The saying used to be that “time is money,” with the thinking going that putting in more time will guarantee good results. A common example of this is the 10,000 hour idea put forth by Malcolm Gladwell and others. In short: if you want to master something, you need 10,000 hours of repetition at it. This would directly tie “time” (the hours) to “success” (mastery), but unfortunately, the 10,000 hour theory has been debunked by many.

Here’s a micro example: sometimes, a person will study for days and days (time) for a test, then do poorly (no success) on the test. How is this possible?

It is because results and success have less to do with time, and more to do with how productively you’re using the time — namely, how much attention you’re giving to receiving information and applying it appropriately.

The history of time

In the then agriculture-driven economy, time management wasn’t so important. Most people spent their days farming or tending to animals. Why would anything really need to be tracked, per se?

Soon, the Industrial Revolution moved more people off farms and into factories. Now there was a reason to track time. The evolution of the 40 hour work week (around the mid-1920s ) made time a huge commodity. Time was, essentially, the new money. To get paid your hourly wages (actual money), you had to track time. Your value was quite literally tied to the hours you put in.

The current economy has been described often as “The Knowledge Economy.” It’s much less about the number of hours put in (although people still work a lot), and much more about the amount of knowledge you can acquire and transform into something better.

The problem: many management approaches still are focused on the time side. Consider the idea of “seat time.” Most places in the first world are WiFi-enabled, so many Knowledge Economy workers can work from anywhere. They can access emails and files via the cloud. But lots of bosses are obsessed with “seat time,” or seeing the employees physically in a place near them. It doesn’t make sense, but it’s rooted in the “time is money” economy.

Right now, many companies are focused more on employees being in a specific place for a specific period of time, instead of how to increase focus, energy, and delivery of high-impact tasks. And what’s worse: the “time is money” attitude stresses out employees majorly.

Manage your energy and attention, not your time

For as long as we can predict, time will continue to tick on at the same rate, but what actually fluctuates on a day-to-day basis is how much energy and attention you have — in the Knowledge Economy, that’s what makes or breaks how productive you are, and more important, it’s something you can actually control.

Time is a necessity of work and of nature, but as far as productivity is concerned, it should merely be the backdrop against which you work.

Consider the sheer idea of the 9-to-5 workday. Today, when productivity is about what you accomplish and not how much you produce, a nine-to-five workday makes as much sense as diligently tracking your time out on the farm. After all, what if your Biological Prime Time falls when you’re not working, and you have the most energy from 6 to 9 a.m., or from 7 to 11 p.m.? Or what if you have trouble focusing because you’re trying to multitask on a million things at once? Or what if you’re constantly bombarded by distractions and interruptions?

People — all workers — are different. And if the goal is productive output, we need to understand and respect that.

When we schedule time for something, what we’re actually doing is simply deciding when we will invest our attention and energy into the task. That’s where time management should fit into the productivity equation. Managing your time becomes important only after you understand how much energy and focus you will have throughout the day and define what you want to accomplish.

It’s much less about the time involved, and much more about the output.

So how can we work less and get more? 

If your workplace has flexible working hours, make use of that. Have enough rest and come in ready to work so that you are at your optimum performance. During the day, take short breaks to disconnect. The optimal human ratio for work is 52 minutes on, 17 minutes off. 

Schedule, but schedule differently: I schedule my entire day, and I’ve found that doing so makes me incredibly productive—especially when I form a strong intention about what I’m going to get done. But I only ever plan out my day after I account for how much attention and energy I will have, and most important, what I intend to accomplish.

Consider “focus days” where your entire focus is high-level, big projects and new learning. Block your calendar out so no one can throw meetings on it and stir up distractions.

Remember that the goal of the Knowledge Economy is different from the goal of the initial Industrial Economy. Now your time needs to be productive, not just a set amount of hours, so move towards that.

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