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What do we really know about time management?

JMSB researcher Brad Aeon investigates how it can make us happier — and help us work more effectively
November 29, 2017
By J. Latimer

Brad Aeon: “Time management is everyone's responsibility.” Brad Aeon: “Time management is everyone's responsibility.” | Photo by Sanah Suvarna

Time management training isn’t a silver bullet that guarantees more productivity — at least, not the way it’s currently taught.

“Training is typically conducted in a group, lecture style,” says Brad Aeon (MSc 14), a researcher at the John Molson School of Business (JMSB).

“But different people can think about and approach time very differently. That’s why time management should be taught one-on-one.”

Aeon acknowledges it would be more expensive to personalize the training.

“But do companies really want to waste money on something that isn’t going to benefit everyone?”

His conclusions were published in the September issue of Academy of Management Perspectives. The article was co-authored with Herman Aguinis from George Washington University School of Business.

Multi-tasker or monomaniac?

By bridging a broad range of fields — sociology, psychology and behavioural economics — Aeon discovered several factors that explain why time management may or may not work.

“People can be monochronic or polychronic (multi-taskers). They may like to plan their day while others prefer to improvise,” Aeon explains.

“Some have high temporal awareness, meaning they see time as a resource to be budgeted, while others do not.”

Plus, he adds, companies can be terrible places to manage your time.

“If you find time management a challenge at work, it’s not necessarily your fault. There are a host of reasons hindering your productivity, such as interruptions, company culture, access to colleagues, erratic phone calls and email, training and workflow.”

The influence of time norms

Despite the challenges of the workplace and individual differences, many employees can learn better time management skills and become more effective. However, Aeon notes, it’s all for nothing if their performance evaluation is tied to socialized “norms” instead of productivity.

For instance, an employee can be very productive at their job within a 35-hour work week, but if the norm at a company is to work 60 or 80 hours, then their performance review will be negative.

“We see it all the time,” he says. “In our knowledge economy, the output is less tangible, so many managers’ metric is basically time — hours in the office.”

Aeon wants managers, CEOs and company owners to re-think their approach to time and focus on results instead of norms. The data from countries like Norway and France, he says, supports the claim that productivity isn’t lowered by shorter work hours.

“In Western societies especially, there's an expectation that time management is an individual responsibility. That puts a huge burden on people,” he says.

“Time management is everyone's responsibility. It’s up to us, as a society, to create an environment where time is lived pleasantly, rather than hurriedly.”

5 time-management tips from Brad Aeon:

1.     Time yourself. The hardest part of doing something is not getting started, but knowing when to stop. Using a countdown timer will help you stick to the amount of time you gave yourself to finish a task. When time is up, move on to the next task or relax. There will always be more work to do, but you only have so much time in life.

2.     “Half-ass” the small stuff. Perfectionism is a terrible time sink. Most things we do can be done in half the time with little to no drop in quality. The trick is to know which activities deserve your utmost attention.

3.     Be more assertive with your time. With smartphones, open-office workspaces and late-night emails, it’s easier than ever for people to encroach on your personal time. But you can do your part to stop the 24/7, always-on madness and assert clear time boundaries.

4.     Establish routines. Too much flexibility and spontaneity can be confusing. Routines help you manage your day more efficiently. They create more predictability and stability during the most chaotic times: in the morning, before work and right after you finish.

5.     Outsource. Tons of affordable services now exist to save you time, from laundry pick-up to virtual private assistants to online freelancers. Never hesitate to shell out money if it affords you more time.

Read the cited study, “
It's About Time: New Perspectives and Insights on Time Management” and watch Brad Aeon’s TedXConcordia talk about time management.


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