Tony is a business psychologist who works with companies, including Microsoft, Disney, News Corporation, and HSBC. He’s also a research fellow at Birkbeck College, University of London. As a psychologist, he focuses on how people think, feel, and behave at work. At heart, Tony is a translator, taking quality research from psychology and other fields, and applying them meaningfully to everyday career and business challenges.
Following is an excerpt from our ebook called "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working For You and How You Can Change It." You can download the free ebook here.
At 8:00 p.m. on the 22nd of October, 1707, Admiral Cloudesley Shovell steered HMS Association onto rocks near the Scilly Isles. In the fleet he was leading, three other ships crashed that foggy night.
The Admiral had miscalculated where he was; a common issue in those days since no one knew how to measure longitude. The resulting loss of 2,000 sailors caused the government of the United Kingdom to act: they hired the greatest thinkers of the day, Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley.
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They believed the answer would be found in science or the stars; they were wrong. The longitude problem was only solved when the unknown carpenter, John Harrison, invented a clock that was both accurate and sea-worthy. The answer, it turned out, was to be found in time.
The Origins of Working Time
Before the Industrial Revolution, people didn’t think in terms of working time; rather, they approached work as individual tasks. We did our tasks in the natural order and at a natural pace. This worked for a largely agricultural society.
However, the Industrial Revolution changed everything. Steam power required lots of people to keep the engines operating, people who needed to be coordinated.
This required time: workers’ time to labour in the factories and clock time to coordinate the masses to keep the wheels of industry turning. So we started selling our time; and business owners started installing clocks in their factories and on town halls.
It was natural that business owners wanted to make the best use of this time they had bought. Here lay a problem: workers didn’t think that way.
In fact, the historical “work pattern was one of alternate bouts of intense labour and of idleness,” which was pretty frustrating for those who were paying!
As John Houghton writes, “The weavers, ‘tis common with them to be drunk on Monday, have their head-ache on Tuesday, and their tools out of order on Wednesday.”
Time had become a battleground, pitching worker freedom against the needs of business. Any business owner who could get their workers to fill their time with more work would become wealthier.
In fact, so valuable had time become that many unscrupulous business owners would adjust their clocks during the day to get more hours out of their unsuspecting labourers!
This battle between owners and workers might have been an equal match until the moralists got involved. Benjamin Franklin, perhaps most famously, reframed our conception of time: no longer was time an experience; it was money. Not using your time well was wasteful and dumb.
Then God got involved! Around the Industrial world, 17th century clergymen like Richard Baxter used the pulpit to preach that idleness wasn’t just wasteful; it was sinful!
In the end, we all accepted time is money; as a result, we all became punctual (a word that didn’t really exist before the Industrial Age), we worked more, and progress was accelerated.
In fact, historian Lewis Mumford goes as far as saying, “The clock, not the steam engine, is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”
Henry Ford and the Stopwatch
The next evolution of working time was at the start of the 20th century, with every second being counted. As industry progressed, success was based on your productivity.
However, this was in a context of social pressure to reduce working hours (it wasn’t until 1926 that Henry Ford caved in and started the 40-hour week). Successful companies were those that could produce the most in the least time.
Enter Frederick Winslow Taylor. He got his stopwatch out and changed everything. He applied scientific techniques to examine how to maximize worker production by the second. He showed that productivity increased when work was divided into simpler, more repeatable tasks.
As work got divided, so the profession of management was born; and the role of the manager was to drive efficiency, something that transformed worker productivity.
The Knowledge Worker and Time Management
Production was increasingly automated in the 1960s, so the way we think about time changed again.
As manual jobs decreased, there was a rapid growth in what Peter Drucker called "knowledge workers." For these office workers, time usage could no longer be controlled by the manager and the assembly line speed; it was in the control of the worker.
So the time management industry came into being. The gurus proclaimed that we could do it all with better organization; the Filofax became the symbol of the upwardly-mobile; our desks got plastered in Post-it Notes; and we all got sent on time management courses!
As downsizing required us to “do more with less,” being organized really mattered. It helped us to cope, to remember, and to deliver.
So Where are We Now?
The 21st of October, 2015 was a special day: it was Back to the Future Day! The day on which Marty McFly travelled forward from 1985 to find a world of flying cars and hoverboards. I think he would have been somewhat underwhelmed by the real world of today.
The thing is, our world looks boringly similar to 1985. This, however, is only true of the physical world. In the psychological realm, the Digital Era has changed everything.
As one example of this, since the Renaissance, the total amount of information in the world had doubled every 100 years. In a few years, it will be doubling every 11 hours!
In the face of this tsunami of information, the way we need to think about working time needs to change, because time is no longer money.
More than that, the very perspectives, strategies, and beliefs that helped us to succeed on this journey of industrial progress are beginning to help us fail today, because the change is so fundamental.
