Career Skills

You Can’t Manage Time – Part I

By Susan de la Vergne

“Time management” is such a misnomer. No one can manage time. We can’t make it do what we want it to, no matter how nicely we ask or how cleverly we attempt to manipulate it. There’s no way to save up time now for when we need it later. We can’t speed it up or slow it down.

Time is completely uncooperative and impossible to manage. It just keeps moving ahead at its pace, oblivious of our wishes.

So if there’s no such thing as “time management,” what are we managing when we’re faced with more work to do than there is time, or being double-booked-or triple!-, or confronting work/life balance and all that?

We’re not managing time; we’re managing ourselves-our energy, our organization skills, our habits (both bad and good), our communications, and our attitude. If we start to think of it as “self” management, which is what it is, that may make it seem less hopeless. Perhaps we can’t manage time, but we can do a better job of managing ourselves.

Managing oneself is an internal thing, not something you can download onto your iPhone. Optimizing oneself takes reflection and self-discipline, not a new app. Now don’t run away just yet ” even if you think you’re not the self-discipline type.

Making internal change, and adding self-discipline, starts with getting specific about what needs changing or improving. To get more out of your day (or your life!) isn’t something you can vaguely commit to by saying, “From now on, I will get more done because I’m going to be more organized/conscientious/aware/positive.” Even if your intentions are sincere, that’s much too nebulous. The only way to optimize oneself is to get specific about (1) what to change and (2) how to change it. While that will certainly vary from person to person, there are some common problems.


Let’s start with a popular productivity problem: procrastination. And let’s get specific.


Most of us procrastinate-some of us a little, some of us a lot. There’s a normal level of procrastination-“I’ll put this off ’til tomorrow” and then we do it tomorrow-and that’s not very damaging to productivity. But then there’s chronic procrastination, where we think about a work task, say, and we don’t feel like it now but we resolve to think about it tomorrow, and then to think about it next week, in two weeks, until it’s due, until it’s overdue, until people are jumping up and down furious that it’s still not done-and it is, in fact, unstarted.

About 10 years ago, I wrote a book called You Can’t Manage Time (no longer in print, alas) about the things that really interfere with productivity. Because many people I’ve worked with over the years in tech and engineering had confessed to being expert procrastinators, I did some research on the causes and types of procrastination, also the remedies for it. What I learned was pretty interesting.

Procrastination springs from a several of things: (1) unrealistic optimism ” thinking a task “really won’t take that long” when it really will; (2) “lumping” things together in our minds, especially a problem for large assignments; (3) believing we do our “best work” under pressure; and (4) perfectionism.

Unrealistic Optimism


Unrealistic optimism and lumping are related. It’s when we don’t take a close enough look at whatever is waiting to be worked on and so, without enough info, we decide it’s no biggie. We put it off because we think it won’t take long. Then we lose track of when to get started although we still don’t really know what needs to be done. Because it should have been a cinch, there was no need to think about it. It turns out the work is more complicated than we initially thought, like a wad of tangled twine that must be untangled before we can get started.

I’m guilty of this one. As an I.T. manager with P&L responsibility, I was habitually late completing financial assignments. I admit I wasn’t crazy about the financial part of my job-a major reason for postponing the work, for sure. But I rarely thought through the assignment until it was too late. Expense updates, no problem! Salary projections? Piece of cake. That’s what I told myself. But of course they never were. I’d put the work aside until I’d partially forgotten what I was asked to do. Then I’d have to reconstruct from my notes and memory what I needed to do, and finally get at it. Of course, all that reconstructing took time I wouldn’t have had to put in had I done it before I forgot the assignment.

And therein lies a convincing reason not to be unrealistically optimistic and not to lump: it took more minutes out of my life to do it later than it would have had I done it right away. The time I spent reconstructing what I was to do and the time I spent thinking about the assignment but not doing it-that is, the actually re-postponing.

Isn’t the point of what we try to call “time management” NOT to waste time?

The Thrill of the Rush

“I do my best work under pressure!” Ever said that? Practiced procrastinators begin to think it’s normal to put things off, perhaps even enjoying the self-imposed challenge of the last-minute frenzy. So says Dr. Timothy Pychyl, procrastination expert at the University of Carleton in Ottawa, Canada. Those who seek the thrill of the rush start to think it’s normal to impose pressure on themselves and begin to believe that quality will necessarily be better simply because a deadline is imminent.

That means that those who say they do their “best work under pressure” are really saying that when they make sure there’s not time to make last-minute corrections they produce a better product. They’re also saying they’re always at optimal creativity when the clock is racing alongside-even in the middle of the night when they know themselves to be morning people. And not just that they were once under those circumstances, but that they are, all the time, equally inspired and productive because the countdown is on.

Seems unlikely.

Maybe it’s the case that practiced procrastinators do their only work under pressure. Or maybe they like the excitement of the ticking clock. But the greater harm in enjoying the rush is the follow-on tendency to create the crisis just to enjoy the thrill again-and then compromising the work.


One last reason that Dr. Pychyl talks about is that the desire to be perfect can trigger procrastination. As long as a task remains unstarted, the possibility that it may be perfect, or at least fabulous, still looms. But once we begin working on whatever it is, the prospect of perfection invariably goes away.

The Monkey and the Monster

At TED conference earlier this year, champion-caliber procrastinator and writer Tim Urban described “The Mind of a Master Procrastinator” in two ways. One is as a mind plagued by the “instant gratification monkey” which deactivates when “the panic monster” engages, triggered by a looming deadline. That mind of procrastination pulls all-nighters to compensate for weeks of goofing around.

The other, he says, is the one that never gets to doing things that have no deadlines, things like starting one’s own business, learning another language, or reading War and Peace. (That last one has been on my list for years.) Because there’s no deadline, the “panic monster” never springs to life, so the “monkey” stays active. These people, he says, can get depressed after years, or sometimes decades, of procrastinating.

Then he displays a picture of tiny boxes stacked in rows. There are 4,680 tiny boxes on this slide, one for every week in the life of someone who lives to be 90. Although 4,680 sounds like a lot, anyone who’s lived to be 30 has already used up 1,560. Anyone who’s 40 has used 2,080.

We have only a limited number of boxes in our future, and we have no idea how many. We know only how many we’ve used so far and what we want to accomplish. That may not be enough to trigger the panic monster, but perhaps it’s enough to encourage us to look at what makes us put things off and getting to work on changing the habit.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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