Time management has become an obsession in our work and life culture. But what are we actually trying to do when we manage our time, and how teams can make the most of their time without creating more stress for team members.
In the modern world our lives are as busy and hectic as ever. Balancing our personal and work lives, our real and online lives, and the many tasks that accompany each can sometimes feel overwhelming. On top of that, as we’ve talked about in earlier posts, technology has given us more and more ways of getting distracted and losing focus.
Which is why time management has risen in importance in the past few years. Now there’s a slew of information, apps and programs about how to schedule and “control” your time, and how to organize it so that you can focus on getting everything important done in a day.
Many teams have also adopted “time management” strategies in an effort to achieve higher efficiency and productivity. There is clearly a case to be made for this, since it benefits teams to be as focused and coordinated as possible.
The problem though, is that many time management strategies can ironically lead to more things to worry about, and therefore more stress. Adding ways to become more efficient at finishing your to-do list can in fact just lead to more busy work, and even the expectation of being able to finish everything can in itself lead to more anxiety.
There’s another aspect of the current discourse around time management that is sometimes troubling, which is that it often focuses on the individual and their own shortcomings when it comes to managing time well. This puts a lot of pressure on individual team members, and disregards the power of teams as a whole, which is to create effective working environments that motivate all members to work together.
So in the following post, we will offer some ideas about time management on teams, and how to make the most of your time by working together and collaborating. Again, the focus will be on how team members can influence each other and their working environments, rather than individual strategies or behaviors.
What we’re really talking about when we say “time management”
First, it’s important to question what it is we really mean by “time management”. After all, as Olivier Burkerman notes in his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, we can’t really control time, or even manage it. It goes on whether we like it or not, and isn’t something that really is in our power to shape or bend to our will. In fact, it may be this lack of endless time, which is out of our control, that gives meaning to our lives.
But putting aside the philosophical implications of this insight, what it reveals is something more interesting about “time management” and about what it is that we’re really trying to control here. Rather than time, what we want to be in control of is what we do with that time.
So we’re really talking about actions. And if we want to dig deeper, we’re talking about actions that give us meaning and purpose. In other words, in order to achieve time-management, we have to think about priorities.
How to set priorities
Priorities define what is most important in our lives and in our work. Doing this allows us to think in a more organized way about what we should be spending our time on, and why. Priorities are therefore bound up in our larger goals and what brings us meaning.
A good way to think about priorities is, as Burkeman writes, by asking the question, “Does this choice diminish or enlarge me?” This is an intentionally open-ended question. For each of us, the answer will be different given our worldviews, goals and dreams. But it’s a good way to get at the heart of what time management should really be about: Doing what’s important to us.
We can try any method we like to goal-set and determine how best to use our time. But ultimately we are forced to choose, and it’s much better to make this choice based on what will give us meaning and enlarge our lives. Whether we want to focus on health, relationships, knowledge, or success in some field, knowing what our underlying values and goals are will help us stay on our path and continue to move forward, happily, through time.
Setting priorities on teams
This is no different on teams. Teams, just like individuals, need to make important decisions about goals and the best methods to achieve them. They also need to be concerned with what diminishes or enlarges them, in the sense that teams want the reputation that they can achieve their goals, meet obligations, and continue to grow.
The difference is, obviously, that teams are composed of a number of individuals, each with their own skills, personalities, and even their own goals. But this is what gives teams their power, too. Teams can achieve more than individuals because they can combine all these qualities together to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts.
This is true for setting priorities and time management as well. To do this though, teams need to create environments that are conducive to understanding what to focus on and where the priorities are. So here are some areas to focus on in order to improve priority setting on teams:
Communication is the number one central component of all teams. Teams need to be able to openly share opinions and feelings in order to be effective, and this is the same when it comes to goals. You should encourage open dialogue and communication about goals (both for the team and for individuals), and to give feedback about them. Having team members engaged in this process gives them more buy-in into those goals, as well as on the team in general.
Working together naturally builds stronger desire to talk about goals. Open collaboration among team members, where they are sharing ideas, thoughts, and opinions and are establishing work methods among themselves, leads to team members having a stronger sense of what the team needs to do to achieve better results and focus its time better.
3. Consider the long-term
It should go without saying since we are talking about goals, but often time management on teams involves trying to get every last thing done, whether it’s a minimal task or not. And sometimes, those minimal tasks like responding to emails or attending meetings, end up taking up the whole day. To counter this, encourage the whole team (and not just upper management) to think long-term. Think about are the tasks that are really building towards the long-term vision of the team, and which can be decreased. Also think about your team’s process of getting things done in relation to its longer-term vision.
The priority matrix and saying “no”
The reality of the situation is that many teams are often forced by circumstance into delaying priorities and tasks that build towards long-term goals due to emergencies and unexpected events. Again, this is a question of choices, and sometimes events are beyond your team’s control.
One way of keeping on task while dealing with unexpected situations is the priority matrix. The matrix works by dividing tasks by urgency and importance. Urgent tasks are ones that have a strong deadline (or an impending one), while important tasks are those that are more central to teams’ long-term goals.
What this model does a good job of is showing how not all urgent tasks are important. Indeed, modern work involves balancing different demands, but not all of these demands have the same level of importance. It’s ok to put off some things because they aren’t as important to your work as a team, or because they don’t help you achieve your long-term goals. In other words, it is ok to say “no”.
Scheduling time together, getting in sync
The last important point about time management on teams that I want to make is the importance of spending time together, and scheduling time so that more team members get to spend time together.
Going back to Burkeman’s book, he makes an important observation that one of the best ways to manage our time is by spending it with others. This isn’t simply a message about finding meaning through other people (although that is indeed a part of it). Rather, spending time with other people literally allows us to manage our time better.
He uses the case of the Soviet Union to highlight this. In the early days of the USSR, the government implemented a system whereby the traditional seven-day week was abolished. Instead, there would be four-day workweeks, followed by one day of rest. Furthermore, workers were divided into five different shift groups, so that not everyone had the same four-day work week and day of rest. Supposedly this would give workers more frequent breaks and lead to less congestion, as well as providing more constant labor throughout the week.
However, as Burkeman notes, this policy caused widespread dissatisfaction and depression. People couldn’t have the same time off as friends or even other family members and there was no way to organize a consistent social life. In other words, they lost motivation because they were not using their time in the same way. The point is that other people are crucial to how you organize your time.
Teams are therefore important sites of time management. They keep people together and on the same schedule. This also reinforces the internal logic of teams, which is about getting in sync with other individuals to accomplish big goals.
Still, teams need to actively work to achieve this type of synchronicity, especially in today’s world. Hybrid and remote teams have made it harder for teams to be in sync and all on the same schedule. More flexible schedules are good for workers, yes, but teams need some sort of time-management and schedule stability to maintain the type of unity and collaboration that allow teams to thrive.
So teams need to be conscious of intentionally creating more shared time, either through office days or brainstorming sessions. Even just giving team members the same break time gives team members the chance to sync schedules and feel more motivated as a result. Coffee breaks, happy hours, and regular team building activities are also good ways to schedule time together on your team, and to establish a sense of common unity that can motivate teams to accomplish more.
As you can see, time management isn’t something that is just for individuals. Teams need to be aware of time management, but in the sense of providing the right environments in which team members can focus on the most important tasks. This includes increasing communication and collaboration so that goals become clear and widely thought of. It also means being conscious of scheduling time together, both inside the office and outside through things like team building activities, so that your team can stay in sync. As a team you can do anything together, including managing your time in this hectic world.