Most time management advice is out of touch with the reality — and the demands — of modern work life.
Why? Because time-management advice is often presented as dogma, but in practice, it’s impractical for many managers and knowledge workers to adopt. Most professionals are trying to balance work and family, but we rarely have the degree of control over our time for popular time management advice to actually work.
In this article, we’re going to walk through the top 3 problems with most time management advice, and how to solve them.
Problem #1: Everyone's 24 hours are not equal
Although everyone has the same number of hours in a day, we all have different levels of control over those hours.
For example, wealthy executives aren’t usually subjected to the same demands as most managers and knowledge workers. We’ve all seen productivity tips for billionaires in some form or another where we read about 5 a.m. wake-up times and hour-long morning workouts.
The problem is that your 24 hours are not equal to Jeff Bezos's 24 hours. Bezos has complete control over his daily routine. He has the flexibility to schedule what he calls “high IQ meetings” for the most mentally challenging topics before lunch. It’s a brilliant concept, but you don't always get to dictate what time your meetings occur, or are able to optimize them around when you're most productive.
So, since you’re in the trenches implementing company strategy and building relationships across the business, you’re getting pulled in a million different directions, and more meetings and ad hoc requests are piled onto your already busy schedule. It feels like you’re always busy, always falling further behind.
The result is there’s never enough time to get to the things that actually matter — like thinking deeply about product pricing or even just eating lunch. Oftentime, your only option for making progress on priorities is to work late into the night or over the weekend -- and it’s taking a toll. 68% of adults in the U.S who are at high risk for burnout say there is more work to do than they can get to, according to Statista.
Solution: Base decisions on top priorities
So, how do you take better control over your time? First, you need to think realistically about your time by understanding it is a limited resource, according to Erich C. Dierdorff, Professor of Management & Entrepreneurship at DePaul University. It’s a skill that must be developed if you want to be successful and preserve your mental well-being.
Productivity isn’t a straight line — it ebbs and flows with your work and personal commitments. One week you might need to prioritize family obligations (like a child out sick or a partner who needs surgery). The next week, you might need to spend 20 hours writing a strategy doc.
The only way to manage it all is to actually accept you only have the capacity to deal with so much. You need to consider all of those demands on our time, and be okay with making tweaks and tradeoffs in priorities from week to week. We built Reclaim specifically to help busy professionals -- like you -- to flexibly align their time and their schedules to their most important work.
Reclaim can automatically block adaptive, intelligent time on your calendar for your tasks, ensuring you get time for them before they’re due. First, you tell Reclaim what you need to get done, how much time you need, and when it’s due. Then, Reclaim analyzes your schedule to create time blocks based on your needs.
Unlike manual time blocking tools or even a lot of automated ones, Reclaim doesn’t just flood your calendar with busy blocks. Instead, it keeps your task time free until it detects that you’re at risk of not getting the work done. That means your schedule remains flexible, open, and available for meetings -- until it’s truly not.
There are a number of big advantages to using Reclaim here:
- Because Reclaim actually blocks time in your calendar for your priorities, you’re forced to see where you’re overcommitted to make the right tradeoffs.
- Since Reclaim keeps your calendar flexible (by flipping events dynamically from free to busy), it keeps you available -- but not so much that you don’t get the time you need.
- You’re able to focus on the priorities that really matter without losing track of priorities you need to push back to a later week.
Problem #2: Real-world context is missing
Hacks dominate the time management conversation, but a lot of these tactics are hard to execute in the real world.
Take the "just say no" hack as an example. Just say no is the productivity tip that encourages us to turn down requests more frequently by "just saying no." Entrepreneur and programmer Derek Sivers summed the philosophy in an enduring 2009 post: "Every event you get invited to. Every request to start a new project. If you’re not saying ‘HELL YEAH!’ about it, say ‘no.’ We’re all busy. We’ve all taken on too much. Saying yes to less is the way out."
It sounds empowering in theory, but not in practice. Saying no to colleagues constantly can cost you real social capital within the organization. Saying no to your CEO can get you in trouble.
Time blocking is another popular tactic where you simply divide your day into blocks of time for specific pieces of work. But, while your calendar may look neat and organized with clean blocks at the beginning of the week, this approach can pretty easily crumbles when you try to put it into action:
- Lack of control: We’ve already established it’s near impossible to dictate where all of your time goes.
- Time-consuming calendar Tetris: When your whole calendar is blocked, it can actually cost you more time negotiating with schedulers who desperately want to find time for a "quick sync".
- Unrealistic and impractical: As a result of #1 and #2, your beautifully blocked-out calendar ends up disconnecting from reality pretty quickly.
All to say, these tactics ignore the relationships and soft pressures that happen in the workplace. In the abstract, it’s fine to be ruthlessly focused and say no to unwanted distractions, but in the real world of project demands and deadlines, saying no can be uncomfortable. It's not that your colleagues don't care about your to-do list; it's that your to-do list might not be their to-do list, and their to-do list might involve needing something from you.
