Stop Trying to Manage Time

Much ink and many pixels are devoted to time management. But with a moment’s reflection, we recognize that time will not change its behavior. We cannot manage time. The best efforts to become skilled at time management are doomed to failure.

I can already hear the objection: “But time management refers to the choices we make given the time we have, not to changing the nature of time itself.”

In my personal experience and based upon thousands of conversations, this particular issue is rarely difficult. There may be times when we reach an impasse because we don’t know if we should focus on project X or project Y. But these occasions tend to be few and far between.

The biggest question regarding the choices we make with our time begins with the decision of where to put our bodies. Are we at home or at the office? If we are at the office, are we attending a meeting or sitting at our desk? Once we have made the decision of where to put our bodies, the particular tasks with which we should engage are usually obvious. And most people seem to have little difficulty determining where to put their bodies.

Making sure that we carve out time to focus on the “important but not urgent” projects (thank you Stephen Covey) sometimes requires discipline. But if the commitment is in place, we can reserve time on our calendars to ensure that these projects receive the attention they deserve.

How we name things matters. The name “time management” creates a subtle expectation that time can be managed. It can’t. “Efficiency management” would be a more accurate name for what is usually discussed under the topic of time management. Attempts to manage time are a waste of time.

Using our time efficiently is important. To use our time efficiently, we should not focus on managing time, or even how we spend our time. Instead we should focus on managing our energy and our ability to focus and concentrate. The question is rarely “what should I focus on now?” Rather, the question is “how well am I able to focus on the task at hand?” Unlike time, the quantity and quality of our attention can be managed.

For leaders, it is particularly important to manage energy. Great leaders are rarely remembered for accomplishing the most tasks per hour. Rather, great leaders are remembered for the quality of their presence and their ability to inspire. Accomplishing three more tasks every day might be helpful, but it won’t make you a great leader. Bringing your best self to every encounter is the path to great leadership.

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