My Fixation on Time Management Almost Broke Me

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It can be easy to absorb messages in our society that time is a limited resource — a commodity to be managed rather than squandered. And certainly, the various hacks to manage time more efficiently are necessary if you need more discipline and structure. But for some people, time management is a barrier to true effectiveness and productivity. The author, a lifelong proponent of efficient time management, found that her meticulous planning had negative impacts on her health. After researching and then shifting toward subjective — rather than objective — time management, she found more joy in her work, and her health began to improve. She offers three lessons that reveal why our traditional time-management methods can hold us back.

In 2019, I hit a wall. To the outside observer, my career was successful, my family was happy, and I seemed to be living the dream. What people didn’t know, however, was that I was struggling with chronic insomnia, malnourishment, a pinched nerve in my neck, and a wicked hormonal imbalance. I would later discover that, ironically, time management was to blame.

My entire life, I was a proponent of managing one’s time well, seeking out efficiencies and time hacks wherever possible. In my personal life, I planned the order of my errands to only make right turns in my car. I bought a house with a kitchen that minimized steps between zones for efficient cooking or cleaning. I even ate the same breakfast and lunch every day of the week (often speedily at the kitchen counter) to minimize time spent at meals.

In my work, I fed such interests by devoting my research career to understanding how time works. I studied everything I could about how individuals think about and use time. Based on research showing the benefits of time management, I picked up highly recommended practices, such as starting the day with my most important work. I blocked time for different tasks, scheduling writing in the mornings and meetings in the afternoons. I used the Pomodoro technique to focus, alternating 25 minutes on task and five minutes on break. And I often used a time audit to compare how I was spending my time to how I should be spending it. Every day of the week, my calendar was scheduled down to the minute, with zero wasted time.

As a type-A high achiever, I pushed for this efficiency because I wanted career success. However, I also wanted a life. Research clearly demonstrates the importance of breaks and social connections for well-being. To fit these items into my schedule, I frantically worked during the week to avoid working evenings or weekends. I also made myself take a vacation every year, hoping to avoid the increased risk of heart attack associated with skipping time off. Sadly, my brain never shut off during evenings, weekends, or vacations, and the time I did work was intensely focused. But because I hyper-managed every minute of my time inside and outside of work, I became efficient.

But a dark secret was lurking beneath the surface. My health was progressively failing. Multiple doctors urged me to slow down, noting that my list of ailments all pointed to mental stress and the manifestation of tension in my body. I pushed back: “But I don’t work as many hours as other people — I’m really efficient!” Then in January 2019, something snapped. I couldn’t write. I couldn’t think. I stared blankly at my computer and feared I couldn’t do my job. The job I loved, which I had worked for years to create, felt too hard. Worse, the work felt meaningless, like a series of scheduled tasks one after another, repeated to infinity. Revise a paper before the deadline, meet for a committee, prep for class, teach class, answer emails, repeat. In the quest for efficiency and productivity, I had somehow broken myself in the process.

But a curious thing happened while staring at that laptop screen. The very paper I was trying to write began to speak to me in a personal way. I listened. This paper, coauthored with Professor Karen Jansen, was a review of organizational research on subjective time: the individual and/or social experience of the past, present, and future. Whereas objective time focuses on the clock and calendar as a measure of time external to individuals, subjective time brings in the internal, personal experience of time. In this way, subjective time reflects how people perceive, interpret, and mentally travel through time, using memories and forecasts to make sense of the present. This research taught me that an obsession with managing objective time obscures three critical lessons from subjective time.

There Is No Objective Time Without a Subjective Interpretation of It

First, the objective nature of time is completely intertwined with subjective time, yet we don’t recognize this fact. Most individuals believe that meetings should be scheduled on the hour or half-hour, or that a workday lasts from 8 to 5. Yet these are social constructions that can be relaxed in some situations. If one needs a 20-minute meeting, why tie up the calendar for 30 minutes? Or if one needs a longer break in the afternoon to refresh, who cares if it’s not scheduled during the typical lunch break? Such questions challenged my overly constricted view of time management and encouraged me to let go of my temporal schemata or “time rules” — fixed views of when things should occur or how long they should last.

Deadlines are another example of a subjective interpretation of objective time. Many deadlines we perceive as “real” are anything but. Instead, 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. Like the classic metaphor of which balls you can drop and which ones will bounce back, I began to move or even eliminate some deadlines without losing my commitment to others, creating an immediate boost to my level of engagement.

