Time Management is Wrong

I’ve been thinking about time management (one of the main areas I train) and it strike me that everyone in the business training world may have gotten it totally wrong (myself included).

Time management is normally about figuring out what is important and making sure you are doing these things by setting targets, goals and saying no to everything that is not relevant. Important is differentiated from urgent (see Covey) ,priorities are sought and lists made. Traditional time management is a linear command and control deal where you work out what to do and then do it (“take massive action” as Tony Robbins says while pumping iron). Now this way of doing things has some advantages – I certainly get A LOT done using the time management methods I teach, however it has some major drawbacks too. So what are some of the issues with traditional time management?

Life Happens
You start at 9am with a nice neat list of things in your diary (first mistake) of things to do then what happens? Life! The phone rings, the kids get sick, your top client brings a deadline forward, 5000 e-mails labelled “urgent, the world will end unless you do this NOW” arrive in your in-box, etc. The plan goes to hell.

“Bottom-up” rather than “top-down” systems with work-flow structures – e.g. Getting Things Done (GTD) allow some room for dealing with what occurs (they recommend flexible to-do lists separated from calenders for example) however I think these are still basically in the old command and control mindset. I have yet to see a truly flexible “flow management” system…in fact it wouldn’t be a system at all in the “If X happens do Y” model.

Emotional and Embodied Snags to Time Management

A good time management system like David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) sets out a nice neat structure and you follow it perfectly right? Errr, wrong. I have NEVER known anyone who could follow a neat time management system because the person they are ALWAYS gets in the way. Let’s take being able to say no. This is a deeply personal and historical skill, embodied in a person’s very being (or not) that is essential for time management. Was a person taught to say no as a child? Do they live in a body of defiance? Do they live in a narrative that saying no means saying no to the person not the action? Without addressing the emotional, linguistic* and embodied levels, rigid logical systems no not stand a chance.

Your Head is Not in Charge
Often people know the right thing to do on a cognitive level to get what they need to done, but find themselves tyrannised by what is grabbing their attention (e.g. Outlook mails popping up) rather than priorities. I teach “centring” exercises in my time management workshops to help people “put the head back on the chicken” as one participant recently said, which helps to some extent, but again maybe I’m missing the point…

Masculine and Industrial?

It strikes me that the notion of time management has come out of an industrial way of looking at the world and now we’re finding out the downsides of viewing people as machines – a new approach may be needed. Also there’s something very masculine about “time management” – I know this will be controversial but that’s how it comes across to me – like a man saying “what are we going to do about it?” when listening is what is needed.


I’m not anti-intellect – I just think that without heart the intellect is aimless and gut instinct is really what most people use day to day, so why not integrate the three. What would a time management “system” that incorporated feeling be like (without just reverting to “do what you want” feeling victimisation)? Equally how could intuition be Incorporated and refined? We work with these issues in Embodied Management Training but I have not yet incorporate them into an accessible time management course.

Surrender Non Management
OK, let me take it a step further. The other side of managing things (even managing with heart and belly) is surrender. I don’t imagine this will have immediate appeal in the leadership, business training and time management world so let me explain. Surrendering to the wider flow of things, rather than struggling against them, or surrendering to a higher power than oneself is part of all spiritual traditions. In Taoism this art of giving in to get your way, control though no control and going with the flow is considered the highest wisdom. The martial art of aikido shows it’s very practical application and I think business could learn a lot from this way of doing things. Management needs to be balanced with surrender both for the sake of sanity (“grant me the courage to accept the things I can not change…”) and paradoxically, for good management itself.

So is Time Management Wrong?
Time management certainly has it’s uses and I’ll keep teaching it, I will however continue to broaden my definition of time management and try and incorporate what currently isn’t included. Is time management wrong? No, but it is lop-sided.


*Note that another way of looking at time management is commitment management – how a person manages their promises – time after all just keeps rolling on.