As our lives have become busier, desire to do things quickly and efficiently has grown — something the rise of speed reading apps, lack of break-taking at work, and a general focus on “productivity” has shown. Good time management skills, therefore, are now highly prized both at work and at home.
But do such techniques actually work? In a meta-analysis published in PLOS One, Brad Aeon from Concordia University and colleagues find that they do — but perhaps not for the reasons you’d expect. While time management skills have become more important in evaluations of job performance since the 1990s, their biggest impact lies elsewhere: in personal wellbeing.
Time management, in brief, is a decision-making framework that helps us structure, protect and adapt our time in changing circumstances. It can therefore be measured through questions like “do you have a daily routine?”, “do you find it hard to say no to people?” and “do you evaluate your daily schedule?”. Work-life balance and attitudes to time and time management are also key.
To explore the efficacy of time management, the team collated 158 papers from the mid-1980s to 2019 in journals in business, computing, gender studies, psychology, sociology and education; papers that included scales or questionnaires on time management were also included. (Interestingly, time management studies became more popular between 2000 and the 2010s, suggesting a wider trend and interest in the topic.)
These studies included work on time management in academia and the workplace, individual differences in time management, and its impact on wellbeing factors such as life satisfaction, anxiety, depression, and positive and negative affect.
By looking at the effects across all of these studies, the team found that time management has a moderate, positive impact on work performance, both in terms of performance appraisal by managers and factors like motivation and involvement with work. The relationship between time management and job performance became stronger over the years the studies were published, another suggestion that time management has become a more important factor in people’s lives. This link was not as strong in academic settings — time management seemed to be less relevant to tests scores or grades than it was to performance reviews at work.
Most individual differences were only weakly associated with time management skills: women have stronger time management skills than men, for instance, but this correlation was weak. Women’s time management skills did grow over the timeline of the meta-analysis, however perhaps a sign of more busy schedules and increased juggling of tasks.
Despite narratives that suggest time management is primarily a work or career-based skill, the strongest link was between good time management and wellbeing: the effect of time management on life satisfaction was 72% stronger than on job satisfaction. Time management also reduced feelings of distress.
Overall the findings suggest that time management does work — though contrary to popular belief, it is wellbeing that is the most positively impacted factor, not work. Work and wellbeing are clearly linked — if you’re having a horrible time at work your life satisfaction is unlikely to be too high. But the results could mean that wellbeing is not simply a byproduct of a successfully managed work life but can be a direct result of good time management.
You may not want to put too much stock in time management alone, however: being good at time management, the team argues, is often a function of privilege. Things like income, class and education all influence how we are able to manage our time. They use the meme-ified phrase that “you have as many hours in the day as Beyoncé” to illustrate their point: while technically true, Beyoncé has a full team of nannies, drivers, chefs, personal trainers and more to manage her time and thus has the hours of their day as well as hers.
Those without such resources are unlikely to achieve as much as someone who does, and shaming them for lack of attainment is unhelpful. And though time management skills may be invaluable in a busy life, it’s also useful to remember the words of Dr Maria Kordowicz, writing in November’s issue of The Psychologist: you are more than your productivity.