Figure 1. The important-urgent matrix.
I would like to start by saying I am not against time management (TM) practices. Evidence suggests adopting TM behaviours relates positively to perceived control of time and reduced stress, and this may increase work enjoyment.
But not everyone can implement TM behaviours and insufficient evidence exists to conclude disorganised people are less productive.
This article will critically evaluate the evidence so we can make TM practices work for us (or dismiss them entirely and embrace the unpredictability of life). It will start by looking at TM gurus’ claims and review underlying assumptions, before evaluating the popular important-urgent matrix, and the central concepts of efficiency and procrastination.
TM and common sense
While remembering the benefits of adopting TM behaviours, we need to recognise the overinflated claims of TM gurus.
Proponents promise that if we learn their techniques, we will be in control of our lives; more efficient, effective, successful, calm and happy. For example, in his book, Stephen Covey insisted he had identified the seven habits of highly effective people – these people presumably sleep, get up, wash, get dressed, eat, drink and work.
Brilliant – we all have these habits, so we must be highly effective. The point being, patterns can be found anywhere.
Table 1. Time management assumptions.
TM approaches tap into our obsession with busyness and are based on “common sense” assumptions that may not be common sense after all (Table 1).
It may help to think about TM gurus like diets gurus. We love new fads that promise quick results with little effort, and we want them to “work”. We buy into the promise that if we change our behaviour from “bad” to “good”, we will be thinner (or more organised), when in reality we may follow the plan for a bit, realise it is not sustainable, give up and go back to old habits.
We probably feel rubbish about not sticking with the plan, but we should not because the evidence for the purported results was only anecdotal (remember those classic before and after diet pictures?).
Let us move on to look at a popular TM tool. Proponents of the important-urgent matrix (Figure 1) suggest those of us who are “good” at TM spend most of our time in box 2, pushing forward with – and achieving – our medium‑term and long‑term goals. This cuts down on the amount of (important‑urgent) firefighting we must do, and we do not get sucked into others’ perceived urgent (but unimportant) tasks.
Obviously, we never slide into box 4 where valuable time is wasted – common “crimes” include browsing the internet or social media, or gossiping with colleagues.
The important-urgent matrix can be great for thinking about prioritisation, but it only “works” if we focus on ourselves; it collapses if we must consider others.
For example, completing HR paperwork may be unimportant and non-urgent to a clinician, but if ignored, the practice manager’s competence may be questioned. In short, one person’s waste of time can be another person’s immediate priority.
Furthermore, the matrix assumes you have colleagues willing to drop everything to complete your unimportant tasks. So, use this model if it helps your thought process, but do not get frustrated if your experience does not match the hype in a profession where colleagues, clients and animals count.
Figure 2. An illustration of the myth of Sisyphus.
TM gurus love and hate two concepts – efficiency and procrastination, respectively. The assumption is we are more valuable the more efficient we become. But let us think about the myth of Sisyphus perpetually pushing a boulder uphill (Figure 2).
Now think about your to-do list. Do you find the more efficient you are, the more tasks you are expected to undertake (therefore filling the time you created by being super‑organised)? How quickly do you need to push your task boulder uphill?
It is easy to get caught up in this efficiency paradox where personal value is attached to working harder than others, but is this ultimately supporting well‑being?
Further pitfalls of efficiency include starting to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”. This is compounded by social media where others are constantly performing virtuous tasks and posting things such as “nothing like a five-mile run before breakfast”, implying enjoying leisure for its own sake is not quite enough.
People who cram more into their lives are not necessarily more successful or happier, and doing endless purposeful tasks does not have to be the focus of our lives. “Wasting” time doing pointless, silly, amusing things is valuable, too.
TM gurus love to hate procrastination. We must stop procrastinating – “eat that frog” (as Brian Tracy’s book suggests) and get on with things we dislike.
Figure 3. The author caught “working on” her research project.
Procrastination can be a significant issue, but perpetual action is not “better” – and it can help to sit back and think (Figure 3). For example, rather than rushing into a difficult conversation, thinking it through and recognising any immediate emotional response before acting may be a good use of time.
Continual action without thought or reflection can lead to unintended consequences that take even more time to unpick.
If you have already adopted TM behaviours and they work for you, that is great. You are likely to feel calmer and more in control.
If you think you may benefit from TM techniques, pick one, assess it, adapt it and drop anything that does not help.
But if you feel perpetually disorganised, and TM practices do not work for you, do not worry. You are unlikely to be any less productive than those who appear completely in control.
Perhaps we can all start challenging our assumptions about time and success, and accept the rather unpredictable nature of life and work. We may find doing less makes us feel better.
- Aeon B and Aguinis H (2017). It’s about time: new perspectives and insights on time management, Academy of Management Perspectives 31(4): 309-330.
- Claessens BJC et al (2007). A review of the time management literature, Personnel Review 36(2): 255-276.
- This article first appeared in Vet Times Volume 50, Issue 51: VT Jobs supplement page 2.