Positive perspectives and practices for personal growth.

Time Mismanagement

I have tried many different ways over the years to organise my time. I’ve tried allocating specific blocks to each task; I’ve tried forcing myself to work like clockwork at the same time every day; I’ve tried working in regimented short bursts interspersed with regular breaks; I’ve even tried loosely allocating entire days to specific tasks.

The really annoying bit is that none of the above has offered more than a transient respite from my fundamentally messy approach to life.

Why?  Well, the simple truth, no escape, is that some of us are innately organised, whilst some of us are inanely disorganised. Unfortunately for me, I fall into the latter category.

But having the organisational coherence of a dropped plate of alphabetti spaghetti isn’t really the crux of the problem; instead it’s the massive drag factor arising from feeling that one should be organised…no one, after all, wants to be seen as having less than a perfect set of C.V. skills.

So to compensate, those of us so afflicted tend to waste a disproportionate amount of our mental energies fixating on, and attempting to cover up our organisational inadequacies. And just to twist the knife just a little bit more, we tend to engage in merciless self-criticism thanks to our awareness that we’re fundamentally falling short on certain modern day ‘essential’ life skills.

As I learned the hard way though, beating myself up about my inability to manage my time effectively didn’t help me in the slightest; it just exacerbated my sense of organisational inadequacy…it simply led to a self-perceived sense of ineptness.

It swamped my squirrel like brain with a host of self-defeating performance anxieties, all of which simply detracted from my performance.

Different Strokes

A good friend of mine is a journalist with a heavy, deadline driven workload; I admire her a great deal.

She gets up early, she gets down to work and she’s cleared her desk before I’ve even got my pencils straight. For me, she is the epitome of everything I’m not.

In fact, she was very recently on the receiving end of my bewildered, vacant stare when I’ve asked her, “How do you manage it all under all that pressure?”

Despite the rationale of her response, the fact that anyone can operate under such restrictive, time-pressured duress still simply didn’t compute with me…I was still left with the same bewildered, vacant stare.

Nevertheless, I live in total admiration of her ability to conform to the credo of artist Chuck Close: ‘Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.’

How I wish that like her, I was so together with my time that by 2:30 I was done and dusted with work and out walking the dog in the afternoon sun…if of course, I had a dog.

But I’m not like that and wishing that I was isn’t an effective strategy.

Pressure, Pressure…and a Bit More Pressure

What do you do if you don’t have my friend’s innately organised grip on life; if like me you have all the time management grace of Forrest Gump?

Well, firstly, you could make your life a misery by living under an elaborate pretence, by just doing your best to look and act like a dynamo of time efficient productivity. I will ask you a favour though…If you, or anyone you know, have managed to maintain this feat for any length of time without crumbling under the strain, I’d love to know.

Many a disorganised person has tried – including myself – and as far as I’m aware, we’ve all failed.

Secondly, you could try strategically inserting a copy of David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ up your backside in the vain hope that through some form of suppository osmosis you’ll imbibe some of his praised tenets of productivity.

Personally I didn’t go that far, but I did try reading it… I even tried putting it into practice.

Now I will admit that the rekindled enthusiasm and excitement that briefly arose from the belief that I might have found the elusive secret to all my productivity woes was certainly enough to boost my short-term productivity. Ultimately though, I found such contrived attempts at time management to go against my disorganised grain to such an extent that once again, they became utterly mentally draining; and not only futile but counterproductive as well…I got less done.

The sad truth is that time management, a bit like good looks and charm, is one of those ‘you’ve either got it or you don’t’ attributes…and personally I ain’t even close. Fish don’t breathe well out of water, and likewise, the terminally disorganised tend to be pretty inept when it comes to implementing, let alone maintaining, an organizational strategy.

As for the good looks and charm…I’m too modest to pass self-judgement on those…although someone did tell me I was better looking than Colin Farrell today; which stretch of the imagination though that is, it certainly made my day. :-)

Let Go…

The whole problem with any time management strategy, particularly if it doesn’t come naturally, is that it’s all so do or die.

You always feel pressed for time; you always feel like you have to hit a target in an allotted time slot; you’re always stressed out about what’s next on your ‘to do’ list.

It’s all so urgent, all so pressured that there’s no time to take things in your stride, no time to pause and reflect, and no opportunity to take time out to regain your calm and your composure. You know? That calm state of mind we all rely on to actually perform at our best.

To put it simply, all your mental energies are focused on performance, not where they should be…on the process.

The Secret

So the clear, sensible alternative is let go of anything that contributes to that sense of time-urgency and pressure.

One thing I have come to realise is that there’s little correlation between productivity and time; it’s a fallacy. On the contrary, it is the very thing that time management strips you of – your peace of mind – that is the real key to productivity.

Here’s a simple example: From start to finish it’ll take me about four hours to write a 1500 word article, post or essay brimming with (almost) original thinking…as long as time is not an issue.

Make time an issue though, set me a four hour deadline to complete the same work and I can guarantee I won’t have gone past the first sentence…although I will have drunk a lot of coffee and the pile of flicked rubber bands across the room will have reached half way up the wall.

