Why That Time Management Hack You’re Trying Will Fail You

You can’t pick up a magazine, browse the internet, scroll Instagram, or visit a bookstore without stumbling on yet another hack that is guaranteed to increase your productivity. The entire world seems to be trying to get more done with less time, and everyone has a solution. 

If you’re anything like me, you have fallen victim to the promise that this new app, planner, process, or concept will be “the one”! I’ve probably read over 50 books on the subject of time management, downloaded at least 25 apps promising to help me keep it all straight, adopted five different ‘systems’ ranging from pen and paper to sophisticated online software in an attempt to feel in control. And, guess what? None of it worked.

Want to know why? It’s simple — they were all based on lies! 

OK, that’s a bit dramatic. Perhaps not all of the suggestions are blatant lies, and I’m sure whatever is suggested has worked for someone, undoubtedly well-intentioned. But, the truth is, you need to find your own personal productivity pathway, which begins with a fundamental question that we often overlook:

How many hours, on average, do you have each week to get your work done? 

The hacks you’re trying, the system you’re implementing, and the advice you’re listening to all start one step too late. If you don’t figure out how many hours you’re working with, you’re up a creek. Let’s put it this way, without knowing how big your container is; it’s impossible to figure out what to put in the container, what to leave out, and how to Tetris it to make it fit.

Finding this number is a two-part process:

  1. How much time do you have available to work?
  2. How much time do you want to work?

How much time you have available to work is objective and easy to find. Perform a quick audit of your average week (no, not incessantly logging your time for what seems like forever) and a bit of math (simple addition and subtraction, I promise).

Here’s what you’re searching for: 

After you account for all the ‘things’ you must do (outside of work), what’s leftover?

It may seem backward, but with any productivity system, you must put yourself first if you’re hoping to avoid burnout or overwhelm.

Think about:

  • sleep 
  • eating (meal prep, actually eating, cleaning up)
  • shopping and errands
  • shuttling (yourself and others)
  • grooming (showering and other bathroom shenanigans)
  • regularly scheduled appointments or obligations

Then, you should also decide – beyond the non-negotiables listed above and any others you came up with- if there are any times that you do not wish to work. For example, I do not want to work between dinner and bedtime, but I will do two hours on the weekends.

Subtract all of this already unavailable work time from the total number of hours in a week. Voila! Realistically, that is the total number of work hours you have available. 

But, wait, there’s more. Next, you need to decide if that’s the number of hours you want to work. 

Notice I said want. Want is not the same as how many hours you work now (or think you work now). It’s not even the number you feel you must work or what society expects from you. You must look at your life and determine the total number of hours you WANT to work. The number is personal – it is not right or wrong; it just IS.

However, our society attaches a lot of meaning to that number, which often complicates our feelings about what it should be. What number shows your commitment to your work? Your hustle? Or, what number shows that you are ‘balancing’ your work & personal life? 

Take some time to think about the story you are attaching to your ‘work’ hours. Get curious and determine whether those are your feelings or those that others have put on you. Then, decide what to do with the objective number you determined above – keep it or adjust it.

Adjusting down is absolutely OK, and while it may change how long things take, it doesn’t mean you can’t be as impactful as you desire. But, I caution you to resist the urge to increase the number. Adding to the objective number would mean eliminating or shorting time spent to help you recover, function, be whole, which leads to burnout.

I’ll double down on this statement – the total time you devote to working each week is personal. There is no right or wrong number; it’s just a number, and what you do with that number is the difference-maker. Now, get to work.