4 time management beliefs that are harming you

If you struggle to manage your calendar and find enough time in the day to get everything done, you might wonder if you just haven’t found the right time management technique yet. Maybe you haven’t – but it’s also possible that the real issue is that your thinking about time management is what’s holding you back.

Here are four of the biggest misconceptions about time management that can really mess with your head — and your schedule – if you buy into them.

1. “There’s time in the week to do everything I need/want to do, if I can just figure out the right way to manage my time.”

This might be true – but for a lot of people, it isn’t. Too often, people look to time management systems and techniques to provide a magic bullet solution for a schedule that’s simply loaded up with more than one person can do in a day or a week. When that’s the case, the answer isn’t to keep looking for more time management techniques; in fact, that can hurt you, by making you feel guilty for not being able to get everything done and by leading you away from the dealing with the root cause of the problem.

When there simply isn’t enough time in the week to get everything done that you want or need to do, the solution is to revisit what’s on your plate in the first place. That might mean talking with your manager, or reassessing the relative importance of various items, or delegating more, or accepting that you can’t take a night class during your work’s busiest period. Whatever the solution, it’s always going to start with being brutally honest about what you can and can’t do.

2. “It looks bad if I say no to people.”

What looks bad to people is taking on more commitments than you can handle and then either turning in shoddy work or dropping the ball altogether. That looks far worse than saying from the start, “I’m pretty booked up for the next few weeks and don’t think I’d be able to take this on without reshuffling something else.”

And to be clear, saying no isn’t usually about a flat “no.” Depending on who you’re talking to, it might be, “I can do that but only if we push back X or Y” or “I could do it in two weeks, if you can wait that long” or “I’d love to, but I’m booked solid and can’t see a way to fit that in” or “It’s a great idea, but I’ve got my hands full with X right now.”

And of course, you need to consider your audience. For example, you usually shouldn’t say no to your CEO or a major funder (although even in those situations, there are often times when you might need to; in those cases, it’s about figuring out the best way to frame it.)

3. “If the work keeps coming at me, I must be expected to find a way to do all of it.”

If your manager keeps piling work on you, you might assume that she expects you to do all of it; after all, she knows what your workload is, right? But in reality, many managers will expect you to manage your own workload and to speak up if there’s a problem. If they don’t hear any push-back, they assume you have room to take on more and more. But if you raise the issue (“I’m buried under case files and can’t get through all of these and still sleep during the next two weeks”), reasonable managers will help you re-prioritize, delegate to someone else, bring in extra help, or otherwise work toward a solution. But you have to speak up – don’t assume they know if you don’t say something.

4. “I can get this done at the last minute.”

If you often wait until the last minute to do work, turning it in just before the deadline, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. Sometimes this strategy works just fine – but what will happen when you’re sick or fielding a crisis the day it’s due? Or if you start working on it and realize you need information from someone else before you can complete it, and that person isn’t available? You’ll do yourself a favor in the long-run if you build in a buffer and don’t save things until the last minute.

{ 25 comments… read them below }

  1. The Other Dawn*

    I admit to being a last-minute person and I don’t have a clue as to how to get myself out of it. I find if something isn’t due within a short timeframe, I just procrastinate or I get really distracted. Anyone have any tips for this?

    1. YourCdnFriend*

      Procrastinators unite! I definitely need to feel the pressure to really dive into projects.

      I find it helpful to set up check ins with my boss or other team members (as appropriate) throughout a project. Often I’m working last minute before the check in but it changes it from working on an entire project last minute to working on a portion of a project last min.

      I realize this is just a stop gap and doesn’t fix the actual problem but it does help me.

    2. OhNo*

      I agree with YourCdnFriend — try to split it up into little pieces, so that you are doing small chunks of it at a time, rather than the whole thing at the last minute. You might still be doing those little pieces at the last minute, but it’s better than trying to finish the whole thing all at once.

      Also, any chance you can seek advice from your manager on this? If they’re open to helping you with it, you might get some good advice that is specific to your organization or situation.

      1. The Other Dawn*

        I’m still pretty new and I’m not sure I want to tell him I’m a last minute person just yet. I haven’t missed any deadlines; I’m being really diligent about that. But I still do wait too long and have to cram.

    3. jillociraptor*

      Can you identify why you tend to procrastinate?

