Is Time Management Really the Problem?

Horse with heart blindersProductivity tools, books and podcasts proliferate today.  Time Management techniques, calendars and planners have never waned in popularity through the years.  The introduction of smart phones were widely touted as the ultimate way to remain plugged in and achieve the control of our work and home lives of which we always daydreamed.  So why does the average person still complain so often about feelings of being overwhelmed and there just not being enough time?  Why has information overload and needing “unplugged time” become the latest cry? Is the culprit our understanding of how to best utilize all the tools at our disposal?  Are we just inherently lazy?

David Allen, the father of the GTD (Getting Things Done) technique, addressed his view of the impact of smartphones on his traditional GTD system (which was largely paper/pencil driven).  Surprisingly, his opinion was that while mobile devices did make managing calendars and communication easier, the impact on the GTD process was minimal. In fact, he comments, “I think it’s as much adding to the distraction factor as it is to the leverage factor.”

So, is our problem one of time management or one of focus?  This is not a new concept.  In fact, Stanford University researchers Ophir, Nass and Wagner reported as early as 2009 that they considered “processing multiple incoming streams of information is considered a challenge for human cognition” (Cognitive control in media multitaskers; 2009).  Their tests showed that mega-multitaskers, rather than performing better, actually had a more difficult time focusing on individual tasks and were more vulnerable to environmental distractions.

Have we been striving for the wrong goal all these years as we learned to multitask and deal with increasing streams of information? Would our time have been better spent honing our ability to focus intently and think deeply and methodically about each project on our plate individually? Equine trainers recognized the value of decreasing outside distractions for their horses long ago and created blinders for their animals to wear. These trainers found that horses wearing blinders were much calmer and better able to channel all their energies forward to the tasks they were being asked to complete. Their overall performance improved significantly.  Do we need to think about developing our own form of “blinders” to everything but our most important projects?

A number of people have added a daily block of time for “being totally unplugged”.  They solely focus on a chosen task for that time block and do not allow interruptions for any reason. Knowledge management expert Thomas Davenport (“The Attention Economy”, 2002 and “Thinking for a Living”, 2005, to list only a few of his books) addressed the importance of focus in his article, “The rise of knowledge towards attention management”, (Journal of Knowledge Management, 2001); he states:

” One of the key battlegrounds in the future knowledge war will be the management of attention: understanding how it is allocated by individuals and organizations, knowing how to capture it more effectively for important information and knowledge, using technology to get, keep, and protect it.”

All the skill we can develop at finding and organizing information is for naught if we are so involved in keeping all our balls in the air that we never manage to stop, focus, synthesize and effectively apply the information we have gathered. We are not managing knowledge or adding to collective wisdom until that process occurs. A sobering concept, but, as Davenport reminds us, one that is key to our continued success and development as knowledge workers.  We have had 20 years since Davenport made his predictions.  How do you think we are doing?

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