Time to unlearn the time management system you learned at school

Picture a workplace where everyone follows rigorous to-do lists. Employees are told what to do, how long to spend on it, and in what order to tackle their projects. Then, picture a workplace where there are no to-do lists, no project deadlines, and no estimations of how long projects will take. Employees tackle work in the order they choose, when they feel like doing it. Which workplace do you think will be more successful?

I’d pick workplace number two, but most people would choose the timely workplace. Why? Because we were all indoctrinated in an obsolete, unrealistic time management system called K-12 education. Grade-school notions of time management are pervasive in the workplace but largely dysfunctional. It’s time to rethink our ideas about time, energy, and priorities at work.


K-12 conditioning

We assume that a timely, structured workplace is superior because we were forced to operate that way in school. Your physics homework was due Thursday at the beginning of fifth period, and if you weren’t done with it, you’d be penalized. When you took an essay test in history class, you had 50 minutes and not a minute more. Time slots, not the pursuit of quality, dictated how and when we learned.

If you work in the innovation economy, grade school probably felt more like a factory than your current workplace. We are not paid to manufacture a list of “right” answers by fifth period. We are paid to solve complex, ambiguous problems. We are paid to pursue quality. We are paid to apply our creativity to issues that affect millions of people.

When we apply K-12 time management to the real world, it doesn’t work. Why exactly?


We’re bad at estimating time

People are awful at estimating how long tasks take. The psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky called this “the planning fallacy.” People are wildly optimistic when estimating the times, costs, risks, and benefits of their own actions.

In one study, psychology professor Roger Buehler asked honors students to estimate how long it would take to finish their theses. On average, they predicted 33.9 days. In reality, it took them an average of 55.5 days. Prompting students to think about past estimation errors didn’t curb their idealism.

In an interview with Stephen Dubner of the Freakonomics podcast, Buehler argued that people get locked into one idealized scenario. “So, generally,” says Buehler, “when you’re planning something out, you’re planning to succeed. You’re not planning to fail.” That’s a logical planning philosophy if you get only one chance to submit your thesis.

However, if quality is more important than timeliness in (most) innovation businesses, why set deadlines that are likely to be wrong? Worse, why set deadlines that would discourage people from experimenting and learning from failures?


Peak energy

Yet another grade-school fallacy has crept into the workplace: you must be alert, attentive, and hardworking all the time because you can’t choose when your classes take place. As management professor Christopher Barnes writes in HBR, “Although managers expect their employees to be at their best at all hours of the workday, it’s an unrealistic expectation.”

Human beings have a natural circadian rhythm. For the average person, energy rises in the morning to peak around noon. After lunch, energy declines to a low around 3 pm. We hit a second peak around 6 pm, then alertness declines for the rest of evening, hitting its lowest low around 3:30 am. The cycle repeats. Of course, larks (morning people) and owls (night people) deviate from this norm.

Energy levels and circadian rhythm are so important, finds Barnes, that morning people are more likely to behave unethically if they work at night. Moreover, sleep-deprived employees are more mistake prone, less creative, less engaged, meaner bosses, and less ethical.

Put simply, the employee who works against a rigid, time-capped to-do list is likely to underperform. If she sacrifices sleep to hit arbitrary deadlines, she’ll perform even worse.


Priorities versus schedules

The author Stephen Covey famously advised, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” People struggle with this distinction not just because of the planning fallacy and circadian rhythm, but because of K-12’s “management” structure.

In grade school, we learn that to win, we must game the priorities of five or six bosses called “teachers.” Say in math class that your homework assignments accounted for 30 percent of your grade, but in literature, the teacher assigned ungraded reading. Math homework would become your priority because your final math and literature grades weigh equally into your GPA. Even so, the literature readings could have been more valuable to your intellectual growth than math boxes.

In innovation businesses, no one can schedule priorities for you, know how long they’ll take, or decide when you’re in a peak state to work. If employees are trained to wait for the boss – “the teacher” – to assign work, their priority will be to please the boss rather than innovate.


A tale of two workplaces

Consider what we’ve learned about the two workplaces: One built on to-do lists and schedules, and one built on freedom and priorities. If we manage people to prioritize schedules like grade schoolers, we stunt their potential. They’re likely to underestimate project times, work on critical projects off their peak hours, and hurt their circadian rhythm to hit deadlines.

Conversely, if we manage people to work on priorities, without a time limit, when they’re most energized, we improve the odds of a high-quality result. From ages five to 18, we were inculcated into a time management system that is good for earning high grades but bad for innovating. Forget K-12 time management. Let your people reclaim their time and manage it for quality.


Steve Hartert is Chief Marketing Officer at JotForm