Time management is a misnomer. We feel the pressure of time and deadlines not because our time has been poorly managed, but because our activities have.
The Art of Time Mismanagement
Time management is a misnomer. We feel the pressure of time and deadlines not because our time has been poorly managed, but because our activities have. And the activities that we perform or avoid are determined by one’s own mind, intellect, or a combination of the two. The mind feels. It decides action based on the immediate gratification of preferences. The intellect analyzes, and decides action based on its understanding of goals, obligations, and consequences. When the intellect is poorly-developed, actions are chosen without a clear connection to any well-conceived goal. As a consequence our actions lose efficiency, we experience the pressure of time, and feel that we lack control and direction. Time cannot be managed. Only the mind can–and must–be.
Firstly, let’s assess the actual or potential problems that necessitate time management in the first place, framing them in first-person perspective:
“I don’t have enough time to complete the tasks that I have set; I am not meeting deadlines for goals set.“
There two possible reasons for this. First, the resources available are insufficient for completing the task in the time required. An absurd example illustrates: I plan to walk to my workplace every day, a mere 25 miles away, complete my work, walk home, prepare & eat dinner, then sleep. There is clearly insufficient time to complete everything. If it is the case that walking is the only option, then I have wrongly assessed the requirements to complete the tasks vis-à-vis my available resources. More resources need to be added (i.e. a vehicle) in order to achieve my objectives. This problem will be mitigated if a clear plan is created in advance. More on this later.
The second reason for this problem is one of priorities. It is essential to realize that in general there is no such thing as ‘I don’t have enough time for xyz.‘ When we say this, what we are really saying is ‘I have not made xyz a priority.‘ We have placed certain activities and goals ahead of others. As the others get pushed down the list, we don’t get to them. In our example, if I am choosing to walk when I can drive or ride a bus, the obvious problem is that I have made walking to work a priority, which means that other tasks are sacrificed.
Practical Tip: Replace the phrase “I don’t have enough time for xyz” with “I have not made xyz a priority.”
What the mind considers a priority in the moment may have no logical connection to one’s more significant future goals. Wasting time on Facebook while there are important tasks to complete simply means that the mind has set the priority: Facebook over work. Therefore, the question we need to ask ourselves is, What is setting the priorities in my life: my mind or my intellect? Thus, in many cases, the first problem boils down to a second one:
“My activities are inefficient: I’m using up valuable time without a commensurate result being achieved.“
In this case we generally have enough time and resources to do what we need, but we are not using our time efficiently. The mind gets distracted by activities that have nothing to do with the task at hand. The problem is lack of concentration: the rambling mind alights upon something it fancies, we get tempted into an action that is not in line with the goal set, and thus the time is not spent productively. Again, think Facebook during work time as an example. The problem here is the ungoverned mind. The mind has no capacity for self-governance; its preferences have no necessary connection to what is in our best interests; it doesn’t take into consideration other goals we may have set. The mind and its preferences are not to be suppressed, simply guided to the appropriate activity, just as a loving parent guides the young child. This can only happen if we develop the intellect and render it available before and during action.
Two daily practices advised to achieve intellectual development and availability are reflection and introspection respectively. Reflection develops intellectual strength and concentration. Introspection enhances the intellect’s awareness of thought and behavior patterns. It thus becomes more readily available to identify potential diversions and keep the mind on the task at hand before it gets distracted. While this is the permanent solution to the problem of an ungoverned mind, the process is facilitated by creating and implementing a well-thought-out plan. (Again, see below.)
Another possible reason for inefficient use of time is that we perform tasks in the wrong order. This can be considered two ways. Firstly, we perform tasks one after the other when they could be run concurrently. A trivial example is getting ready for work in the morning. You need to shave as well as boil the kettle for your to-go coffee. A shave takes 5 minutes to complete, the kettle takes 3 minutes to boil. It make no sense to do one then the other. Set the kettle to boil, go and shave, return and pour the water. In effect, boiling the water has not consumed any time because it was performed concurrently with another necessary task. This is the key to solving the well-known U2 bridge riddle.
A second way that we can understand wrongly-ordered actions is performing an action prematurely, before it needs to be done. The time spent on one task could have been used to perform others, the completion of which would have made the earlier task quicker and easier. For example, you are writing an essay for a college class assignment. You spend a significant amount of time carefully crafting a thorough and concise introduction: outlining the scope of the essay, introducing the themes, explaining the relevance of the discussion, and so forth. However, all of these aspects of the work will be far better understood once the majority of the essay has been written. Any introduction written first will almost certainly undergo significant edits during the review process. We may create a rough sketch of an introduction to give our writing some direction, but it will be easier and more time-efficient to complete the introduction last.
