Often it seems that no matter how many to-do lists we write, no matter how much earlier we get up or how late we work, there just isn’t enough time in the day to do everything we want. We might wake up full of motivation and ambition, convinced this is the day we’re going to plough through our to-do list… and yet, find ourselves with a stack of unfinished work at the end of the day.
The problem isn’t that we didn’t work hard enough. More often than not, according to Harvard Business Review, the problem is that we’re just unrealistic about what we can do with our time. There are certainly enough hours in the day to make progress and produce something meaningful, but the way we approach our time can make it feel like we just need more. So what causes such poor time management? How come our expectations of productivity simply don’t match up with our output?
What poor time management looks like
Poor time management manifests itself when we don’t prioritize time for the work that actually counts. In our hyper-connected world it’s easy to get caught up in shallow work, or trying to keep up-to-date with an endless stream of incoming emails. The problem with this is that when we don’t prioritize our own goals, others’ tasks and shallow work quickly eat up our day. We end the day feeling unfulfilled and exhausted, with very little to show for our efforts.
Context switching is another indicator of poor time management. It’s the practice of continually flicking between different tasks or subject matter, and is often the result of working with disruptive tech. By dropping everything to answer an email, Teams ping or Slack notification, we limit the amount of focus we’re able to give to each task; our attention becomes fragmented, creating an endless build-up of attention residue, which has huge consequences for our productivity and means we’re continually working at a limited cognitive capacity.
Though powering through when you have lots on may initially seem like good time management, it absolutely isn’t. In our “always on” society, switching off is already hard to do – but it becomes even more important to do so when we have lots on. We might work late into the night, or reply to emails as soon as they come in, even if it's in our downtime... but never getting any respite from work can quickly deplete us and lead to burnout.
Of course, many of us simply underestimate how long our work will take. Overcommitting our time or being unrealistic about deadlines breeds a chaotic, stressful way of working. This anxiety can in turn harm our personal lives, causing us to forfeit our downtime to meet an unrealistic deadline, check email in the evenings, and incubate work problems over the weekend.
Mindsets that cause poor time management
To curb poor time management, we need to understand how we get ourselves into these situations. That starts with addressing the cognitive biases and mental traps that lead us to develop unhealthy working habits. Here are four of the most common to be aware of:
1. The mere urgency effect
The mere urgency effect describes how we tend to prioritize work that’s urgent over work that’s truly important, yet not time-sensitive. People have a habit of prioritizing urgent tasks because the effects of not dealing with them are instant, but these tasks are often linked to accomplishing someone else's goals rather than our own. Important tasks, on the other hand, have a conclusion that results in us accomplishing our own aims – it’s the work that’s vital to our own success. To free ourselves from this mental trap, we need to be able to identify what’s important vs what’s urgent.
2. The planning fallacy
The planning fallacy is “the tendency to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a future task, due in part to the reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios.” What’s interesting about this concept is that studies show that we underestimate timelines even when we know we have a tendency to underestimate them; we just seem to think that this time it’ll be magically different. And so we agree to an unrealistic deadline, hoping for the best, but find ourselves in the same pattern once again.
3. The Zeigarnik effect
The Zeigarnik effect describes the tendency to remember unfinished tasks better than completed ones. If you’ve ever been interrupted in the middle of a job and found it difficult to focus on anything else until you returned to it, this is the Zeigarnik effect in motion. The Zeigarnik effect can make it difficult to switch off, as our unfinished work can follow us home, preying on our minds until we decide to work over the weekend or late into the night. However, the good news is that there are lots of small ways we can harness the Zeigarnik effect to boost our productivity – it doesn’t have to be destructive.
4. Believing only we can do a task
Many of us find it hard to relinquish control of our own work, believing that if we don’t work on a particular task the quality will suffer. Yet successful time management relies on effective delegation and this means being able to take a step back. According to Harvard Business Review, we’re all complicit in “maintaining the myth that we’re indispensable or smarter than most” – but rather than slogging away tirelessly by ourselves, it makes more sense to use some of that time to coach colleagues and develop their skills. This allows us to create capacity in many, rather than perpetuating dependence on the few, and frees up more time for us to work on our individual specialist subjects.