Time management courses aren’t working—but why?

Brady Wilson

Time management courses aren’t working—but why?

Does your organization’s professional development program offer time management courses?

How is that going for you?

If you’re like a lot of businesses, you’re probably footing a rather expensive bill for such training programs, with the expectation that employees will return with skills for working more efficiently and productively.

Unfortunately, if you’re also like a lot of businesses, you’re probably not seeing the greatest of results.

In fact, I’ve talked to many leaders who find that time management training isn’t having any impact. 

So why is this happening?

The make-or-break brain

Before you go blaming employees, keep this in mind: it’s not necessarily about bad attitudes or people not wanting to do a better job.

Those employees may in fact be very dedicated to your business—they may even jump wholeheartedly at the chance to do training. 

But, as I mentioned in one of my previous articles, the human brain has the amazing potential to make or break a person’s performance at work.

That’s because the executive function (EF)—a most powerful part of the brain—enables us to:

1.    Process: analyze, predict outcomes, and problem-solve
2.    Focus: memorize, pay attention, and verbalize
3.    Self-regulate: maintain impulse control, self-monitor, and cognitively flex
4.    Initiate: prioritize, plan, and decide

The EF also helps us to think strategically, collaborate broadly, communicate clearly, and execute decisively.

Where our ability to manage our time is concerned, every one of the above capabilities has a direct or indirect link. In other words: the EF is absolutely critical to how we manage our time.

Unfortunately, when we are depleted of energy, the first thing to go is the executive function. And no amount of training, skills or know-how will help when we are exhausted. 

Working against the clock

Here are two real-life examples I’ve seen throughout my career, which further demonstrate how essential the EF is to time management. 

  • On an individual level: Let’s say a manager or employee is driving to work, knowing they need to have a difficult conversation with someone in the office. Resolving conflict requires paying close attention, maintaining impulse control, and coming up with solutions. All those actions are powered by the executive function. And so, if that person already feels run down and low on energy, they may decide to put the task off. Despite wanting to be productive, they may check their email, go on YouTube, organize their desk, or hang out by the water cooler—anything but one of those value-adding activities that requires so much of one’s energy.
  • On an organizational level: Knowledge workers without well-fuelled brains are unable to think innovatively—they only have the energy to focus on short-term solutions and quick fixes, not on identifying root causes and fixing systemic issues. Over time, this often results in the need for reactive firefighting—but again, without energy, one can only provide band-aid solutions. And so, you get the snowball effect: ongoing depletion within the system, eventually requiring multiples of additional energy, time and mind-space from everyone in the organization.

All-time high: getting employees back on track

Here are three ways leaders can help energize the EF, thereby making time management easier for employees.

1. Minimize distractions

Minimizing distractions that interrupt employees in the middle of “flow” can make a positive difference on employee performance. Here’s why: like any technology, the brain itself has a limited amount of “RAM,” and will become bogged down if a person’s focus is continuously split between multiple responsibilities. Leaders can help by minimizing the number of tasks employees—or, if that’s impossible, holding fewer impromptu meetings.  

2. Combat negative thinking

The emotional part of the brain is so powerful that it will ban access to the resources we need to do something, unless we are convinced it is possible. Consequently, when people feel negative, this makes them significantly less productive. The good news is that science shows it is not our capability but our belief in our capability that makes us effective. Leaders can help employees overcome negative thinking by encouraging regular meditation—which strengthens the anterior cingulate (the “clutching mechanism”) between the emotional and rational parts of the brain. 

3. Make meaningful connections 

As I mentioned in a previous article, meaningful, face-to-face conversations that demonstrate value, respect and care can release high-performance hormones in the brain—thereby stimulating the executive function. Because quality conversation requires being present in the moment, leaders must ensure they focus closely on the person they are speaking to, show genuine curiosity, and not appear distracted by other things or thoughts.

It’s time to look at time management differently

Without energy, the ability to manage one’s time is simply not possible. 

But by understanding and honouring how the human brain works, business leaders have an opportunity to better equip employees toward being more productive, and create organizations that make the most efficient use of time.