I've been writing about time management for many years now. In fact, it was one of the very first topics on which I was consulted as a coach to the perpetually busy, audit and accountancy profession. And still it sits at number one on the angst list. Given the question 'what would make the most difference to your life and work just now', the response remains a predictable, 'better time management, please'.
Given our 24/7, hyper-connected, turbo charged, sharp expectation-driven 21st century audit careers, the clarion cry is louder than ever. Do I have anything new to share as an antidote to these tricky times? Indeed I do, but first let's have a reminder of the basics.
Where WHAT is the mightier than HOW
Call it 'what' over 'how' or 'effectiveness' over 'efficiency', the nub of the matter, first and foremost, is the challenge of spending time on the right things. 'Right' in this context is the stuff that makes optimum contribution to achieving our objectives. And this is often the core of under-performance, goal-missing, stress and general professional and personal inaptitude. It is very tempting to spend time on doing the 'nice to' things really well, but look no further to discover the biggest drain on your precious and oh-so-limited time. If you need a reminder, flip back to the start of our Audit Advantage series and check out 'Effectiveness'. When you are satisfied that you know, and understand, your highest value activities, read on to discover how to manage them.
Evolution versus Revolution
We live and work in challenging times; all the more challenging because the human brain is much the same as it always has been. I'm not just talking thousands of years of stagnation, more like a million or more. Our brains, and thus our base instincts and behaviours, have remained the same, so is it really surprising that we find change challenging and we take comfort in doing things the way we always have done? That's the way our brains are wired - for survival, and survival is stability, consistency and repetition. An approach wholly inappropriate of course, to the turbulent shifting environment we operate in today.
This century's work-life transformation is rapid, deep and continuous. It has delivered an era of complexity, intractable to old-style time management tools - to 'to do' lists, scheduling, robust routines and linear time management techniques. As our physiology remains largely unchanged since stone-age, the gulf, it seems, between human being and human doing, is set to become ever deeper. Now, we can't do anything about our genetic brain development but we can look to the emerging neuroscience to understand how our minds work and use this knowledge to design better methods of managing our time.
On the one hand, of course, wonderful technology has gifted us a huge range of communication platforms with spectacular opportunity for enhanced productivity and efficiency. But studies have demonstrated that multi-tasking does not engage the higher orders of the brain which store information, so learning and retention can be superficial and scope for error is higher. In fact, as the brain is not really capable at all of doing two things at once (other than automatic actions like walking and talking) what really occurs is task-switching which is inefficient, takes longer, impairs productivity and stops you getting fully 'in the zone' for any of the tasks.
Fight, Flight or Freeze
And it is neuroscience that has also taught us that we are hard-wired to resist change. This makes sense when you trace the Darwinian trail back to survival of the fittest and the need to conserve energy. It also explains why it seems so hard to embed new behaviours. So despite those resolutions you brought back from your time management course, your brain will default to the path of least resistance - the way that you've always done it. Sustained new behaviour means heavy investment in building new neural pathways through focus and repetition. Embedding change takes weeks, which is why we so often drift back to the old and more comfortable patterns.
But we can change. Neuroscience has also enlightened us that our brains are plastic - they can be remoulded and re-trained. Thank goodness for that. Because to thrive in the new world we need new tools, the old twentieth century time management techniques are just not going to hack it. Read on to discover how neuroscience can be applied to ease some of our typical professional tensions.
The problem: I've just got too much to do, this job is not humanly possible. Knowledge overload and overwhelming data impact the whole team.
The prefrontal cortex of the brain houses the executive functions, in layman's terms, that's complex cognition, planning and problem solving. As these functions pose a significant energy drain on the body, they have only limited capacity, estimated at just 2-3 hours per day.
Beware of over-loading the pre-frontal cortex. Instead, use a variety of working modes - meetings, visual stimulation from multi-media, collaborative working, mixed in with your heavy problem solving or technical stuff that requires deep individual cognition. Don't underestimate the value of personal reflection time for planning, assessment and as 'downtime'. Enforced refreshment breaks actually aid effectiveness, as the brain naturally craves completion; you can return reinvigorated after a very short pause.
The problem: I am constantly interrupted, rarely getting quality time to focus. I get distracted. I task switch and multi-task and find it difficult to concentrate. I would like to retain or remember more
As multi-tasking does not engage the higher orders of the brain - the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus - for storing information, learning, retention and understanding can be superficial. Rather than multi-tasking, look to single focus which offers depth rather than breadth-thinking and can be a better investment. Develop mindfulness practices to improve concentration, to follow and listen closely and quite simply remember more. Mindfulness is the opposite of being on automatic pilot; it means paying attention in the moment and is easily learnt from the regular practice of a series of standard techniques
The problem: I plan my day but it gets hi-jacked by crises and other people's priorities. Everything and everyone is competing for my attention I'm not in control. I find myself reacting rather than pro-acting.
Our humble brain likes stability and constantly seeks out the familiar - we are wired for survival, to protect ourselves. And we need to feel in control. Certainty supports the perception of being in control. To reduce the sense of threat, create some certainty and prediction in your day with a few planned 'door-shut' periods. Bringing some control to your work load will also help protect you from anxiety created from the perceived loss of choice and autonomy. Stress shuts down the pre-frontal cortex and this will affect concentration and problem solving ability, so you need to get out of that survival mode (flight or fight) rapidly.
It's not rocket science
In many instances the techniques that I've described are some of the very same twentieth century ones. But what's different is context. We are now able to understand the 'why' and also the degree of resistance to changing behaviours and doing something different. This heightened awareness can help us open our minds to make some of those tough habit changes and leverage the neuroscience.
A new era demands new ways
Genetic evolution is against us; it's easier to use the same neural pathways to do the same things over and over. Change is much harder, but infinitely possible thanks to the neuroplasticity of the brain. This is about upgrading rather than fixing - this is scary; it implies a threat that strikes right at the heart of our survival instinct. But neuroscience does provide the most exciting breakthrough for time management than I've seen in my lifetime. Give it a try and break that ubiquitous cycle of doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result!
Which topic would you like to read about next month? Look over the list of topics in the original Audit Advantage article here and let us know your choice for the next topic we should cover.