Written by Sophie Chiche
People speak of the concept of time management as if it’s something that actually exists. It’s discussed, debated, dissected, and delivered in seminars and presentations. It’s more or less universally accepted as an indispensable tool of the busy entrepreneur and the disorganized executive. Without it, their schedules would fall apart faster than a piece of particle board in a driving rain.
There is a plethora of definitions for time management, with no two being quite alike. Here is one that seemed to encompass the most common elements of all the definitions I found: Time management is the process of deciding on the order in which you will do tasks and making sure that they are done on schedule.
It’s a fairly straightforward definition, and one which, at first glance, would seem to be relatively easy for anyone to comprehend. What’s more, if you personally subscribe to this definition, you might even be able to complete a large volume of work on schedule.
There’s just one tiny problem: real time management doesn’t actually exist.
Time management is an illusion. We wish we could manage time, as if to say we could control it. We can’t. Time is forging ahead – there is no stopping it, no buying more of it, no borrowing, no renting, no bartering with someone else’s. You get 24 hours a day. So does your neighbor, your co-worker, your Uber driver – everybody.
Think of it this way: time, like gravity, weather, and reality shows, are forces we can’t manage. I hate being the bearer of bad news, but all these elements are completely out of our control. (OK, we can turn off reality shows, so maybe that’s a bad example.)
What you can manage is you. If it rains, you can wear boots and use an umbrella. We can use these items when it rains, but we aren’t “managing rain.” We are adapting to the conditions generated by the rain and operating within the constraints that the rain imposes on us. So, you’re not controlling the weather, but you are effectively managing the effect that weather has on you.
The same principle applies to time management. If we cannot control time, we can control the energy we expend during that time. That is, we can decide how we will allocate our energy and our efforts during the same finite period of time that is available to everyone. If you are tired, you can rest. If you are over committed, you can renegotiate or learn to say no. But managing our energy means first learning how to manage ourselves.
Successfully managing yourself within the constraint of time is both an art and a science. It requires discipline and some reshaping of old habits, but it is unquestionably achievable. Essentially, it boils down to a four-step process:
The first step is to identify what matters to you; otherwise, anything goes. If you don’t know what matters to you, you can’t decide the best way to spend your time. Your life will be like someone smashing a watermelon, sending pieces of the fruit in all directions. If you walked in a supermarket and didn’t know what you needed and didn’t plan any meals, how could you buy the right items? You’d randomly pull stuff off the shelf, perhaps satisfying some immediate cravings but with no real sense if what you’re buying is what your cupboards are missing.
The second step is to make sure that the way you’re spending your time is aligned with what matters to you. If I told you I spent the entire day watching jumping cats on TikTok, there would be nothing wrong with that per se. (Face it, they are pretty entertaining.) But if I were to also tell you that what matters most to me is to complete the book I’m working on, and I haven’t written the first word of chapter 11, my actions would be totally incongruous with what matters to me (or at least what I’ve claimed matters to me). The point is, if you are unwilling to spend the time necessary to reach your objective, maybe it’s time to re-evaluate your choices of what matters to you.
The third step is to show up for your life as prepared as possible. If I told you I was running a marathon on Sunday, and I just happened to mention that I‘ve never run before, that I have not trained once, and that I don’t even own running shoes, you’d think I was crazy. Managing myself so I am prepared for the upcoming event, in this case, would mean buying running shoes and training responsibly and regularly. It’s one thing to have a goal or something that (you think) matters to you. But if you’re not willing to put in the preparation and the work to achieve the goal, then it’s nothing more than a pipe dream. Or perhaps what you think matters to you, simply doesn’t, and re-evaluation is necessary.
The fourth step is to use metrics. It is very difficult to affect what we don’t measure. That is why we have scales, speed limits, bank statements. Time is its own metric, and you can easily measure it on a watch. Setting up a few alerts throughout the day allows you to make sure the time you are spending is aligned with what you say is important to you.
By operating under the illusion that time is the culprit for us not achieving the things we want, we abdicate our real power. Time is not the problem; we are. That is the good news. Time is also not the solution; again, we are.
Thinking we can control time is a trap that prevents us from realizing what we can truly control: ourselves. And since it is impossible to manage something that we don’t understand, the task at hand is to get introspective and attempt to understand who we are, what really matters to us, whether fear gets in the way, how we are going to overcome that fear, and find a way to do what matters to us – no matter what it takes.
Forget time management. Self-management is where it’s at.
Sophie Chiche is CEO of becurrent, a methodology dedicated to bringing purpose back to productivity, and a well-known entrepreneur, psychologist, and TV personality. She is probably best known for founding Shape House, an urban sweat lodge in Los Angeles that is frequented by celebrities such as Selena Gomez, Snoop Dogg, and the Kardashians and has been featured on Ellen and Good Morning America and written up in Forbes.