Why Time Management Training Holds You Back

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I was flattered to learn recently that my article in the Harvard Business Review (Time Management Training Doesn’t Work) inspired strong feelings in a student of time management who felt compelled to write a rebuttal. I understand this doctoral student’s resistance; change inspires evaluation and examination. I’m surprised, though, at how strongly people seem to identify with the idea of “managing time,” even despite the truth that everyone has heard a million times: “you can’t manage time, you can only manage yourself.”

Time management training still has useful concepts. But it hasn't kept up with changes in how we work.

Time management training still has useful concepts. But it hasn’t kept up with changes in how we work.

Attention Management is the New Path to Productivity

After 20+ years working in the industry, many of which I spent attending trainings, reading books, and pursuing independent study in the field, I’m convinced that in the 21st century, the necessary first step to productivity improvement is to recognize that attention management is more important than time management. Attention management is the idea that how you spend your time is relevant only to the extent that you also devote your attention, because time spent on a task with divided attention and while multitasking is much less effective than time spent focused on the task without interruption. For corporations—and business schools—to stay current, they need to turn their emphasis to attention management thinking, once and for all.

The Application of Time Management Training Fails the Test of Time

In focusing on attention management, I am not throwing the field of time management under the bus. To be sure, traditional “time management” theory still contains useful concepts, such as making lists, setting goals, and prioritizing tasks. It’s the practical application of these ideas that fail the test of time, and most time management training has not been updated to keep up with modern technology and the increasing pace of business.

Certainly, the sense that “everything seems urgent” is not new, but the common advice in time management training to “prioritize the important over the urgent” leads to the age-old practice of lists ordered by “A, B, C” or “High, Medium Low.” This practice does nothing to address the fact that professionals today face lists of demands, even “important” demands, that are far longer than the time available to do them. Further complicating matters, the demands on our attention have become increasingly faster and more numerous over the past ten to fifteen years, and much harder to discount than before the advent of ubiquitous internet connections, smartphones, and dozens of communication technologies. In working with thousands of individuals in hundreds of companies, I see that the common techniques of “time management” are still sticky notes, flags in email, and paper notebooks serving as a catch-all for notes, actions, contact information, and calendar dates.

The New World of “Work Without Walls” Requires New Thinking

But in addition to changing technologies, work itself has changed. Gone are the days when work was left at the office. We’ve reached an age of work without walls; knowledge work that is no longer produced within the walls of a factory, or even an office, but is the product of our brains: ideas, decisions, and communication, which can be done anywhere, at any time.

Workflow management skills have been lumped into the term “time management” for decades, but we’ve reached the point where this nomenclature is not just inaccurate—it’s detrimental. Distraction is the single biggest problem for knowledge workers today, and it results in task-switching (multitasking) which prevents high-quality outcomes. Framing productivity in terms of managing time interferes with the awareness that attention is key to efficient, accurate completion of knowledge work. More importantly, attention management is required to maximize the characteristics critical to this work, such as learning, creativity, wisdom, and innovation. These attributes have nothing to do with time, but are brought to the forefront when considering how attention management affects productivity.

Corporations that focus on time management training continue to rely on these outdated principles and fail to acknowledge the role that brainpower and attention play in 21st century productivity. This is the case I make in my article: time management training doesn’t work, and corporate training initiatives need to take these new realities into account.

Surely, there are those who lament what the student I mentioned refers to as “the use of fancy new words to talk about age-old concepts.” But part of teaching is finding how to describe concepts in ways that cast them in a new light, resonate with an audience, and help to drive the concepts home. For more than a decade, I have been making the case (including in my first book, my upcoming book, my TEDx Talk,  my corporate trainings, on the web, in my blog and elsewhere in the media) that in this age of constant distraction, controlling one’s attention has become a critical factor in directing one’s life to the pursuit of desired outcomes, whether daily outcomes, or lifetime outcomes. I teach and speak on “attention management” as a new approach, because it strikes me as a better frame in our fleetingly attended modern existence. The words we choose impact our outcomes, and our language needs to grow and evolve along with the evolution of work.

Attention management is the new path to productivity.

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