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Posted by Isobel McEwan 11 January 2017 Innovation Consultancy

Wherever you look, there are tips for improving your time management skills and increasing your efficiency and productivity. Being able to fit super-human amounts of work into an ever shorter working day is often hailed at the epitome of career success, and if you can fit in a session at the gym and a side hustle as well, well, what a great multitasker you must be.

But could too much time management actually be preventing you from fulfilling your potential at work? Could it be stopping you from being creative? Could it be making you more, rather than less, stressed?


This is exactly what has been argued recently in British newspaper The Guardian in their recent article entitled ‘why time management is ruining our lives.’ Written by New York-based Oliver Burkeman (author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking), the article suggests that our obsession with personal productivity and meaningfulness began its current phase back in 2007 with the launch of ‘Inbox Zero’.

The phrase was coined by Merlin Mann, a San Francisco-based writer and speaker on all things time management and creativity. Mann argued that email was the root of all professional evils, a ‘digital blight that was colonising more and more […] hours, squeezing out time for more important work, or for having a life.’

The idea was simple, rather than checking emails as they come in, doing nothing about them and thereby getting ever more stressed, you should set aside specific times to visit your inbox and at each visit process it to zero, whether this means replying, entering a task in your to-do list, or just filing it away. 

While this may feel like a lot of fuss over email, Burkeman argues email has come to symbolise ‘the pressure of trying to complete an ever-increasing number of tasks, in a finite quantity of time' and the feeling that time is simply slipping between your fingers no matter how much effort you make to prevent it happening.

But here’s the paradox. ‘The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn’t reliably bring calm.’ Burkeman continues ‘the allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness’, with many adherents of good time management simply finding they had as much work to do and more, but were simply doing it slightly faster and more efficiently.


An interesting alternative to the obsession with time management is a concept called ‘energy management’. Articulated by Abdullahi Muhammed, Forbes Under 30 contributor and founder of online visibility agency Oxygenmat, the idea is that energy management is a far more natural and in fact productive way to get the job done than frantically cramming your day with tasks.

Muhammed’s top tips for better energy management include adapting your workload to your natural rhythm and thereby learning when is best to do what tasks. Although specifically talking about freelancers, the question ‘why not adapt your schedule to fit with your optimum productivity times?’ is a valid one for any professional. 

Other tips include not letting your morning to do list become a source of anxiety, setting realistic expectations for what can be done in a day, and boosting your mental and physical energy through a combination of exercise, goal visualisation and avoiding distractions.  


When all of the above is said and done, taking the time to relax can often be the best medicine for stress and over-productivity. In fact, research has shown that zoning out and daydreaming can actually be productive, as it allows time for unstructured thought, free-flowing creativity and unconscious idea generation.

Market Place, American Public Media and University of Southern California’s daily business news platform, argues just this, quoting Stanford scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s ideas on ‘deliberate rest’. Deliberate rest is ‘is resting in ways that allow their [the followers of the idea] creative subconscious, their kind of creative minds, to keep working on problems even after they’ve put down their pencils and started going for a walk or going for a swim.’

This is a skill that you can learn and develop over time, allowing your conscious and unconscious mind to communicate and in turn help you to be more productive, without actually lifting a finger. 

Pang concludes ‘there’s actually a century’s worth of research that shows that chronic overwork leads very quickly to burnout, to lower levels of productivity for both individuals and for organisations.’ With so much evidence suggesting that there are in fact healthier and more efficient alternatives to overly managing your time, there’s no time like the new year to change your habits and move towards a less stressed, more creative, more enjoyable method of working.

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