leader, how often do you feel that you are spending too much time working in the business rather than working on the business? This is a common lament that I hear from my clients. A renewed focus on the role of the leaders can reduce the temptation to spend too much time in email and other day-to-day minutiae.

Attention management training teaches the ability to control distractions, single-task for higher-quality results, and engage in sustained (focused) attention when necessary, which should be a part of almost every day. Education and awareness is a big part of this training. For example, teach your staff that while it may seem that multitasking helps us get more done, the research shows otherwise. And calling attention to unproductive behaviours, such as being constantly reactive rather than thoughtfully proactive, helps employees recognize when they are engaging in them. An environment that is set up to support focus and value single-tasking also prevents these habits from taking root. These factors, especially when modelled by leadership, protect a company, and its employees, against an unhealthy and distracted corporate culture.

Lastly, workflow management skills are not taught in school and, as a result, workers are often left to their own devices (sticky notes, flags in email, writing and reviewing paper lists, etc.), with mixed results. This is leaving company productivity to chance. The unfortunate fact is that the odds that individuals will come up with the most effective solutions on their own are slim. Making calendar appointments with yourself to get your most important projects done and keeping paper lists with ‘A, B, C’ priorities may have been sufficient in the past, but such tactics aren’t up to the demands of the modern workplace.

The complexity of knowledge work today requires a workflow methodology that allows us to be intentional, proactive, and thoughtful. The basis of a useful workflow management methodology is the ability to make tasks and responsibilities easy to organize, track, and act upon. Most employees do keep some or all of their workload in their head. But employees can only truly manage what they can see, and they can only see what is outside their head, where it becomes tangible, centralized, actionable, and trackable. A workflow methodology allows individuals to regain control, feel less scattered, and experience less stress. In addition to the individual productivity benefits, when staff uses a comprehensive workflow management system, it offers these benefits to the organization:

  • Ease in quantifying workloads, which assists in human resource allocation.

  • Appropriate resource allocation provides insight into turnover problems.

  • Objective employee reviews and merit rewards.

  • Accurate job descriptions, leading to better hiring.

  • Documented institutional knowledge and company history.

  • Accurate project timelines.

  • Ability to clearly track progress, which sustains motivation.

  • Being our most productive and effective in this information-rich, ever-changing workplace isn’t instinctual. But it can be learned if outdated concepts like time management are tossed aside for more modern ideas on productivity that incorporate attention management and help employees to regain control. Studies show that control makes us happy, and happy people are more productive employees.

This article first appeared at HBR.