Productivity Is Not About Time Management

We live in a culture fixated on individual productivity. We gorge ourselves on books about how to get things done. We rhapsodize over the hustle and brag about being busy.

The blueprint to getting things done, we’re often told, is time management. If you could just arrange your calendar better you would attain a productivity paradise.

But is time management the answer or is it a hindrance? In discussing this with professionals who study productivity, they have told me that the recurring question they get is, “How do I get more work done?

How productive do you feel? Do you continually fall short of your every day objectives for progress? Think about it: is being productive all about time management? Read on.

Attention Management

There are a finite number of hours in a day and honing in on time management as the one and only lynchpin to productivity does us no favors. It only makes us more cognizant of those hours we squander. A more effective alternative is attention management. Focus on the people and activities that matter and it will not be important how long anything takes.

Attention management is the craft of concentrating on getting things accomplished for the right objectives, in the right settings, and at the right points in time. As per accepted beliefs, you’re supposed to establish goals for when you want to complete an undertaking.

But what happens if you find it difficult to maintain the pace and eventually become frustrated? That’s where attention management comes in.

E.B. White, the noted children’s book author (Charlotte’s Web) and contributing editor at The New Yorker magazine wrote, “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.

Research has shown that productive people don’t brood about which endeavor to undertake. They pursue each concurrently showing a propensity for projects that are individually engaging and socially relevant. 

Productivity in and of itself is not virtuous.

Many times our productivity difficulties are triggered not by a paucity of efficiency but by a scarcity of motivation. Productivity is a way to get from here to there. It’s only principled when the end result is worthy. If productivity is your only objective, you have to lean on grit to carry you to the finish. If you pay attention to the reasons why you are enthusiastic about your project, you will be attracted to its inherent catalysts.

But how do you stay on task if you’re not worried about time? You might be surprised, but the weather is influential. A series of studies led by Julia Lee (a professor at the University of Michigan) found that adverse weather promotes productivity because we’re less likely to be diverted by the idea of going outside.

Researchers discovered that on days when it rained, Japanese bank employees finished transactions faster and when the weather was bad American people were more proficient in correcting spelling errors on an essay.

Most productivity struggles are with jobs that we do not want but need to do.

Many people think that the most opportune time to do these jobs is right after concluding an interesting job as the energy would flow over. Yet, in a study concluded in a Korean department store, it was found that when employees had a highly engaging task they subsequently fared worse on boring tasks.

Various studies have highlighted attention residue as a possible reason for poor performance. Your mind keeps musing about the engaging job, hampering your concentration in the uninteresting job. But, in a study with Americans viewing videos and then doing a tedious data entry job, it was found that a captivating or humorous video made the data entry job even more arduous.

So if you are confronted with a humdrum task, complete it after a relatively appealing one, and save your most interesting task as a bonus for later. It’s not about the time, it’s about the timing of the task.

Besides being productive, it is natural to want to be creative.

But here’s the rub: productivity and creativity call for differing attention management tactics. Productivity is powered by heightened attentional barriers to prevent inapplicable and extraneous thoughts from entering. But creativity is powered by decreasing attention barriers to let those thoughts in.

What’s an individual to do? Dan Pink, a noted American writer, has some ideas. In his N.Y. Times bestseller, When, he discusses how your internal clock can help you ascertain the best time to do your productive and creative work.

Timing Management

If you’re a morning person you should do your analytic work when you’re at your maximal awareness; routine tasks around lunchtime; and your creative activities in the late afternoon or evening when you’re apt to do more variable thinking.

If you’re more of a night person you might be better off flipping the switch and doing creative projects in your more fragmented morning and analytic tasks in your more ordered late afternoon and evening mindfulness.

It’s not time management, because it’s likely you will spend a commensurate amount of time on the task even after you reshuffle your schedule. Remember, attention management is your goal. You’re discerning the order of tasks that delivers for you and adapting correspondingly.

Focusing your attention on timing management also means thinking in a different way about how you arrange your work.

Paul Graham, a computer scientist, essayist, and author, suggests divvying up the week into “manager days” and “maker days.” The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It embodies the traditional appointment book with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default, you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, according to Graham, “…it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule.

It’s the schedule of command. But there is another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. “They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day, at least,” explains Graham. Why? Because you can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you operate on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster.

A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus, you have to remember to go to the meeting! And as Charles Dickens said, “...the mere consciousness of any engagement will sometimes worry a whole day.

For someone on the maker’s schedule, having a meeting is like throwing an exception. It doesn’t merely cause you to switch from one task to another, it changes the mode in which you work.

Can we adapt the manager’s days and maker’s day concept to aid an individual to become more productive? The answer is yes.

On manager’s days, you hold your meetings (or go to meetings) and calls. On maker’s days, you map out time to be productive and creative, ensuring you’ll be free from intrusions that would ordinarily interfere with your flow. Alas, few of us are lucky enough to choreograph every week that way, which means you need to carve out your own maker moments.

Time management says we should jettison disruptions altogether, not just disturbances from other people but also the time we distract ourselves. For example, if you are getting pulled by social media, time management tells you to abandon it completely.

Luckily, by implementing attention management you have an alternative: be thoughtful about the timing of diversions. For instance, utilize social media for times when you couldn’t be getting anything done, like waiting for a flight to take off or cooling down after a workout. 

If you’re trying to be more productive, don’t scrutinize how you spend your time. Pay attention to timing and attention management and what consumes your attention. It’s a better way to have a productive day.