When I work efficiently, it is because I am involved in the process; when inertia sets in it’s because my focus has unhealthily shifted to my performance…that shift has the potential to absolutely cripple me.

Mismanaging Time

So if efficiency boils down to peace of mind management, a vital sub-strategy is to let go of any time related performance criteria; to indulge in a little time mismanagement.

Now, depending on your outlook on life and your circumstances that might sound recklessly indifferent as a productivity strategy, or maybe totally impractical. But nevertheless, let me give you a few examples of how I mismanage my time: -

Time Blocks…Without the Time

If I really feel the need to be ‘super organised’ for whatever reason, I will still sometimes set aside specific blocks of time to a specific task. What I never do however is attach any form of performance based expectation to that block of time.

I blockade the door, I turn off my phone, I sit down, I relax, I work, I forget about the time.

Whilst we often feel that a sense of urgency ups our performance, it’s usually a classic case of the tortoise and the hare. Rushing quashes creativity, hinders lateral thinking and ingenuity, and of course makes one prone to errors, both in terms of both judgement and practice.

With those higher mental functions intact however, and without any erroneous time wasting, a great deal more is gained in performance short cuts than is lost by taking things at a leisurely pace.

If I’m not finished what I’m doing by the end of my specified time block, well, I’m not finished.

I console myself with the knowledge that I’d have achieved substantially less if I’d allowed myself to be harried by a looming deadline; by taking things at a leisurely pace I was at least performing at my optimum.

I Robot

I’m not going to disagree with Chuck Close’s statement that ‘Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.’ In fact, many prolific writers in particular, including my journalist friend, find it a powerful aid to action: – clock on at a predefined time each day, work for a specified period and then clock off.

It doesn’t work for me. If I’m stressed at my ‘clocking in’ time for whatever reason, then all I’ll have to show for my efforts at ‘clocking off’ time is a great deal more stress and a lot of wasted time.

I prefer to be less rigid; to let my work draw me in – which it naturally does when I feel relaxed. That’s when curiosity and interest come naturally to me; that’s when I’m at my most efficient. Whether that happens at 10 in the morning or 10 at night, I’m really not going to get worked up about it; even if it does relegate me to the ranks of the amateur in whatever I’m doing.

Do Something, Then Do Something Else

I have one rule when it comes to working these days: – Do something positive. In fact it’s a two part rule; the second part goes: – when you get bored, do something else positive.

It really is amazing how much you can achieve when you shift the emphasis away from restrictive and artificial performance based criteria and instead just go with the flow; engaging in whatever positive activity piques your interest in the moment and continuing, not until a timer stops you dead in your tracks, but until your interest begins to wane.

The problem with allocating prescribed time slots to specific activities is that the stopwatch buzzer can so easily interrupt you when you’re working at your most efficient. The truth is that it’s when your sense of time evaporates and gives way entirely to the task at hand – when you’ve entered a flow state – that you’ll get the majority of your work, and more importantly your best work, done.

As far as I’m concerned, the best way to harness the power of a state of flow is to go with the natural ebbing and waning of your interest in tasks; its antithesis is to bring pressures of time into the equation.

I’ll write until I get bored, I’ll exercise until I get bored, I’ll write some more until I get bored, I’ll read until I get bored, I’ll work on something else until I get bored, I’ll play my guitar until I get bored, I’ll fall into a coma for 8 hours, then I’ll get up and do the same the next day…until I get bored.

Artificialities of time management are obviously counterintuitive to this process; they act as a hindrance to a focus on the present and therefore, prevent me working at my best.

Practicalities

Yes, I know what you’re thinking…for anyone with other than the most bohemian of lifestyles, everything I’m saying is all pretty impractical; and the fact is I agree.

Most of us are indeed time restricted in one form or another through the demands of work, family, friends, societal structure or whatever else. You have to turn up to work at a specific time, you have to do such and such at a predefined time each day or by a specific deadline, you have to pick the kids up from school at 3:30, you have to get to your Zumba class by 7pm.

We all have to work around certain time constraints…even me…sometimes. But nevertheless, all of us can find some room for manoeuvre within those constraints, regardless of how time-bound our lives might be.

We can drop from our schedules the things that we don’t really want to do; we can stop saying ‘yes’ to every request made of us; we can learn to differentiate between important and trivial tasks, and to focus our time and resources on the former whilst ruthlessly culling the latter; we can start setting aside slots of ‘me’ time in which we make it a prerequisite to act with total time indifferent autonomy.

The simple truth is that if like me, you’re genetically disorganised, there’s little point whinging about it, or pretending / attempting to be otherwise. It’s a mentally draining act; one which will inevitably drag you down and crush your productivity.

Accept the way you are and work with it; go with the flow a little bit more.

From a mind-set perspective that means dropping the self-criticism that leads to so much frustration and despondency. From a practical perspective, it means freeing yourself up – as much as is practicable – from the artificialities and anxiety fuelling pressures of time-management dogma.