The key takeaway is that time is not as objective as we might believe. Time is primarily a subjective interpretation, making time management incomplete unless we also highlight the subjective constructions of time we live and create.

Subjective Events Are Equally as Important as Objective Hours

Another critical lesson from research on subjective time is how time can be based on events rather than the clock or calendar. Work tasks or meetings are typically scheduled at particular times, such as stopping at noon for lunch. In contrast, a more engaging way to work is with the rhythm of events instead of by clock-time (e.g., starting work at 8 AM and stopping for lunch at noon). Working by event-time prioritizes the work over the schedule (e.g., starting work when ready and stopping when one needs a break). Viewing work tasks as natural events not only emphasizes effectiveness over efficiency, it also increases perceptions of control over time and greater enjoyment of the task.

Moving away from a fixed schedule of tasks eliminated the expectation to put in a certain number of hours of when I was working or not. 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.” Flow is not only more productive but also more fulfilling as one fully experiences the present moment and the benefits of mindful attention.

Further, although practicing mindfulness is typically considered beneficial, working within “event time” also taps into the benefits of occasional mind-wandering. Mind-wandering can be valuable when we need novel, creative solutions — outcomes that are increasingly important in knowledge work. Given that event time offers the freedom to think in a divergent, open-ended fashion, individuals can find the elusive “aha” moments that an overly scheduled view of time management stamps out.

Subjective Meaning Is More Than the Objective Schedule

Lastly, the research is clear that when people perceive, interpret, and mentally travel across subjective time, they are essentially looking for meaning. People often relive past experiences or “pre-live” future events, looking for stories that make sense of these experiences in the present moment. For example, the narrative of how you “fit” at work helps you understand your career trajectory as you reflect on lessons from past jobs and anticipate moves into future jobs. Such meaning cannot be found in objective time, which portrays time as constant and immutable. If all units of time are equivalent, then one time period means no more or less than any other.

In contrast, the meaning of subjective time derives from spending one’s hours and days on purposeful and significant activities. Spending time on an activity that connects to one’s enduring identity, such as my writing an article about past experiences to benefit future readers, is more beneficial than time spent on a less purposeful task, such as filling out an expense report. Clearly, both activities need to be done. But whereas the latter expends energy, the more meaningful activity creates energy through the revitalizing experience of meaningful work. As a result, I can plan to do the less meaningful activity when my energy is lower or when I have a few minutes between meetings, and prioritize the most important and meaningful tasks.

Yet when individuals choose how to spend their time, they often overlook meaning and think more about the economic value of time. Such an emphasis on time as a commodity leads people to perceive time as more scarce, causing them to shift away from meaningful activities like volunteering. By stringently focusing on work tasks as activities to be managed, time management leads people to prioritize output and the quantifiable benefits of working. Worse, such choices are exacerbated by the most successful people. However, the most impactful and energizing use of time comes when we view time as a symbolic choice between the meaningful and the meaningless.

The Ongoing Journey to Subjectively Manage My Time

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. Without losing the benefits of time management, 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? These mental shifts helped me let go of the quest for a perfectly efficient calendar to pursue more fulfilling work.

Of course, nothing in the machine of my work schedule changed immediately. Even though I had a fair degree of control over my schedule as a professor, which enabled me to apply these lessons, I still had a number of commitments, such as publishing deadlines, long-term research projects, teaching schedules, and a request to step in as department chair. On the personal side, I still had a family and numerous doctor’s appointments to keep treating my chronic health conditions. But my perception and interpretation of these events changed. I began to view unscheduled time and unstructured activities as the genesis of creativity in my work, which refreshed me and reminded me why I chose this profession. I began to notice that by creating a less efficient schedule (at least objectively), I somehow accomplished more and felt more energy at work and at home. I even changed my view of doctor’s appointments from time wasted to an opportunity for a break from my computer. Within months, I felt joy again at work and in my life and my health began to improve.

It can be easy to absorb messages in our society that time is a limited resource — a commodity to be managed rather than squandered. And certainly, the various hacks to manage time more efficiently are necessary if you need more discipline and structure. But for some people, time management is a barrier to true effectiveness and productivity. Time management may have had negative effects on my health, but the subjective experience of time started the healing process.

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