The Philosophy of Results-Oriented Time Management

by Mark on April 7, 2010

In yesterday’s post The Return to Results-Oriented Time Management, I talked about how there is a growing movement to return to the time management philosophy used by primitive man. Primitive man’s survival depended on being intensely results-oriented. Procrastination? Lack of focus? Not an issue. Primitive man didn’t say to himself, “I don’t feel like finding food today. I’ll do it tomorrow.” However, as man’s knowledge and technology began to improve and as society began to become more specialized and complicated, man began to plan farther into the future. The urgency to get results decreased considerably over time.

This decrease in urgency in conjunction with the development of information technology that allows us to be contacted wherever we are at any time of the day has caused all sorts of time management issues. It is increasingly difficult to focus due to a rapidly increasing number of interruptions. Our focus is deflected away from the problems that we are supposed to be solving and towards dealing with all the tools that are supposed to make us more productive, such as e-mail. There seems to be hardly an office worker alive that isn’t constantly inundated by e-mail.

In the past, the limitations of technology made it relatively time-consuming to send memos or organize meetings, so communications and meetings used to be limited to more important matters. Now you can easily blast an e-mail out to as many people as you want and ensure that a multitude of people waste time with your brilliant brain fart of the moment, whether it is a useless task, an “FYI,” a tasteless joke, or whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I love technology, and I can’t imagine living without it. The ways that it has made the world a better place are countless. The problem is that widespread information technology is a relatively new phenomenon, and we haven’t adapted to it. PC’s started becoming popular in the 1980s, the Internet in the 1990s, and ubiquitous cell phone and Internet connectivity in the 2000s.

The tidal wave of technological change is creating a need for a new philosophy of time management. In fact, it’s really not time management at all. You can’t manage time. Time keeps ticking away second after second no matter what you do.  What we really need to do is learn to manage our focus and our attention. This is where a results-oriented philosophy of time management comes in.

Principles of Results-Oriented Time Management

The recent movement towards results-oriented time management often shares certain principles, such as:

  • Single-task. People are beginning to realize that multitasking is not all that it is cracked up to be. In fact, in most cases, I would say multitasking is downright stupid. The “switching costs” between tasks are too great. It’s like having too many programs open on a computer. Pretty soon your computer is grinding away and not getting much accomplished. The exception to the rule is in situations where a task takes very little brainpower. I do a lot of thinking while I’m getting ready in the morning because my morning routine is so habitual that I do it without thinking.
  • Focus on less. Most time management philosophies seem to be all about squeezing more and more into our lives. This is beginning to change. Many people are increasing their focus by reducing the number of things they are focusing on, sometimes radically so. It makes a lot of sense. If you focus on one thing, it gets 100% of your attention. Increase it to two things, and your average attention drops to 50%. Three things, about 33%. And so on. Actually, this would only be in an ideal world. In the real world, if you focus on three things, those three things might only get 25% of your attention on average. The rest of your attention would be completely wasted due to “friction.”
  • Define objectives and tasks precisely. Instead of defining time periods that you will work on something, define specific results that you are going to achieve. For example, instead of “Declutter for 15 minutes,” try “Declutter dining room table.” This will increase your focus on achieving a very specific objective. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to begin decluttering only to open up a can of worms that you just can’t finish? It’s better to complete a well-defined task than partially complete a poorly-defined task.
  • Disconnect. In a results-oriented philosophy, you need to disconnect from the world to allow yourself to concentrate on important tasks. This is critical. Information technology is quite possibly the most efficient system for interrupting us and distracting us that has ever been devised. It isn’t always easy to disconnect. This is one of my personal challenges. However, when I do disconnect, my productivity skyrockets. This doesn’t mean we should always be disconnected. Information technology can still be immensely useful. It’s how we use it that makes all the difference. If you use it in a very conscious manner, information technology can leverage your abilities. If you don’t, it can become brain candy. It becomes a mental indulgence that we use to distract ourselves.
  • Go on a “low-information diet.” Tim Ferriss is a big proponent of reducing information consumption and being selectively ignorant. As Herbert Simon wrote all the way back in 1971, “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.” Simon hit the nail on the head. This is why I have drastically reduced the number of RSS feeds that I follow. It already has made a big difference, but I could still stand to go on a serious low-information diet.
  • Always Be Closing (ABC). This is actually a famous sales mantra, but I apply it to time management as well. You need to always be closing your tasks. Try to single-handle everything. In other words, don’t pick something up, spend a little bit of time thinking about it, set it aside, pick it up again, etc. Whatever the task is, try to finish it one sitting. If the task is too big to finish in one sitting, break it down into well-defined tasks that you can then close. Every time you don’t finish a task, it just adds to the loose threads that will just continue to distract you.

Do you notice the common theme among all these principles? They are all directed towards increasing our focus. In a world that is increasingly designed to distract us at every turn, the ability to focus makes all the difference.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: