Why time management systems don't work

Cover photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

I've been a student of productivity all my life.

Sometimes my interest in productivity has been more important than actual productivity. I've experimented with just about all the systems out there and built a few for myself. Every time the hope has been that a new system would somehow motivate or force me into hyper-productivity, getting tons of stuff done and reaching my goals faster than I ever thought possible.

Reality turns out to be a bit different.

Just adopting a time management system does not mean your productivity is going to soar.

A time management system is a lot like a new relationship. It is in fact a very intimate relationship, because by design it's going to determine how and where we spend our time, thoughts and efforts. And like any new relationship, implementing a time management system goes through a number of phases.

The honeymoon phase

During the honeymoon phase with a new time management system, we're excited at the new potential just waiting to be unlocked. We spend a lot of time focused on the system, learning the ropes, implementing the routines and revelling in how good we feel and how much we get done. And we are more productive - because we're focused on managing our time.

This is where we find the first fork in the road. What looks good at the beginning may quickly turn out to be something that doesn't work for us, and we may decide to parts ways after just one or two dates.

Or we may believe there is potential, and we want to spend more time with our new best friend. But nothing new remains new for a long time.

The old reality phase

As we get used to the new time management system, our old habits begin to creep in. The lofty goals we set to spend the first half hour of each day planning begin to take pressure from the reality of deadlines. We skip a day of getting up early, a day of exercising or meditating, and before long the new routines and habits die out to be replaced by our old ways of working.

And here's where you reach the second fork in the road. We either drop the new system, another failed experiment in our journey to being better humans, or we enter the adaptation phase.

The adaptation phase

If we're lucky enough we realise that the system has potential, but we're going to have to adapt it for our needs. And just as importantly, we're going to have to adapt ourselves to get the benefits we were looking for.

Adaptation is the first key to making anything new work for us.

We're all unique. The collection of circumstances, world views, habits and personality traits are what makes us human, and therefore individually unique.

Because we are unique, no system will work out of the box for everyone - so we have to adapt the system (and we have to adapt ourselves). If we're analytical and introspective enough we can examine the system, take the best and discard what doesn't work. We have to learn new habits, sometimes forcing ourselves to stick to something that is difficult at first, and adapt who we are to make it work for us.

And this is where we find the third fork in the road. We may realise that there is not enough in the system to keep us committed, and we decide to let it go and experiment with something new. Or we take the good, discard what doesn't work and make our own version of the system that works for us.

Making a time management system work for you

All the systems I've studied, used and adapted for my own needs have identified a small number of core principles that I can truly say have to be part of any time management system. Without these core principles no time management system will deliver the results you're looking for.

Core principle 1: Routine

The first principle you have to apply to make any new time management system work for you is routine.

Routine brings calm and focus. If you know that you do your business admin once a week on Fridays, it becomes easy to file admin tasks until Friday and put it out of your mind. If you know that every week starts or ends with a planning session, you know that you will have an organised and productive week. If you end each day with a review of the day and a plan for the next, you're going to be able to switch off and really recharge when you're done for the day.

The routines that have made the biggest difference in my life include:

  • planning the next week at the end of the previous;
  • writing every day, first thing in the morning; and
  • taking a day out every quarter to review where I am, where I'm going and how well I'm doing physically, mentally, emotionally and in my relationships.

Core principle 2: Priority

Closely related to routine is priority.

If you decide that you're not going to answer emails or phone calls outside of reasonable working hours - and rather spend the time with your family - spending time with your family has to be your priority. If you schedule time in your calendar for a weekly review and planning session every Friday, that meeting takes priority over others.

Life will happen and you won't always be able to make your routine your priority. But varying from your routine should be the exception, not the priority.

Core principle 3: The feedback loop

We adopt time management systems so that we can get more done - to be more productive and calm even when the world is going mad. But getting to be more productive in the long run means we have to check if the system is delivering the results we're looking for. We have to build in a feedback loop.

A feedback loop is anything built into a system that tells you how well the system is working.

The key here is that the feedback loop is part of the system. In the case of time management systems, your feedback loop has to be part of your routine. Once a week, or month, or even quarter (therefore part of your routine), you need to have a look at how well the system is working for you. Are you actually being more productive? Do you actually get more done? And are you progressing towards your goals?

A feedback loop as part of your time management system can be as simple as reserving a couple of hours every month to look at how your time management is doing. But it has to be there - that's how you adapt and make anything work for you.

How to make your time management system work for you

There are many reasons time management systems don't work, and we've looked at some of them here. To make any time management system work for you, you have to incorporate at least the core principles:

  • routine helps you stick to any system;
  • making it a priority makes it easier to stick to it; and
  • using feedback loops to examine how well it's actually working ensures it's not just "how we do things around here".

Good luck building your business.

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