Always remember, it’s peace of mind management, not time management that is the key to productivity.

If you found this post helpful and you think others will too, please consider sharing the link on Facebook, Twitter or whatever other site you use. Thank you, Gareth

Comments

  1. A blazingly good post, Gareth! I like to time-manage my obligatory affairs so have that peace of mind of which you speak when I sit down to create. Which, of course, gets me thinking of Piece of Mind from which comes Die with Your Boots On, one of my favorite Iron maiden tunes of all time.

    The struggle, and a most worthy one at that, is to build a life where having regular peace of mind becomes far more practical than not having it. We have the ability to turn those tables, though it takes a shitload of hard work up front.

    Just an aside. I vote the following as one line of the month in the blogosphere: “Secondly, you could try strategically inserting a copy of David Allen’s ‘Getting Things Done’ up your backside in the vain hope that through some form of suppository osmosis you’ll imbibe some of his praised tenets of productivity.”

    • Thanks CJ; and let me say straight off the bat how much I appreciate your and Tammy’s continued thoughtful comments. I’ve been neglectful in return for which I really apologise, but I am not indifferent to your support.

      CJ, every time I write ‘peace of mind’ I have to double check that I haven’t written ‘piece of mind’; such is the strength of the connotation between the two…thanks to that classic album. And although it’s languished dusty in the back of an archived record collection, an imagine of Bruce Dickinson wielding a carving knife with Hannibal Lecter like overtures still flashes through my mind. The enduring impact of those adolescent years hey?

      You’re spot on CJ, we do have the ability to adopt the appropriate mindset and organise our lives to maximise our piece peace of mind. The monumental paradox though is that most fatally underestimate the vital role a calm state of mind plays when it comes to optimising productivity. In a vain attempt to achieve more, most take the logical but ultimately counterproductive step of employing time management strategies that simply add to the pressure and ironically, reduce performance. You know as well as I do mate, what a creativity killer that can be.

      Thanks CJ for the thumbs up for the ‘insertion’ statement; just hoping David Allen doesn’t take it personally :-) Lots of people rave about the book…which just highlights another key point: – it really is a case of different strokes for different folks. One thing that can certainly be said is that trying to be a square peg in a round hole is just never an effective strategy. Accept your weaknesses, work with them, not against them…hopefully that’s the resounding message in this post.

      • I am afraid I may still be in my adolescence, Gareth. But thank you for the assumption that I am past it. Isn’t it amazing how very optional all that self-imposed pressure (or otherwise) is? Astounding when we stop and question it, really.

        David Allen ought to have a good chuckle and get back to writing his books;)

  2. Wow, Gareth. Another zinger of a post. Where to start? First, as always, your writing is such a pleasure to read from the humor to the vivid images to the profound thoughts. I can’t stop thinking of the pile of rubber bands…

    I perform horribly under time constraints, and since I now live with less of them, I am much, much happier. My work is of higher quality, and I don’t carry stress around like a backpack full of boulders. Now, because I tend to be disorganized and love to get carried away in my work, and because I have a place to be every afternoon for several hours, I report that I do use a timer during the day. If I didn’t, I fear I would forget to do some things. While I do long for a less rigid schedule, I am very happy that I get to choose my activities for most of the day. I choose to use the timer and make sure I lift weights and get lesson plans done because, if I don’t, I create more stress.

    So, what to do, Gareth? You are talking to someone whose husband bought her a time management book (about 10 years ago) which was sold back to the store several years later for $1. It had never been cracked. I chose to quit my job and start a business that would free up a great deal of my time, and I am better for it. Always looking for ways to improve, and your writing today really has me thinking. Thank you for that! Thank you also for the laughs. Some really good belly laughs from this side of the couch tonight.

    • Thanks Tammy, an amazingly insightful response. What to do indeed. I think you summed it up wonderfully with your own job quitting, self-employment commencing example: – work with what you have, not with what you’re lacking.

      Most efficient deficient individuals rail against their true nature…they insist on following the well-worn path regardless. I can’t criticise; it’s human nature to want to be part of the crowd; I did it for many years myself. But if the well-worn path is so incompatible with one’s basic nature that it induces a boulder filled backpack of stress (going to remember that one :-) what exactly is achieved?

      The answer for us pressure sensitive, organisational incompetents never comes from attempting to use our gills to breath out of water in such conventional settings; it comes from submerging ourselves in our rather more bohemian ponds. As you perfectly illustrate that involves doing everything possible to find ways to make one’s schedule less rigid, less pressure fuelled, more autonomous and less swamped with trivial and superfluous activities; and one way to do all the above is undoubtedly through self-employment.

      To parry, many would say that the above is unrealistic and impractical advice. But if something doesn’t work, well, it doesn’t work…regardless of whether the consequences happen to be impractical or not. Like you aptly illustrate, the only sensible and ultimately practical solution in such cases is to take a 90 percent loss on the time-management book and adapt one’s lifestyle accordingly. :-)