      I can imagine a lot of things being behind this. Maybe your work isn’t a great match for your interests, so you put it off because you don’t want to do it. Maybe the activation energy is significant and it’s just a pain to redirect your energy before the last minute. That typically calls for systematizing your work: having a checklist, or a one-stop-shop with all the resources you need to do the task so you don’t have to do all the searching and poking around to get started. Maybe it’s the trap of feeling like you need to “feel like it” to get something done. I definitely have to remind myself sometimes to JUST DO THE THING because what’s really stopping me is me. We had a thread recently with some comments (mine included) about how perfectionism can create procrastination as a strategy for managing anxiety.

      I think once you’re able to identify the feelings behind why you put things off til the last minute, a solution will be clearer.

      1. A Non*

        “We had a thread recently with some comments (mine included) about how perfectionism can create procrastination as a strategy for managing anxiety. ”

        Ooh, anyone remember where this was? This is relevant to my interests.

    4. The Other Dawn*

      Thanks for the suggestions! I do try to break things up, but it doesn’t seem to work, because then I think, “I’ve got plenty of time because I already did X. Y and Z can wait.”

      I wonder if the fact that I was at a startup company for a long time plays into this. I was always in crisis mode and when something came across my desk, I started on it right away even though it wasn’t pressing, dropping everything else. Then something else would come along and I’d leave the first task unfinished. It would go on like that and eventually I had a ton of unfinished tasks to complete at the last minute. I seem to be the opposite now. If the deadline isn’t very short, I tend to think. “Eh it can wait.”

    5. LuvzALaugh*

      THIS +1… Since grade school I do my best work under pressure of the deadline is tomorrow. Try as I might, every paper, every assignment no matter how much I tried to work on it when I wan’t under the gun from grade school right though grad school culminated in an all nighter and a last minute adrenaline rush of NOW NOW NOW.

      1. Afiendishthingy*

        Me tooooo, so much. I had the revelation this week though that I cannot slack off during the week and tell myself I’ll make up for it over the weekend, because I won’t do anything all weekend except worry about how I haven’t done anything all weekend. Then Monday is spent frantically trying to finish last week’s to do list. So not worth it!

  2. Marina*

    This is GREAT. Next time I have an office I’m printing it out and putting it on the wall.

  3. Whippers*

    #1 – so true. So many managers harp on about time management and prioritisation without realising what it actually means in practice. Essentially it means that less urgent things won’t get done if there isn’t the time to do them; yet several of my managers, if I haven’t been able to get some minor request of theirs completed, will start banging on about “prioritisation” and ” time management”. Uh yes, that’s what I’m doing and other things were the priority ahead of you needing a bigger calculator.

  4. jillociraptor*

    This is so spot on. Probably the best advice about time management I’ve ever seen! I get to coach people on time management and organization a lot, because it’s a huge strength of mine and not necessarily a big strength of lots of others in my org unit, and these beliefs are really prevalent for managers and employees alike. Org systems are only a piece of the puzzle: you need clear expectations, prioritization, and accountability or even the best system is going to fail.

  5. Anon for this*

    Regarding #3, what do you do if you have a higher-up who isn’t reasonable? I know ultimately my job is whatever he says it is, but is there a way to manage the expectations of someone who doesn’t appear to care that the rest of my workload suffers when he takes hours out of my day to focus on one small detail?

  6. Kate*

    This is so timely for me. I’ve been struggling at work and what it comes down to is managing my schedule and specifically #2. I’m trying to accept the fact that it’s better to tell a client that I can’t meet with them until two weeks from now than it is to overschedule myself and serve all my clients poorly, not to mention make myself miserable. Also trying not to guilty about delegating duties I just don’t have time to do well. Thanks for the reminder that these are okay choices!

  7. V.V.*

    Wholey Bukkiss!

    This is the most uncanny thing I have ever read on this site. My ex-boss was a firm believer in all four of these myths, beyond the point of detriment.

    This article has helped soothe the sting. Thank you.

  8. FiveByFive*

    Urg.. too often, procrastination gets a bad rap. A Google search on “procrastination is good” or something similar will find a lot of enlightening articles on the topic. Many people truly do work better this way, and they should learn how it can be a benefit rather than beating themselves up about it!

    Of course procrastinating can sometimes bite you in the rear. But so can a lot of other styles. I think it’s best to come to a better understanding of your own style and make it work for you.

  9. Dr. Doll*

    These all resonate even for me, someone who pretty much completely decides on my own priorities and workload as a faculty member: “If I just got more organized, I could revise my whole class, organize three major events in one term, write two papers, manage 9 professionals and 10 student assistants, participate on a state and national committee that require travel, and spend every evening with my husband while having a clean house, a beautiful garden, and a thin hard body!”

    Yes, if I just.

    1. Afiendishthingy*

      Yup. I’m going to get super organized starting tomorrow. Once I finish watching all of Netflix.

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