The psychology of time management. Don’t be a victim.

 In Business decisions, Insights, Life decisions, Productivity, Realizer Blog

2 word conversation, overheard in a lift:

Person 1, raising eyebrows: “Busy?”

Person 2, nodding slowly: “Busy.”


So often we hear conversations around how busy we are, how we don’t have enough time. So how do we find all the time to fluff around in facebook, tend to twitter and navigate New research sheds some light on the time traps and how to take control.


Top 5 ways to take control of your time

  1. Stop being busy, start being productive. Ask yourself if what you’re working on really matters. Ask yourself whether your meetings are focused on the big issues. Create a “to don’t list”.
  2. Stop being a victim, work out which parts of your time you have control over, and do something about it.
  3. Find your personal productive sweetspot, typically in the morning, and do 90-120 mins undistracted work on your most important issues and opportunities.
  4. Change your environment. Leave your smartphone at the door. Turn your internet off. Work somewhere with less distractions. Ban phones in meetings.
  5. Schedule what makes you happy, it will make you more productive


Insight 1: There’s a difference between “busy” and “productive”

We are all working longer hours, answering more emails, trying to hit bigger targets. And yet, when a group of managers was asked, “how much time in the last week did you spend on the task(s) that are most important to long term success?” their answers were staggeringly low. Many of them said zero. We are so busy being busy, we are forgetting to be productive. In his book scrum, Jeff Sutherland estimates that at least 80% of what you do delivers zero long term value to you or your business.

Probably the single most effective thing you can do to be more productive is to be really clear about only doing what really matters, and scrapping the low value stuff. Just don’t do it: create a “to don’t list” of repeated tasks you can and should eliminate.


Insight 2: Are you a victim, or are you in control?

You are CEO of your own life. Your time should be the one thing you have 100% control over (assuming you’re not in prison). So why is it that so many people feel like a victim of time? An excellent coach I know, Tim Simons, comes across many people blaming time for their problems. So he asks them to imagine time as a person, sitting opposite them, and to have a conversation with time. People quickly realise that they are the problem, not time. Time is invariable and implacable.

As someone once said, “you’re not stuck in traffic, you are the traffic”.

Here’s your opportunity: stop being a victim. Work out what you can control and get on to it. Following are some ideas to help you.

Insight 3: Flow and your personal productive sweet spot

Google recently bought an app called Timeful, which looked at optimising your own time management and working with your best habits. Timeful studied productivity and discovered that the clear majority of people are most productive in the morning for a 90-120 minute spell around 3 hours after they wake up. This is sometimes called being in flow where you’re being productive, engaged and concentrating. You have got to find a way to harness this time, instead of doing what most people do – arrive at the office and spend the first half hour checking email and doing low value, reactive work on projects which are important to other people.

Tim Ferriss, author of The 4 hour work week, suggests the following approach. Do not answer your emails first thing, wait until you’ve had a 1-2 hr crack at a really important task.


Insight 4: It’s not time that traps you, it’s your environment.

In reality it is very, very easy to become a victim of your environment. The nature of 21st century work, and smartphones, and email has evolved in a way which can enslave us without our realising. Dan Ariely writes that many things in your environment literally act as time thieves and they do this by distracting you, just like a pickpocket distracts you in order to steal your wallet. Think of social media, email, multitasking – all are time thieves which distract you. For example it is said that the “cost of switching” between tasks is up to 40% decrease in your productivity if you frequently switch between writing that presentation, checking your email and chatting to people who come up to your desk.

The other major factor which traps you is…meetings. In my research, I find that between 20-50% of meetings create no value. What’s more, we very commonly identify that meetings have some of the following issues:-

  • “We don’t tackle the big issues”
  • “We don’t leave committed to actions”

Not only that, but we don’t even pay attention in meetings because we’re on that smartphone. What a waste of time. I have a couple of clients who have literally banned phones from meetings, and I can see the quality of their meetings has improved. Quicker, more action-oriented, better dialogue.

Another client developed a role called “rock master” which was for someone to ensure that the team were addressing the big rocks in their meetings.


Insight 5: Willpower is not enough.

Psychology research has shown that the distractions we mention above are very hard to control using willpower along. Willpower is a limited resource, which declines throughout the day. They have shown that if you have to use your willpower to turn down a tasty-looking but unhealthy snack, it depletes your ability to use willpower in other tasks, such as avoiding the temptation to check email for the 3rd time this half hour.

The psychologists are very clear that to stop being a victim of your environment, you simply can’t rely on willpower, you have to change your environment so it doesn’t distract you. Here are some ways to do this:-

  1. If your smartphone distracts you at home, when you should be talking to your partner, or playing with your kids, then you need to read the story below, and then decide how you can keep your phone out of arms reach, e.g. by leaving it at the door.
  2. If you spend too much time on email or social media, either stop new emails popping up (easy to do by setting it to only check for new emails once an hour and/or eliminating pop up notifications) or find ways of blocking your access for set periods, e.g. by turning wifi off for set periods.

In the not too distant future, I can imagine smartphones coming with a health warning like cigarettes do today. On that warning there would be a picture of a broken marriage, and kids who don’t know their parents.


Overheard: 8 year old’s conversation

Child one: “so what do you do with your Dad?”

Child two: “not much. He leaves for work early and gets home late, and then on weekends he spends most of his time on his phone”


Insight 5: Schedule what makes you happy.

I’m assuming you’re quite interested in your own happiness. So why aren’t all the things that make you happy taking up important slots in your diary? Things like family time, friends, health – can you find ways to schedule these more frequently in your diary?

In the book “sleeping with your smartphone”, Harvard professor Leslie Perlow reports on her experiment with hyper-busy management consultants – incredibly smart people who seem to be incredibly dumb when it comes to work life balance. They work 7 days a week until midnight every night apparently. Her simple experiment was to get them to take one night off a week, supported by their colleagues, to do something that made them happy. At first they found it difficult, but once they got everyone doing it, they found that people loved their evening off, that they were more productive overall, produced better quality work, and got to know each other better – as they would share what they were doing with their night off, and they would support each other’s workload to enable each other to take the time off.


Next time you’re in that lift.

Next time you’re in the lift, don’t ask the person next to you if they’re busy. Lift your head out of your smartphone, and ask them instead one of these questions:-

“Productive?” or…

“In control?”

Or maybe just…



Written by Rob Pyne

Author’s note: this article was written in one sitting from 9-1030am, without checking my email or Facebook.