The problem isn’t time; it’s us. It’s not about how to check more things off our lists; it’s about recognizing how our current behavior diminishes our effectiveness.
We all struggle daily with getting the items on our “to do” list checked off – and rarely do we have a day when we complete all the actions we plan. In fact, productivity expert David Allen says that the average executive has 170 interactions a day and has 200-300 hours of projects and actions backlogged. No wonder we are stressed!
While getting a better handle on time management is certainly important, lately I’ve come to think a big part of the problem isn’t how we manage time but rather how we manage ourselves. In this issue, we focus on changing behavior patterns that waste time: people-pleasing, procrastination or perfectionism – in others and ourselves, taking other people’s “monkeys” off their backs and onto ours, and underestimating the value of our time and thereby spending it on low-yielding jobs.
We’ll help you concentrate on results, not on being busier. As time management expert Alan Lakein puts it: “to waste your time is to waste your life, but to master your time is to master your life.”
Understanding Inner Conflicts is the First Step to Managing Chronic Time Abusers
We all know people who are chronic time abusers — people who work for you, your peers, your manager, or, (heaven forbid) you! Two things are certain: 1) time abusers can be highly disruptive, and 2) suggesting time-management techniques rarely helps.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, Steven Berglas explains, “While the vast majority of us can benefit from practical insights on how to organize our lives better, lessons in time management will have little impact on time abusers. That’s because real-time abuse results from psychological conflict that neither a workshop nor a manager’s cajoling can easily cure.”
Berglas, a clinical psychologist, executive coach, and research associate, postulates that the time abuser’s quarrel isn’t even with time but rather with a brittle self-esteem and an unconscious fear of being evaluated and found wanting. In his article, Berglas describes a number of time abuse patterns and suggests some appropriate interventions. Three important cohorts are the People Pleaser, the Perfectionist, and the Procrastinator. Know anyone who might be a candidate?
Time abusers are generally highly inflexible individuals who believe deeply they are doing the best possible job. If you have one or more of these individuals in your organization, recognize that time abuse is a symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. Berglas points out that, “it is therefore impossible to cure a person of time abuse by actually managing his time. Instead, you must understand your time abuser’s need for control and fear of evaluations.” He explains, “Managing your time abusers is not about managing their time; it’s about helping them confront their inner demons.”
So here’s a look at several patterns and some tips for managing each.
The Perfectionist (For Whom Performance is All or Nothing)
Perfectionists are people who need to satisfy extremely unrealistic but deeply internalized standards of excellence, making schedule adherence very difficult. They get away with it, explains Berglas, “because they do first-rate work.” For a perfectionist, “good enough” will never suffice. The perfectionist requires absolute control over the quality of the product he produces. According to Berglas, “A perfectionist is someone who is too vulnerable to feeling ashamed of his productions ever to give anyone less than the best.” The perfectionist copes with his vulnerability by doing all he can to prevent criticism: “If my work is beyond reproach, then no one can find me wanting.” According to Berglas, managing a perfectionist is “almost impossible.” He explains that the perfectionist wants only the approval that was unattainable in childhood. In most cases, they can’t get relief from their symptoms without professional help. Berglas does suggest one technique, called “flooding”, that may help. It involves exposing perfectionists to frequent low doses of evaluation – progress reports, updates, and assessments, thus lowering their fears.
The People Pleaser (Saying “Yes” All the Time is Highly Dysfunctional)
As Berglas explains, “When a person chronically takes on more and more responsibilities out of a fear of confronting authority, he will inevitably commit too much of his time to unproductive projects.” Berglas believes that people pleasers’ feelings were not sufficiently valued in their early environments. “Much like Cinderella, who was forced to clean house so her stepsisters could go to the ball, people pleasers are taught to subordinate their desires for the good of others.” According to Berglas, “While people pleasers seem humble and self-effacing, the truth is that like everyone else – possibly, more than others – they need public acclaim. The good news is that they can benefit from assertiveness training. Berglas also suggests that if you manage a people pleaser, you may need to send them this clear message: “If you don’t hear it as a direct request from me, don’t do it.” You will also need to monitor what your people pleaser is doing for whom as he routinely accepts work beyond the boundaries of his jobs. And don’t forget to profusely praise his regular work so he doesn’t take on others’ work to get that praise.
The Procrastinator (the Michelangelo’s of Time Abusers!)
The most common time abusers, procrastinators, leave assignments until the 11th hour and then throw themselves (and others) into a panic, working furiously around the clock to meet a deadline. According to Berglas, procrastinators resemble perfectionists in that they both run shamelessly late. “But while a perfectionist is sweating to achieve an A+, a procrastinator postpones doing any work because he secretly fears that he cannot produce an A+.” Berglas suggests that such chronic self-doubt stems from being raised by parents who praise the child too early and too often in the mistaken belief that only positive feedback is good for the child’s self-esteem. The child develops an exalted opinion of himself that he fears losing. The procrastinator reacts to rewards by assuming that authorities only want more and better work from him and fears that a promotion will increase his likelihood of failure.
Not only does a procrastinator simply refuse to work, he gets interrupted by other assignments or is sidetracked by unexpected crises: unexpected customer demands, broken machinery, illness, or just plain old car trouble. In extreme cases, the procrastinator will unconsciously sabotage his own work — “If I don’t get up to bat, I can’t strike out.”
So, what’s a manager to do? You must strike at the heart of what he most fears: his failure. Berglas suggests a technique he calls “empathic catastrophizing,” which involves helping the procrastinator feel more comfortable imagining all the bad things that might happen if he were to turn in work on time but not up to par. “By helping a procrastinator air his anxieties,” Berglas explains, “you can help him understand he can do remarkable work even if he is not always the superhero his parents wanted him to be. Another technique that Berglas suggests is to put off the day of reckoning. “If you can convince your procrastinator that judgment will hit only in the distant future – long after the project is due – then the threat associated with not succeeding on the immediate tasks is greatly diminished.”
Is There Hope?
Berglas suggests that helping the time abusers change their ways is a slow process and one that may require professional therapy. “Yet the rewards of that kind of investment in your people can be great, indeed,” he claims. “The motivations that cause the time abuse are often the same ones that drive people to perform well.” So it is very likely your company’s worst time abusers can become its top performers. As a manager, you must ask yourself if you are willing to invest the time and effort to “reform” a time abuser. And, you must be brutally honest in assessing your own behavior. Are you a time abuser? And what are you willing to do about it?