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Although he gurus of productivity and performance would have us believe otherwise there is no such thing as time management. When I run workshops with that title I invariably start the day by saying so. Popular business wisdom (now there’s a thought), would have us believe that time can be managed in the same way that we manage terrain or space. Therefore it can, by erroneous extension, be studied and learned – like land management or hotel management for example – so that people who don’t know how to do it or who don’t do it very well can get better at it.

There are several problems with this. As a starting point here are two. Time is a concept, a construct created by human imagination to enable us to think about how we live and and order our lives. It is not material and quantifiable like, say sand or school, and attempting to manage a concept as though it is something material is clearly impossible.  The second related point is that thinking about time as a manageable entity misleads us into a set of beliefs and habits that tend to highlight deficiency and loss and are self-reinforcing.When we talk about ‘spending’, ‘wasting’ or ‘not having enough’ time, we invoke subliminal regret, urgency and warning that distract us from the real problem. Thinking about time in this way does nothing to help us to understand how to solve the problem of ‘not having enough time’. We cannot manage time, but we can manage ourselves and order our thinking.

Of course the metaphorical language we use in discussing and thinking about time as a finite recourse is necessary, but language – another abstract concept – is not the things it describes. Time ‘passes’, sure enough, but it also ‘stands still’; we can ‘remember a time’ but we also ‘forget events from the past’. And the way thinking about time is entwined with money confuses us still further.

If reading this is confusing it is deliberately so. Confusion and uncertainty are often precursors to change and if we want to manage time something must change. If our aim is to experience things in a way that satisfies us, to lead a fulfilling or productive life, or whatever, then we must unavoidably start thinking, sooner or later, about our individual and personal relationship with time. We cannot manage time, but we can manage our attitudes, priorities, purpose and above all how we experience each moment. I recently watched a clip of Steve Jobs at Stanford University,  in which he said that each day he looks in a mirror and asks himself “If today was to be the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today”. If the answer is “No” too many days in a row, he said, he knows he needs to change something. This is hardly an original thought but it does echo what philosophers and pundits have been saying for millennia, so perhaps there is some value in it.

In his short book The Art of Time, JL Servan-Schreiber says: “Our popular ways of expressing ourselves can be misleading. ‘Gaining’ or ‘losing’ time makes no sense: we have the totality of available time at our disposal. It is unmodifiable. the only thing we can do about it is change our attitude toward it and make good or poor use of it, and that is indeed something… to get time under control involves getting oneself under control. Worse luck for those hoping for tricks or miracles.”

What I find in my workshops is that most people are relieved when I announce that time can’t be managed. We all know this really and while I am happy to use the term ‘time management’ as a general concept when talking about personal development and training, we should not use it to delude ourselves.

See also

Time management – a new approach

Servan-Schreiber J.L., (1989), The Art of Time, Bloomsbury, London

Rowe, D., (1993), Time on Our Side; Growing in Wisdom, Not Growing Old, Harper Collins, London.

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