How to Take Ownership of Your Time Management System vs. Just Following Along

TimeThis is a guest post by Francis Wade.

One of the key distinctions that gets played out in my book, “Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure,” is that there’s a big difference between owning your own productivity system and following one that’s defined by someone else.

The original problem

A short background on the book: Bill, a project manager and engineer who is working overtime to play three separate roles in his company, receives news that he just might be laid off. His productivity isn’t up to par, and he needs to improve his time management skills in order to save his job.

He tries everything – including taking advice from Vernon, a colleague who follows a detailed set of behaviors laid out in a popular time management book. Vernon turns out to be something of a Productivity Nazi who insists that the book must be followed to the letter; his total commitment turns Bill’s life into a living hell.

The problem has many dimensions, as does real-life. A part of it has to do with Vernon’s irascible personality, and his view that Bill is a threat to his own ambitions.

But a huge part comes from the assumption that one person who discovers a new level of personal productivity can successfully tell others exactly what they need to do as well. The book questions this premise, and Bill eventually discovers that most of the readers of this popular time management book don’t follow everything in it.

In fact, they do their own thing, using bits and pieces of the book. Vernon hates this fact, and actively bullies those who try to take a piecemeal approach. Bill, however, champions it and says that it’s just a reality: as adults, changing our habits, practices and rituals is hard work and people fail when they try to change too much all at once. Instead, to preserve their sanity, they try to get by doing just enough to see an improvement.

Why the conventional wisdom fails

This makes sense: time management systems are put together over several years, and by the time we become adults they are already hard-wired. A book that only focuses on prescribing a “perfect” set of behaviors is just too hard for most people to follow given that they aren’t starting from scratch. Quantum leaps in ingrained behaviors just don’t happen in reality very often – even Mozart wasn’t born playing the piano!

In the book, Bill reasons that because we put together our own systems to begin with, the best improvements need to be focused on the individual’s needs. Hence, we need to deepen the ownership of our systems rather than focus on following any external set of behaviors.

While Vernon has no room for this particular outcome, Bill spends a great deal of his adventure encouraging others to shift their attention to ownership, helping them to direct their motivation for change internally versus externally.

Fortunately for Bill he learns from Graham Riley, an academic, that this approach happens to match the latest research showing the value of taking small, customized steps to accomplish individual, specific goals. When we make the shift to ownership and it gathers steam, the following steps naturally take place, and they provide the outline for Bill’s adventure in the book.

How to shift from followership to ownership in 5 questions

1.  “What Have I Been Doing All These Years?”

We start becoming curious about our current system, and the ways that it works and doesn’t work so well. The fact that there are both strong and weak points helps us focus on preserving the strong ones while trying to build up the weak, saving time and effort. A good diagnosis can highlight these areas.

2. “What Can I Begin to Fix?”

We start to make plans to correct the faults that have almost inevitably crept in because our systems were self-created. However, without a knowledge of the design rules, it’s tough to build complex systems such as helicopters, televisions or tablets. Time management systems are just as complex and a good plan will start by correcting the obvious faults.

3. “How Can I Meet Higher Goals?”

After the faults have been fixed, we start to be interested in getting even better, and making longer term improvement plans. The need may come from our inability to manage all the current demands on our time, or perhaps from an anticipated need for greater capacity. In any case, we set goals and then translate them into small steps, following the latest research into changing habits and practices.

4. “Should I Create a Plan?”

The small steps identified in #3 are converted into a realistic plan lasting months or years. Many of us don’t have the patience for this process to take place, but there are no shortcuts. World-class piano playing doesn’t take place without a multi-year effort, and neither does world-class time management. The plans we create should look do-able, achievable and focus on laying out small steps over time. When they are this inviting, they are more likely to be successful.

5. “What Supports Do I Need?”

Once we have a plan, we put in place supports to help us make the transition. Habit change is hard, and we each need our own supports to supplement the inevitable drop in willpower that takes place.

In the book, Bill learns that there are simply no shortcuts to great performance, and given the facts that we know about time management with the habits, practices and rituals that we have taught ourselves over the years, it’s better to take a conservative approach and try to increase the odds of success at every turn.

The truth is – a LOT of people fail when they try to make productivity gains. Most who attend a program or purchase a book don’t succeed. A great deal of this takes place because we make Vernon’s mistake of followership, and don’t realize that it’s better to take ownership. It might be a less obvious and more challenging road to follow, but it’s the only one that leads to the long term improvement that we all want so much.

Bill’s Im-Perfect Time Management Adventure is available on