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Can we really manage time?

(This article is taken from today’s issue of my newsletter)

When we use the term “time management” what do we actually mean? Obviously we don’t mean that we are managing time itself. Time just is, and we all get 24 hours a day whether we like it or not and whether we try to manage it or not.

So what is it that we are really managing?

To answer this we have to examine what we are already doing each day. Every one of us, however efficient or inefficient, however busy or however idle, however motivated or unmotivated, spends each period of 24 hours doing a series of tasks. Whether you consider your time management to be good or bad, you are already doing 24 hours worth of tasks each day. (I am using the word “task” to describe anything you do). If you were to write down every single thing you do during the course of a day, you would usually end up with quite an impressive list. Whether you like it or not, you have to spend each day doing something, even if it’s only sleeping or watching the television.

So what we are aiming to manage is not how much we do - we are already doing 24 hours worth of tasks. It is what we do. In other words the basic question behind all time management is “Are the tasks I am doing each day, the right ones?”

Now how can one answer a question like that? What do we mean by “right” in this context? In what way is answering one’s email for example “better” or “worse” than any other task we could name?

Such a question only makes sense in terms of our commitments. If we have made a commitment to carry out Project X, then the actions needed to carry out Project X are “right”. If we have made a commitment to be healthy, then the actions needed to keep us healthy will be “right”. If we have made a commitment to our family, then the actions we take to strengthen our family ties, will be “right”. And so on.

What happens when we have taken on more commitments than we have time for? The answer is simple, we will fail at some of those commitments. We will either do them less well than our commitment to them implied, or we will neglect them altogether.

The whole concept of time management is meaningless until we realise that what we are really managing is the flow of tasks that comes from our commitments. Once we do realise that, we can see that time management will only make sense if our commitments make sense. There is no point trying to manage our time if our commitments are contradictory, excessive, undefined or ill- judged.

Keeping our commitments under continuous review is a prerequisite to good time management. Otherwise it just becomes a series of techniques to try and rescue us from the mess that we have made for ourselves. As I have frequently said, using time management techniques on their own. without dealing with the fundamental question of what commitments we have, is just going to end up giving you a bigger and better overwhelm.

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