Time management training: An idea whose time has come and gone?
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Time management training: An idea whose time has come and gone?

Planning on offering time management training to your employees anytime soon?

If your goal is improved job performance, maybe you shouldn’t bother.

According to two research studies, time management training — as useful as it may sound — doesn’t have much effect on employee performance. It may give employees the impression that they have more control over their time. But it doesn’t appear that this perception of control helps them do their jobs any better.

No performance improvement

One study was done by a professor of organizational psychology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The professor, Therese Hoff Macan, surveyed 44 employees who had received time management training, and compared their responses with those of another group who hadn’t been trained. She also got supervisors of the first group of employees to comment on whether and how their performance had changed after the training.

To her surprise, she found that the trained group’s answers didn’t differ much from those who hadn’t been trained to manage their time. The trained employees reported no more frequent use of time management techniques, no more job satisfaction, and no less job-related stress. Nor did their job performance change much, their supervisors reported.

In the other study, done by researchers at the University of Würzburg in Germany, 71 participants in an experiment were split into a training group and a control, or comparison, group. The training group experienced no improvement in a series of performance indicators. They did report greater feelings of control over their time and lower levels of stress.

Attention management

So it’s pretty clear that time management training isn’t a magic bullet for improving performance. If it helps employees feel more in control and less stressed (although the evidence of the latter is mixed), well and good. But there may be a better way.

Training and productivity expert Maura Thomas has been published in Harvard Business Review on the subject of time management. And she says flatly that it doesn’t work. So what does?

According to Thomas, it’s something called attention management training. The idea is not to show people how to better use their time, but rather how to focus their attention. Time management — with its emphasis on task lists and priorities — is an idea from a different era, Thomas argues, a time before the digital distractions that the modern workforce is heir to. Attention management training takes all those attention-eating black holes into account.

Mental quadrants

How does attention management work? As a preparatory step, Thomas suggests that employees consider a series of mental quadrants in which they may find themselves at various times:

Reactive and distracted — Multitasking

This, Thomas says, is most people’s state at work.

Daydreaming — Mind wandering

A state of consciousness that’s restorative to the brain but not directly productive.

Focused and mindful

The person is fully mentally present and making an effort to maintain focus.

Flow

The quadrant into which a person can sometimes pass from quadrant #3. They’re so absorbed they lose track of time.

3 steps for better attention management

Then to operationalize attention management, she recommends these steps:

1. Recognize the quadrant you are in.

You’ve been bouncing between emails, texts and drop-by visits all morning. You stop and realize that you’re in the reactive and distracted quadrant.

2. Figure out the quadrant you want to be in.

You’ve lost focus on an important report you need to complete because you’re distracted. The report requires deep thought. So you decide you need to move into the focused and mindful quadrant. If you’re really focused, you may achieve a flow state in quadrant #4.

3. Make shifts to move to your desired quadrant.

You can take small steps to adjust the environment. For example, put white noise in your headphones if you work in an open office. You might want to switch off your phone and log out of your email.

Summary

Of course, people may need help recognizing these states of mind and learning to control them. That’s where training comes in. But if the research studies and Thomas’s work are on the right track, those responsible for employee learning may want to consider alternatives to time management training.


This blog entry is based on the following research studies:

Macan, T. (1996) Time-Management Training: Effects on Time Behaviors, Attitudes, and Job Performance,  The Journal of Psychology: 130:3, 229-236.

Hafner, A. and Stock, A. (2010) Time Management Training and Perceived Control of Time at Work, The Journal of Psychology: 144:5, 429-447.

 

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