The other day I went to the library and checked out a few books to improve my job skills, and last night I was reading one called The Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes. The first chapter was on time management, and it gave six practical “time management secrets of billionaires.” Here they are:
- Touch it once.
- Make lists
- Plan how much time you will allocate to each task
- Plan the day
- Ask yourself, “Will it hurt me to throw this away?”
It sounded a lot like the plan my brilliant sister, Katherine, had come up with one day last summer, when I was moving and trying to sort through my entire life’s worth of accumulated junk.
I was stuck. I would go in amongst the chaos, look around in bewilderment, pick up something and set it down, wander around, realize I was doing nothing, ask myself what I was supposed to be doing, and stand there staring off into space for a few minutes, trying to remember. It was bad. I needed help.
I went to Monica and Katherine’s room that evening and made the rather humiliating request, “I don’t know how to do this. Will you give me step-by-step instructions for how to get this done?” And Katherine took the time to write down a plan for the entire following day. She thought about my situation, figured out a way to break it down into achievable steps, and wrote down a comprehensive list of what to do at what time, with satisfying little check boxes for each minuscule part of the program. She was guessing as to the time involvement for each part, but it ended up proving quite realistic. I followed her plan to the letter, and it worked! All the daunting bits that had stopped me from any further productivity were done on that day, and I was free to move ahead. It was an entirely liberating feeling. I actually got it done.
So last night, reading Chet Holmes’s book, I stopped and said to myself, “These aren't steps for time management, these are just steps for getting things done.”
That's when it hit me:
What we call “Time Management” is really more precisely “Activity Management.”
Because you can’t manage time. Time marches ahead, unstoppable.
That’s what I had been doing wrong. I was looking at time management waaaaaay too literally. I was trying to manage time. My unconscious attitude was that time management was some kind of superpower where I was supposed to be able to tell it, “Be longer than you are. Grow at my command. Accommodate me by multiplying when I don’t have enough of you.” I was playing chicken with time. I would take longer than I had to get something done, and then I would expect time to expand so that everything would work out anyway. Or I would put something off until the amount of time I had to do it was less than I needed, and I would expect to stretch that time to get the thing done at the same level of quality that I would have been able to achieve if I had had more time.
Uh, that doesn't work.
The confusing thing to me was that other people talked about time management as if it worked for them, so I continued to try. Also, when you’re late for everything, people try to be helpful and encourage you to have better time management skills, so there’s quite the significant pressure to actually have good time management (this elusive superpower). If you know me, you know that I am the world’s worst when it comes to time management. Haha…you’re probably smiling and nodding (or shaking your head at how hopeless I was).
It’s a bit embarrassing to think that I continued to try so long to manage time. I never had the least bit of success, never the smallest hint that time might be finally coming around to see my point, never the tiniest leverage over time, never the ability to wield it to serve me on my terms. In fact, I only ever had the exact opposite. Time marches on, unstoppable, unflappable, and all my efforts to manipulate it were only met with a resounding, “No! You cannot be my dictator. I will not yield to you.”
So if time is inflexible, and if I have 24 hours a day like everyone else, then time management is not about being some kind of genie who warps time to my desires, nor is it attempting to flee the system and act as if time did not have a hold over me.
Instead, it is recognizing time for what it is, giving it its due respect, and ordering my activities in such a way that time’s ceaseless march presents the least possible obstacle to the accomplishment of my tasks.
I feel like I just stopped beating my head against the wall of “time management.”
It feels good to stop beating your head against the wall.
I cannot manage time, but I can manage my activities—and when my activities interact with time’s unstoppable march in the most seamless way possible, most people call that “time management.”
To my way of thinking, that’s an amusing illusion.
Now, onward! Today is the first day of abandoning forever all attempts at time management and beginning to practice “activity management” with all my heart.
I think I can actually get somewhere with this approach. No more chasing elusive superpowers and wondering helplessly how other people do it. Forget about managing time. Manage the activities, and submit yourself to the fact that time will not be dictated.