“Time management” is just a way to sell how-to books


Time management books are like diet books. They’re both full of detailed and sophisticated ways to do something so simple, they can be explained in a short blog post.

Using time effectively is important, and being healthy is important. Everybody knows how to do them. Many just people fail in the execution.

How to behave healthfully? Don’t eat too much, don’t drink sugar, and move around a lot. Burn more calories than you take in. How calories get processed and burnt is extraordinarily complex, and there are many things about metabolism that we’ve yet to understand but the laws of thermodynamics are pretty clear about how to lose weight. The execution is the very hard part. There are all kinds of biological reasons that make carrying out the simple tasks difficult.

How do healthy people make this happen? They have routines in which they eat well and exercise. It is a habit, just a part of everyday living.

The same applies to time management. How do people get stuff done? They actually do the stuff that they need to do, when they need to. They don’t waste time.

It’s that simple. You don’t need to buy a tomato timer or find out who moved your cheese or whatever. Those methods exist for the purpose of making money by those who wrote books. You just gotta to what you gotta do. You have to be in the habit of making the right decision to not procrastinate, and to focus on what needs to be done at a given moment.

Just like a fad diet, if you sporadically manage your time effectively, it doesn’t become routine as a result of extended and concentrated effort. Then, a time management plan is doomed to failure.

Being healthy, and managing time effectively, are part of a lifestyle. Either you do it routinely, or you don’t. If you don’t, then you just compel yourself to do it for a long period of time until it become part of your regular existence, or you never will.

There’s a lot of talk that academics really need to manage their time in minute detail to be productive. In particular, I’ve heard lots of folks claim that you have to be able to work on big tasks (manuscripts, grants) within small chunks of time (like 15-30 min between meetings, classes and appointments). And this is particularly important for parents whose time is more divided.

I say hooey to all that. If I don’t have a couple hours, at minimum, there’s no use for me sitting down to work on a grant or a manuscript, or some other momentous project.

Does my inability to do big stuff in small periods of time keep me from getting stuff done? No, not at all. I just need to identify those blocks of time and use them, and make them if they don’t exist. The blocks might be in the evening after my kid goes to bed, or early in the morning if my spouse takes my kid to school and I get to work early, but that’s when it happens. I have also made sure to defend large chunks in the middle of the day for research, and I’m fortunate to that have that opportunity.

For this strategy to work — like any time management plan — you’ve got to actually sit down and do the stuff that you gotta do. It’s as simple as that. Don’t browse the internet, don’t check up on something that doesn’t need to be checked upon, and don’t jump into social media by default. Just get your stuff done. Some people do it, and some people don’t. Those who don’t get straight to work when they need to need to find the way to get into the habit. Simple as that.

Once you have those habits, then the rest of time management should easily fall into place. I would guess.

As for myself, I have not yet developed those good habits, even though I recognize the importance of doing so. If I was better, I wouldn’t have written this blog post. Now, I’m heading to the gym. And tonight, I’m hoping to send our New Year’s Cards.

2 thoughts on ““Time management” is just a way to sell how-to books

  1. I very much agree, Terry, and I’d like to add something to your principles of time management. It’s important that people should understand their own internal rhythms and when in the day and week they are at their most productive/creative. For example, I work better and think more clearly in the morning, and am at my most creative/energetic on Tuesdays and (to a lesser extent) Wednesdays. This translates into my work behaviour, e.g. I never schedule meetings on Tuesdays if I can possibly help it and try to keep it free for writing. However most colleagues I’ve mentioned this to look at me as if I’m a bit odd: it’s never occurred to them to think about their own work patterns.

  2. I agree and disagree.

    I agree that no amount of reading self-help books will take the place of putting your head down and getting work done (when it needs to be done). I also agree that most such advice can be distilled down to short summaries rather than books.

    However, to say that there are no time management concepts or techniques that are worthwhile (other than to “just do it”) is an extreme viewpoint. I think there is much to be learned from others (even management types :).

    For me, I have had success in rigidly focusing each part of the day/week on specific tasks (whether for my work life or personal life).

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