Time-Fuelled Busyness and the Attention Economy
We have become so convinced that working time should be filled with activity, that we don’t just work hard any more, we play the “More Game:” the more we do, the more we will succeed.
Time is really helpful for this. If you increase someone’s time awareness, for example, by putting a big clock in front of them, they will do more (just think of how much you do on the last day before your holiday!).
The problem is, the last thing we need today is "more."
Over the last 30 years, the amount of information we are cramming into our brains has increased five times. This increase is completely unprecedented in human history.
However, over the same time period, the amount of content we all produce has increased by 200 times! If you hold those figures together, you realise that the majority of everything we produce cannot be properly consumed! It’s just white noise.
The most valuable resource today, and the thing in greatest shortage, isn’t time; it’s attention. After all, we’re an Attention Economy!
This applies to technological progress, where Carnegie Mellon have identified the greatest barrier to technological progress is no longer the processing power of memory; it’s the quality (or lack of) human attention.
In our work, it’s attention that matters too. The consumers of your work—whether they be customers or your management—are overwhelmed. They can’t consume most of what you do and offer.
Success no longer comes from doing "more," but by capturing attention—by doing less, more interestingly.
Or, to paraphrase the World Economic Forum, to succeed in a future of artificial intelligence, big data, and robots, we need to solve complex problems (in other words, we need to think) and be creative. Our time-fuelled desire to do more undermines these core capabilities.
Efficiency Means not Thinking
How many of us are constantly trying to maximize our efficiency by juggling lots of things at once: we keep the email and instant messenger on all the time, as we crunch through our work.
We thrive on the feeling that we are some super task ninja, swatting all the incoming demands and messages in a hyper-efficient whirl!
The average office worker switches attention every three minutes. In doing so, they feel effective, but unfortunately, when we switch rapidly between tasks (like email and other work) we get 40 percent less done.
As we do more tasks, we do less thinking (we’re too busy)! It turns out 30 percent of knowledge workers claimed they did no thinking at work at all; 58 percent did less than 30 minutes! As the world gets more complex, it doesn’t make sense that our knowledge workers are not thinking.
Personal Organization Kills Creativity
Creativity—or the ability to come up with new solutions or approaches—is critical to success in the Attention Economy.
We might think time management will free up time for thinking and creativity; it could have the opposite effect. Studies show that a greater focus on time reduces creativity and problem solving.
There is also a more subtle effect: we have gotten so good at organizing ourselves, armed with our gadgets and software, that we schedule every minute, squeezing more and more into our days.
When we over-schedule our lives, there is only time for doing, not for reflecting. Yet "not doing" is really important.
When we are off task, something neuroscientists call the “default network” fires up. This is the part of the brain responsible for taking all our experiences and integrating them with what we already know.
It is through this somewhat random process of making neural connections that insights happen. If you’re one of those people who have their best ideas in the shower; it’s probably because that is the only time in your day when you are not doing something!
Time management drives more activity, but also more execution of the obvious, rather than the imagination of the possible.
Managing Attention, Not Time
I think the answer lies today not in time management, but in how we use our attention. So what does attention management mean, in practice?
Here are four ideas to directly address the time-based beliefs and habits that are doing so much damage.
1. Do Less by Asking the Right Question
Make tough choices at the start of each day by asking the right question. The standard, and wrong, question to ask is "whether or not" you should do something. Since everything in work is worthwhile, the answer will always be "yes."
Instead, ask which of these activities is the best use of your attention that day. The essence of strategy is not what you do, but what you choose not to do.
2. Be Fully Present
When you put a phone on the table in a meeting, the other person likes you less, and your conversations become less open, less interesting, and less useful. So put your phone away. Better yet, set up a phone amnesty box, so everyone else does, too!
3. Avoid, Don't Resist
Keep your attention focused for longer by avoiding distractions. Research shows it’s harder to resist the temptation of email messages than sex and chocolate!
If you want to switch attention less, switch off these distractions when you want to think and create. Help your brain to linger longer on the problems that matter by creating (or moving to) a low-distraction environment.
4. Create More Wasted Time
Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules two hours of nothing time a day to create the chance to reflect and think. When you have downtime, resist the urge to automatically reach for the phone for more stimulation; let your brain wander.
Unless we allow the default network an opportunity to work, we don’t have a chance to integrate what we are experiencing with what we already know, to create insights and new ideas.
Time for Attention
Time has served us well. For the last 300 years, our increasingly accurate sense of time has propelled our progress, allowing us to do more and achieve more.
However, if we want to continue to achieve, we need to realise that time is no longer the most valuable resource; it is no longer money; attention is what matters.
Get more expert advice on managing time, fighting interruptions, and staying productive in our free ebook "Make Your Work Matter: 7 Thought Leaders on Why Work Isn't Working For You and How You Can Change It."