The Biggest Myth in Time Management

Brad* is as hard a worker as anyone I know. He’s not just busy, he’s keenly focused on getting the right things done. And it pays off — he is the largest single revenue generator at his well-known professional services firm.

A few days before Thanksgiving, Brad flew from Boston to Los Angeles with his family. He was going to work for the first few days and then relax with his family. During the flight, he decided not to use the plane’s internet access, choosing to talk and play with his children instead. A five-hour digital vacation.

When they landed, Brad turned on his BlackBerry and discovered that a crisis had developed while he was in the air and he had close to 500 email messages waiting for him.

So much for a digital vacation.

The truth is, we can’t ever really get away from it. There is no escaping the nonstop surge of email, text, voicemail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn — and that’s just the technology-based stream. How can we ever catch up?

We can’t.

The idea that we can get it all done is the biggest myth in time management. There’s no way Brad can meaningfully go through all his email and there’s no way any of us are going to accomplish everything we want to get done.

Face it: You’re a limited resource.

Each day only has 24 hours and we can’t sustainably work through all of them.
On the one hand, that’s depressing. On the other hand, acknowledging it can be tremendously empowering. Once we admit that we aren’t going to get it all done, we’re in a much better position to make explicit choices about what we are going to do. Instead of letting things haphazardly fall through the cracks, we can intentionally push the unimportant things aside and focus our energy on the things that matter most.

There are two main challenges in doing the right things: identifying “the right things” and “doing” them.

Most of us manage our time reactively, making choices based on the needs that land on our desks. To determine the “right things,” we need to make deliberate choices that will move us toward the outcomes we most want. Which, of course, also means that we need to make deliberate choices about what not to do. The world will take what it can from us. It’s never been more important to be strategic about what we choose to give it.

In terms of the second challenge — “doing” or following through — we need tools and rituals. We need an environment that makes it more likely that we will do the things that matter most and less likely that we will waste our time with meaningless, unproductive diversions. We need to know how to prioritize properly, delegate deliberately, tabulate to-do lists, and mitigate multi-tasking.

But which tools work best? Which rituals will help us follow through? If you spend all your time discovering and using all the advice you get from me and others, it could become a distraction to the work itself. Here’s a process to help you avoid turning time management into another excuse to procrastinate on your most important priorities.

  1. Think for a moment about the time-management problems you face. Do you leave the office with a nagging feeling that you worked all day but didn’t get your most important work done? Do you feel like you aren’t taking advantage of your talents and passions? Are you distracted by little things? Avoiding big hairy projects? Do you interrupt yourself with email and other distractions? Try taking this three-minute quiz to discover where you are distracting yourself the most.
  2. Once you’ve identified your biggest time-management challenges, choose a single one to tackle. Maybe you’re not clear on your “right things.” Maybe you use the wrong rituals. Maybe you strive for perfection. Pick the challenge that most often gets in your way. Then choose one time-management tactic to solve that challenge — just one of the many good suggestions you’ve encountered here and elsewhere.
  3. If that tactic works, repeat the process with another challenge. If it doesn’t, try a new tactic. Continue to approach things this way, one at a time, so you can be sure what works for you and what doesn’t.

Brad, overwhelmed by his hundreds of emails, put his BlackBerry away and did nothing until he arrived in his hotel room. Then, using his laptop, he triaged his now more than 500 emails based on what he knew were his most important priorities, answering the ones he needed to and deleting the majority of them. Within an hour, he was done. He shut his laptop, left his BlackBerry in his room (gasp!), and enjoyed a fun, chaos-filled dinner with his family, which, at that time, was precisely the right thing for him to do.

*Names and some details have been changed


  1. Ann Margaret Langan Mannix says:

    Great article, Peter! Hope you are well.

  2. Brad says:

    I am now looking for (better) employment.

  3. Brad says:

    Flipping burgers now…

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