There is a debate raging in the world of productivity gurus. One camp, characterized by David Allen’s Getting Things Done® methodology or The Pomodoro Technique, focus on helping you achieve more in less time by establishing better daily routines, building a fool-proof personal workflow, and harnessing the “hamster wheel in your head” for better focus. The other camp, defined by recent bestsellers like Essentialism, The One Thing, and anything by Tim Ferriss, suggest a radical re-prioritization of your work—slashing “non-essential” or “low-value” work from your to-do list (or delegating it) and focusing instead on projects or tasks that move your personal mission forward.
The first camp emphasizes “efficiency,”—getting more done in less time—while the second emphasizes “effectiveness,” or doing the right things. A good time manager should be emphasizing both, though not always at the same time. How do you know which you should focus on?
If you are early in your career (with little control over your to-do list), it’s a great time to focus on efficiency. Build the habits, routines, and systems today, and efficiency will become second-nature tomorrow. Similarly, efficiency becomes a renewed concern when the volume of your responsibilities increase (for example, if you go from managing one project at a time to several simultaneously) or when you undergo a life change (such as becoming a parent) that requires establishing a “new normal” where your time is concerned. Finally, even a seasoned professional can benefit from annual or semi-annual “efficiency check-ins,” similar to a spring cleaning. Bad habits sneak up on even the best of us, and they collect like lint over the course of months and years.
On the other hand, anyone whose role is evolving into management, leadership, and/or strategy, or who have some autonomy in their work, should be taking a hard look at their effectiveness as well. One way to do that is to establish a clear intent or mission, avoiding the tendency to take on too many goals, and then delete or delegate anything that does not push your mission forward. But it’s not enough to do that exercise once a year. Effectiveness requires an entirely new mindset—a set of questions you are trained to ask yourself each time potential opportunities cross your desk:
1. What value does this task add to my mission? The organization? My development?
2. What could I be doing instead?
3. What problem is this task trying to solve, and is there an easier/better way to solve it?
4. What would happen if it just didn’t get done?
5. Are you the only person who can do this task? Who else is able to do it, and what value would it provide them?
Effectiveness can be difficult to cultivate because it requires a fair measure of risk-taking and rule-breaking. It may ruffle feathers. But people who are comfortable breaking rules often have higher incomes to show for it.
Whether you are in a period of working on your efficiency or your effectiveness, there are TONS of free resources geared toward both (start here). Another approach is to invest in focused training. We read hundreds of time management studies each year so that you don’t have to, and we bring it all into our half-day course (here’s the schedule of upcoming classes.)
Regardless of your development tool, remember that time management is not an either/or proposition. Time management is about both efficiency and effectiveness; the best skill you can develop today is the ability to know which approach is most critical at a given time.