Solution: Communicate context to our colleagues
In order to apply real-world context to our time management planning, you need to treat your schedule as a resource that needs to accommodate your needs as well as the needs of others. That means that you need to be vigilant about your priorities, while still accepting that external needs will come up. A helpful approach here is to look at your time strategically:
- Determine the few projects that are pulling focus from core priorities. This might include projects that you’re interested in (and may even want to work on!) but that aren’t essential to you and your team.
- Ask yourself how many of the events on your calendar are related to the priorities you’re personally driving over the next six months.
- Of the events that aren’t aligned with our priorities, look at how much you can realistically remove from your calendar, reschedule, or not attend.
It’s important to have the conversations that unwind the tension that comes from those random meeting invites, or requests that you want to help with, but don't have time to support. Instead of carrying the stress of these incoming obligations that pull us away from your own projects, you can gain some quick clarity by setting up short 1:1’s with your team to talk through your priorities.
Or, when your calendar is packed, you can also simply decline a meeting and send a note with more context about the tradeoffs you’re making. This way, you can build understanding around our priorities without negating our colleagues.
Here’s a sample response you can send to politely decline a meeting invite:
"I can't attend this meeting because I need to make room for [Priority X]. I'm coming up against the deadline, so I'm trying to budget more time for this week. I'm happy to meet up later at the following times [A, B, C]. I would also appreciate a readout of the meeting. If you feel my attendance is urgent, let me know. Thanks!"
Contextualizing your calendar events is also one of the best ways you can help your colleagues understand your priorities. With Reclaim, our users are able to highlight their tasks and habits via actual events on their calendars so priorities are not only scheduled, but clearly communicated across teams. It’s also important to note that event names that convey purpose, e.g., “Working on QBR prep”,” have a much better chance of being respected than generic “Busy” blocks.
You also want to make sure context is shared where you’re most often distracted. Through Reclaim, you can actually sync your Slack status with your calendar so colleagues know why you’re offline. This again allows you to add context with a detailed update like “prep for board meeting” rather than a vague “In a Meeting” status.
Additionally, when you block off time for important Tasks using Reclaim, that time stays free and flexible on your calendar. If your Task gets interrupted by a meeting, it’s automatically rescheduled before the due date so you stay available. Most importantly, once Reclaim sees that you’re running out of time to get the Task done before the due date, the flexible Task blocked on your calendar flips from free to busy so that slot is no longer sitting open on your calendar. Then, if a colleague tries to schedule a meeting with you over this time, they’ll get a message like this:
By using Reclaim, your calendar automatically keeps you free for collaboration until you’re truly not. At the same time, you no longer have to worry about finding stray blocks of time to focus on getting through a project. It gives you the best shot at staying available for external requests while also getting enough time to produce your best work.
Problem #3: The perfect schedule is a myth
It's inevitable: At some point, your perfectly pulled-together calendar will fall apart.
The traditional thinking is that we have 24 hours in the day, and eight of them should be at work, eight of them should be for personal stuff, and eight are sleeping. That's perfectly balanced, but it doesn't work for everyone.
You might love what you do and want to work more than eight hours. Or alternatively, you might feel there are only a handful of creative hours in your day, and want to prioritize exercising or getting the kids outside in the afternoons. On top of these regularly occurring habits and pressures of your job, there are always life events outside of your control that you need to find time for: doctors' appointments, school runs, errands, and so on.
The reality is: there’s no such thing as the perfect workweek (though it’s a noble goal to aim for).
When our time-management techniques don’t work out, we begin to think we’re the problem. Journalist José Luis Peñarredonda said the pursuit of perfectly managing our time leaves us feeling “frustrated, anxious and guilty — the opposite of the ‘stress-free productivity’ that time management is supposed to achieve.”
Solution: Adapt when we need to
Plans change, and when they do, it's time to adapt.
Adopting a time-management plan that didn’t pan out doesn't mean that you’ve failed. If you make a plan, and things change, and you can’t stick to it, it doesn’t make you an inefficient person or a poor employee. The best time managers are good at responding to change!
The ideal schedule usually looks different on different days, and that’s fine, too. In Smarter Faster Better, Charles Duhigg writes: “A productive weekend might involve walking through the park with your kids, while a productive workday involves rushing them to daycare and getting to the office as early as you can.”
We need to be forgiving on ourselves, and our productivity tools must accommodate flexibility. Reclaim allows us to add flexible routines -- Habits -- to our calendar for the things we want to do regularly. Just like Tasks, Habits keep your time flexible until it’s truly not. If something comes up during that time, Reclaim will find another slot for your Habit.
What’s critical one week will probably matter less the next, so it’s important that you prioritize your Habits. If you need to make progress on hiring goals, talent review may be more important than your morning writing. With Reclaim, you can simply express that shift by reprioritizing your Habits or Tasks that week through the Planner tool - a centralized hub for all of your productivity planning.
Time-management advice that works in the real world
We've been in the middle-manager crunch, and know what it's like to have 50% of our workweek gone before it's even started. If you can relate, know that you're not a slacker or undisciplined if you struggle to manage your time.
Too much of the conventional time-management advice falls short because it's removed from the actual nature of work. Time-management advice works best when it’s in sync with your personal circumstances and biggest goals. Base decisions on your top priorities. Communicate context to your colleagues. Adapt when you need to, and, above all, don’t be too hard on yourself.