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Sunday, January 26, 2014

You Can't Manage Time

You don’t manage time. You can’t. When you’re inattentive, it manages you.

How often do “to-do lists” produce very much actual doing? They frequently have the opposite effect, documenting our apparently weak will power and underlining our loserhood in personal productivity. The good intention goes on the list . . . and there it stays.

The paper evidence reinforces a general hopelessness that we relieve a bit by blaming it on impossible workloads, or maybe too-short days. But we know better, don’t we? It’s on us – personally.

Take it from me – I’m a poster child for fond hopes, often immortalized in writing on documents both formal and informal, typed and color-coded or just scribbled. Lists upon lists. Once, I think, I actually was able to honestly line out all the items on a day list, maybe a dozen of them. Once.

When transferring the not-yet-done items to a new list becomes too-obviously useless because too much inaction has over-aged too many of those items, you streamline the process. Just throw away the old list, take a deep breath, and start over. Or just throw away the old list, period.

We need to rethink glib talk about “time management.” We need to make lists after we’ve done some serious thinking about our personal productivity, not as the first step in managing our days and careers, and our lives.

One reading of Albert Einstein’s space-time thinking says time gets rubbery at the speed of light. Time bends at 186,000 miles a second or 700 million miles an hour. The clock melts, somewhat as depicted by Salvador Dali in that disturbing painting of a timepiece drooping limply off the edge of a table.

Not a problem, though, since few of us work at that speed. It’s a good idea for us to consider time as unforgiving, inexorable. It just keeps ticking on. Whatever store of seconds each of us was born with, there is a limit. Every second passes imperceptibly, is irrevocably gone and joins the accumulation into minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years.

It is more productive for us to think of this as management of our behavior, planning of actions to be advanced and completed in measurable ways, within designated time frames. Time becomes one of the measuring sticks, another being objectively determined progress toward a concretely described outcome.

When the purpose is to build productive relationships with other people, time management narrowly defined is relatively worthless. You can’t bond in a speed-dating context. Teambuilding or partnership, if it is to be successful, demands a relatively long “getting-to-know-you” initial phase.

Wishing and hoping, favorite human occupations, are toxic to personal progress. Not only do they distract and exhaust real intention, they waste time. They fuel a descending performance spiral and reinforce low levels of self-confidence.

The answer is to summon whatever modest amount of discipline is available to lay out and take actual steps – baby steps if necessary – toward specific useful outcomes. Consciously establish a determination to get something done, get into it, accomplish it and deliberately indulge in a moment of prideful satisfaction.

Then use the good feeling to drive a next little victory. This is manipulation of one’s motivational equipment, a consistent devotion to a low level of personal productivity that can be nurtured into a surprisingly high rate of progress and growth.

All that potential is there, however rusty it may have become. A best practice is to identify recent small successes, enjoy feeling good about them, and apply them to specific intentions to tomorrow's schedule. I can do this.

Then I can do that. And that. My short-term schedule becomes a subset of my medium-term schedule and my longer-term goals.

Once you convince yourself -- by the hard evidence of actual history -- that you have done it, then you know you can do it. So, do it. Time is just a tool, not a manager.  

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