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Abbie Shipp’s fixation on time management nearly broke her. That’s ironic, because she’s a professor of management and leadership who specializes in researching time management. So if she can’t get it right, what chance do the rest of us stand?

A Type A achiever, she was a proponent of seeking out efficiencies and time-saving hacks wherever possible, to help improve work/life balance. She seemed successful but was facing health problems and doctors had urged her to slow down. “I don’t work as many hours as other people – I’m really efficient!” she countered. It made sense, until it didn’t. In January, 2019, something snapped. She couldn’t write, couldn’t think, and stared blankly at her computer, fearing she could no longer do her job.

Ironically, the Texas Christian University professor was trying to write her share of an academic paper on subjective time: The individual and/or social experience of the past, present, and future. In that concept was the solution to her problem with time management and, abstruse as it may seem, lies some practical advice for you.

Objective time focuses on the clock and calendar as a measure of time – the way we usually go about time management – while subjective time is the internal, personal experience of time. The two mingle in ways that we need to recognize.

More significantly, many deadlines we perceive as “real” are not. “Deadlines are socially constructed dates to plan one’s work and synchronize with others. I found that completing a task by a certain date or responding to a request within a certain timeframe was often motivated by arbitrary deadlines,” she writes in Harvard Business Review. “I began to move or even eliminate some deadlines without losing my commitment to others, creating an immediate boost to my level of engagement.”

Time management is incomplete unless we factor in the subjective constructions of time we create and experience. For instance, you can move away from the clock or calendar to organize your schedule around events, notably the task you are doing. Work tasks or meetings are typically scheduled at particular times, the morning huddle at 9:15, or stopping a task at noon for lunch. But it is more engaging to stay with the rhythm of the task you are working on, prioritizing that over a schedule based on other factors.

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So Prof. Shipp moved away from a fixed schedule of tasks. “I began to experience the satisfying feeling of closure before moving to the next task, which allowed me to get fully absorbed in work without regard for time, an experience better known as flow,” she says.

She also began to pay attention to the meaning of what she was doing. Time management usually leads us to focus on output. But what really counts is meaning, she argues, noting that the most impactful and energizing use of time comes when we view time as a choice between the meaningful and the meaningless.

“The key conclusion I drew from research on subjective time is that time management was no longer my friend. At times, it was my enemy. Instead of a hyper-focus on efficiency in objective time; what I needed was a more subjective view of the holistic experience of time,” she says.

“I challenged myself to view objective time through the lens of subjectivity. I began to focus on work as a series of meaningful events rather than a fixed, hourly schedule. And I searched for meaning over efficiency in every work task by asking: Where does this task fit in relative to my goals and values?”

Quick hits

  • Time management is actually emotional management, says leadership coach Carolyn Mahboubi. Negative emotions like guilt, shame, anger, fear, annoyance and hurt can overwhelm us. We try to resist them by ignoring them, but the more we ignore a problem, the bigger it gets. Instead, manage them so you can accomplish more.
  • Leave off your résumé the reason you left previous jobs, advises executive coach Gerald Walsh. That can be dealt with later in the hiring process. If you are forced to fill in this blank in an online portal, mark something like “career advancement.”
  • When delegating, don’t start with the tedious, boring, ugly stuff. Instead, offer the tasks you love – the best parts of your job – so people can be engaged rather than resentful. “Give away your toys,” declares software engineer Jacob Kaplan-Moss.
  • When thanking a subordinate, offer praise – and stop! Leadership coach Bob Nelson says too often we move from thanks and praise to discussing what might have been better, ruining the moment.
  • You can’t achieve high-quality work if your perfectionism prevents you from finishing, warns Atomic Habits author James Clear.

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