Again, it is a developed intellect that understands how the various facets of a system work together and influence each other. It can simultaneously concentrate on a single aspect while never losing sight of the whole. And as with the earlier problems, solving the problem of task scheduling is facilitated by creating an effective plan.
Developing A Plan
Developing a plan is essentially the process of consistently questioning:
- What am I trying to achieve?
- Why? Is this a worthwhile endeavor?
- What are the necessary steps to achieve it?
Asking and answering these questions can be broadly split into three aspects of developing a plan: goal-setting, resource analysis, scheduling.
Clearly-stated goals give direction to life and clarity to our choices. By clearly setting the end-point of action, we define what actions need to be undertaken, and which actions must be avoided, i.e. what our obligations are. A vague goal means that we will have only a vague understanding of the causes necessary to achieve it. We therefore spend time in activities that may be related to our goal, but are not direct causes for its realization. Goals also provide an inner sense of purpose: if we cannot clearly visualize the end point of action, we lose conviction and enthusiasm for the endeavor. As a consequence, the mind is more easily distracted into unproductive channels.
Goals must satisfy the needs of our individual temperament as well as our intellectual conviction, our sense of values. What am I trying to achieve and why? Is this a worthwhile endeavor? These questions initiate the process of scrutinizing the goals that we are interested in pursuing, and measuring them against our values. We must be thoroughly convinced that the goals we are pursuing will be worth the time, effort, and resources that we will sacrifice to achieve it.
A goal may be understood as the end-state of existence for a system or entity. Any goal must therefore be measurable. That is, we must be able to determine exactly when the goal has been achieved. To be rich; to be more tolerant; to be happy. These are not measurable goals. How much income and wealth constitutes rich? How do you measure tolerance and how will you know when you are tolerant enough? What does it mean to be happy, how happy is happy enough? Goals must be analyzed sufficiently to visualize the end-state sought.
The first step in choosing a goal is to intelligently choose a field of activity to pursue in life. Goals are then situated within this broader context. For example, the goal of achieving financial independence can be achieved in various fields: as a doctor, engineer, performance artist, financial planner, sportsperson, etc. To choose a field of activity based solely on the potential financial return is to ignore a vast quantity of data that is essential to achieving outward success and inner satisfaction. Therefore, before embarking upon a path that encompasses a wide scope, it is each one’s obligation to identify one’s own temperament. Analysis of one’s temperament is vital in determining one’s needs, and activities that are essential / beneficial for us to engage in. With an undeveloped intellect we fail to recognize this obligation, and too often succumb to a ‘herd instinct,’ merely following a path through life because it is chosen by predecessors and peers. This leads to a lack of meaning and purpose in life as one’s natural interests are suppressed and frustrated.
Practical Tip: Ask yourself, If money were no object for the rest of my life, what activities would I spend my time doing?
If external activity and inner temperament are in harmony, the activity will be more productive: our natural enthusiasm for the work means that we take to action with alacrity. Potential distractions will be fewer: we are spending time doing what we naturally enjoy. We are willing to sacrifice time and resources to the endeavor without feeling frustrated. And we are less psychologically dependent upon result-achievement as we gain greater internal satisfaction from the work itself.
Having selected a field of activity that suits our temperament, we now select appropriate goals for our life. A life-long goal provides an overall sense of direction, purpose, and control in one’s life. When we feel lost, confused, or anxious about the worth of our life’s path, it becomes a ‘north star,’ so to speak. It provides a reassuring center that we can return to in most circumstances (or all, if we select a universal ideal) to reset our emotional-intellectual orientation. Life goals also provide clarity on which intermediate goals to strive for. Intermediate goals are essential in reaching a long-term goal because they provide a focal point to inspire action in those moments when the long-term goal seems out of reach. These intermediate goals are established through the process of backward-planning towards the long-term goal.
The importance of self-analysis and goal-setting cannot be overstated. Without a direction for life, we have no basis for choosing our actions beyond immediate, personal gratification. Unfortunately, what satisfies us in the moment has no necessary connection to what will make us successful and satisfied long-term. Each one owes it to his or her future to invest significant intellectual and emotional resources into self-analysis and setting life’s direction. Avoid distraction, confusion, and ennui. Take to life with enthusiasm and poise.
Next installment: Resource Analysis & Scheduling. Creating the backward-plan.