I’ve read a few time management and productivity books, such as those by David Allen and Mark Forster. And there are a lot more out there I haven’t read, as well as lots of blog posts and other articles. I think these books have a lot of value and useful ideas for so-called “knowledge workers”, but I also think it’s a specific type of knowledge work that they are most useful for, and I’ve never found them to be completely applicable to the work that I do.
Often these books contain the subtle (or not so subtle) message that theirs is the One True Way of managing your time and tasks. It’s easy to get really enthusiastic while reading these books and think that you need to throw out what you’ve been doing and implement the new system to solve all your problems!
But mostly these books are written by people whose primary business (other than writing books) is to advise other people on how to improve their productivity and time management. That’s a very specific type of work. It probably involves lots of meetings, emails, reports to write, phone calls to make and various other small but numerous administrative tasks. And so this is exactly the type of work that most of these books tell you how to manage!
But “knowledge worker” is a broad term, and I think there are lots of people for whom work doesn’t really look like this. For example, workers who tend to have one big project to work on at a time. Their success is really based on how well they are able to consistently focus on that one project. You might call these “flow workers” after the state of Flow they experience when they are truly absorbed in their work and are at their most productive. For flow workers, the most important thing is to have long, uninterrupted blocks of time to work on their primary project. This is when the real work gets done.
Of course, flow workers still have other things to do. They get invited to meetings, they have miscellaneous administrative tasks to deal with and calls to make, just like everyone else does. So the systems advocated by typical time management methods can still be really useful here. Their main benefit is in clearing the mind of these distracting tasks. Once they are all in a trusted system, then that desirable state of flow can be achieved much more easily without those distractions.
And for everyone, having all those tasks managed is beneficial. I’ve found that my creativity goes up when I’m feeling totally on top of things, and new ideas just seem to flow more easily. And it helps to avoid those last-minute emergencies that crop up when you don’t handle things on time.
Everyone is different. We all have different jobs, different projects, different skills and experience and different personalities. There’s no one-size-fits-all time management system. The value in all the different books and articles out there is in cherry picking different bits of different systems and finding the things that work for you.
Even if you find a system that works, things change. If you change jobs, change careers, or even as your skills and personality change subtly over time, you need to keep revising your system so it continues to work well for you.
So this is how I view books about time management now; as sources of ideas and inspiration to fit into my existing ways of working, but not as revolutionary new systems to replace what I’m already doing that works. And I bear in mind that the work the author does is probably not the same as the work I’m doing.