Career Skills

You Can’t Manage Time – Part II

By Susan de la Vergne

In part one of this two-parter, we established that the phrase “time management” is misleading. It’s not time that we’re managing because time refuses to be managed. You can’t persuade it to speed up, nor can you slow it down. You can’t store it up now to save it for later. No matter what you try to do, time just keeps doing what it always does: progressing at its steady pace.

In a way, I think we like calling it “time” management because it lets us off the hook. We recognize that it’s futile to try to manage it. We offer in our own defense: “I’m trying! But you know about time management–impossible!”

Since we’re not managing time, what are we really doing when we optimize our productivity?  We’re managing ourselves–our energy, outlook, communication, organization skills, and our habits, both bad and good. When we improve those things, productivity also improves.

One notorious culprit that undermines productivity is a habit many of us have to some degree, and that’s procrastination, which we talked about in part one. Today we’ll tackle another culprit, a serious time drain that we may hardly realize is affecting us: negativity.

Factions in Action

I was once on a project team that was divided into two factions: old school and new school. The old schoolers wanted the new system to be built to old business conventions. Comfortable with convoluted data structures and complicated naming conventions, they wanted the new system to use them, and they resisted re-thinking things. The new schoolers thought the old schoolers were rigid and backward because they wouldn’t re-design data hierarchies or reconsider whether old naming standards should be changed.

As the project dragged on, tensions grew, and before long there was a lot of badmouthing going on within the team. Old schoolers found fault with new schoolers, and vice versa, usually behind-the-scenes. Conversations over lunch between new schoolers about how the business will never move forward if the stodgy old schoolers keep getting their way. Conversations in the parking lot between old schoolers about how new schoolers were reckless and making a big deal out of nothing. Negativity between the two groups escalated.


Eventually the system was a compromise. But that’s not the important thing. What I recognize now looking back is how much time we wasted grousing about each other. Negative thinking spawned resistance, criticism and even anger. The self-righteous head-shaking and fault-finding had become a team pastime.

In fact, if we added up all the hours on that project spent on negative thinking, the conversations, the time devoted to criticizing them, we’d come up with some number of hours that we weren’t spending doing productive work. Of course it’s hard to quantify that with any accuracy, but conceptually it makes sense. Time spent grousing is time wasted.

And yet, it’s so common.

One morning, I stopped in a Starbucks which is located in the midst of a commercial center. Employees from the surrounding offices filled the place. As I waited to order, I overheard the conversation between two women in line in front of me.

“If you need something to get done, don’t give it to Joan. Every time I give her something, I just have to do it over.”

“Oh, I know what you mean,” the other woman said. “She’s always been like that.  Smiles a lot, but totally clueless!”


For several minutes, they continued ragging on poor Joan and all the ways in which she was inadequate.

I ordered, and as I stood waiting for my latte, I overheard another conversation between two men at a nearby table.

“That whole department is weak.  I don’t know why they don’t just clean house over there and get rid of the entire bunch of losers.”

Wow, I thought to myself. Lots of negativity around here this morning!

As I grabbed a napkin, I overheard another conversation, this time a group of three.

“We may not like having to work with them, but there’s no changing it,” the man in the group said.

“But they’re really slow! We’ve been trying to help them use the new software for weeks now, and they’re so not getting it,” a woman said.

“I mean, geez,” said the other woman in the group, “This is hardly rocket science.  What’s up with them?”

After that, I confess that I cruised around the crowded Starbucks listening in on negative conversations. They were all about people back at the office who made a stupid decisions or weren’t any good at the jobs they were supposed to be doing.

The Power of Negative Thinking (Not)

What good comes of all this negativity? The people back at the office don’t undo their bad decisions or get any better at their jobs as a result of our complaints. What productive outcome is there from negative thinking? I’ll venture to say nothing. There’s no upside to negative thinking. None.

But there is a downside: negative thinking is a waste of time. That may be something you hadn’t really thought much about before now. Complaints, criticism, etc., seem sort of normal. They’re part and parcel of differences of opinion: we disagree, and so we criticize and complain. And since differing opinions are the lifeblood of creativity and innovation, criticism just goes with, no?

But it’s possible to disagree without criticizing, without spending valuable productivity cycles complaining.

Caveat: That doesn’t mean we neutrally accept decisions we disagree with just to avoid negativity.  Not at all! We still act to change decisions or adjust course or improve how the job is being done. We just do it without the time drain of negativity.

It’s a bit of a different way of thinking. Criticizing, grousing and commiserating with complainers aren’t necessary ingredients for better performance, our own or others’. Let’s segregate the two in our thoughts, separating the action we take from the negative thinking we might otherwise engage in. We take the same action we’d normally take, just without the negative mind.

And that saves us time.

Doing It Differently

Going back to an example from our Starbuck’s hotbed of negative conversations. Let’s say Joan reports to me and I want her to do a better job. One thing I might do is gripe about Joan to my husband after hours. I might also spend time dreading conversations with Joan because I find her frustrating. I might unload on a fellow manager all the incompetent things Joan did last week. I might spend time worrying about how badly Joan reflects on me or on my department.

Or I can redirect my thoughts away from all that time-wasting mental activity and figure out what to do–train her, transfer her to a job she’s better qualified for, or terminate her. Without the angst.

Which is the more time-efficient way to handle the Joan situation? That’s a no-brainer.

Ancient “Advice”

Eons ago, around the year 1000 A.D., a Buddhist master named Atisha gave a farewell address in a region in Tibet where he had been teaching for several years. This address included a sage and relevant piece bit of advice: “Do not think about others’ faults.” As in never.

That’s so not what we do. Finding fault is a cultural norm (especially noticeable in an election year!). It’s easy to do, but what good really comes of it?

If you’ve been thinking that criticizing others is a habit you’d like to kick anyway, maybe thinking about how much time you’ll save when you do will help inspire you.

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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