The Failure of Time Management Training

As an HR professional, you may often hear complaints from managers about decreasing employee efficiency, a challenge that’s generally rooted in people feeling overwhelmed and burned out. As a result, you might look to time management training to increase employees efficiency and time management skills. 

But before you do that, consider that many time management techniques came about when the workplace was much different than it is today. It’s time to consider new strategies. 

The Effect of Burnout

The Mayo Clinic defines burnout as “a special type of work-related stress — a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.” With this in mind, no wonder employee efficiency decreases as burnout increases. 

And unfortunately, burnout is on the rise. In fact, the World Health Organization added burnout to the International Classification of Diseases in 2019, making it an official medical condition.

Meanwhile employee efficiency increasingly degrades as the pace of business increases, as knowledge workers become more distracted. This often translates to more work hours to produce results. At first glance, this response may seem helpful, but it’s actually quite the opposite. In fact, according to research by John Pencavel at Stanford, employee efficiency and productivity decline significantly after 50 hours a week. 

So the next time someone comes to you with concerns about a team member who is consistently underperforming and not meeting goals, take a minute to think about the root cause. 

The first step is to consider how widespread burnout is within the organization. In truth, it may be that company culture is standing in the way of efficiency, not the employee’s ability to manage workload. Particularly in the current digital age of constant connectivity and distraction, when companies expect employees to be constantly on call, people rarely have time to disconnect and recharge. 

Ultimately, though, the primary cause of burnout is that many employees struggle to achieve a healthy work-life balance. When the lines between work and personal time become blurred — as they often do in this day and age of invasive technology, instant gratification, and remote work — employees struggle to step away from work and refresh their perspective. 

Time Management Is Not the Solution 

Given the rapidly accelerating pace of doing business, many HR professionals are working hard to get a grip on their own workloads, and they want to help employees do the same. They often believe that equipping people with stronger time management skills will increase employee productivity.

Unfortunately, that’s rarely the case

A lack of time management isn’t really what’s standing in the way of a team’s productivity. Instead, it’s usually a culture of distraction that creates roadblocks. And there’s not a time management tip in the world that will work when an office environment is constantly undermining productivity. 

Fortunately, as an HR professional, you’re uniquely suited to help leaders identify these issues and make changes. In fact, rather than focus on time management training, you would be better served to put resources toward helping employees increase their attention management skills. 

From Time Management to Attention Management

Simply put, attention management is the practice of controlling your attention. It is the ability to choose where to direct your focus at any given moment based on your priorities. It means deliberately applying your attention rather than allowing the distractions and interruptions of each day to steal it. 

Attention management allows you to be more proactive rather than constantly functioning in reactive mode. Indeed, when you learn to practice attention, you decide where your attention goes, giving you the freedom to live a life of choice, rather than a life of reaction and distraction. Likewise, when companies teach employees how to manage their attention, they are giving their workers the skills to be in control of how they spend their time and energy. Employees become more intentional, more focused, more efficient.

Additionally, today’s fast-paced, high-tech work environments make it all too easy for employees to get lost in a sea of distractions and fast-track their way to burnout. With so much competing for knowledge workers’ attention, people often get lured by the false sense of productivity offered by the “fast and easy” (like emails, chats, and drop-ins), rather than making progress on what’s really important. 

Developing strong attention management skills empowers your team to combat the constant onslaught of distractions and avoid continual cognitive switching, which only further erodes employee efficiency and productivity. When workers have a greater awareness of how unchecked technology can weaken their attention muscle, they are more compelled to put conditions on how they use the technology. They are more likely to take control of their technology, rather than letting it control them.  

One of the many benefits of focusing on attention management is that you’re helping to create an organizational culture that values productivity over busyness. A focus on attention gives the message that the company has little tolerance for the distractions that get in the way of employee efficiency and trusts employees to set boundaries for their own personal effectiveness. 

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When you give people clear guidelines and autonomy to control their work environment, they feel empowered to take control of their time, their attention, and ultimately, the results they produce. This shifts the focus from a nose-to-the-grind mentality that is detrimental to productivity and success to one that is focused on outcomes and results.

A Culture of Attention Management

Your employee’s attention is in constant demand — everything from a never-ending stream of emails, colleagues wanting a quick chat, texts and other app notifications, meetings, phone calls, low priority tasks…the list goes on. Without proper attention management, workers often do their best to tackle all of these things simultaneously, clinging tightly to the idea that multitasking makes them more effective. 

In reality, constant task-switching slows people down, reduces the quality of their output, and means that they often miss key details. To counteract this, people add more hours to their workday, give up important self-care like exercise and sufficient sleep, and move farther down the road to burnout. 

But when employees learn to manage their attention, they stay focused on the right tasks and priorities that get results. They get things done efficiently and people are better able to disconnect, recharge, and avoid burnout. 

To begin creating a culture that supports attention management, set guidelines for email responses. In many companies, an emphasis on responsiveness results in workers treating every email as urgent, making constant checking a top priority and forcing employees to fit their important work into the tiny intervals during which they’re not managing messages. 

Instead, advise the leadership team to set clear company expectations for email communication. Diverting urgent customer emails to a dedicated response team, setting realistic response timeframes for all others, and discouraging using email for urgent and time-sensitive communications are three ways to manage expectations around emails and free the team from the need to be chained to their inbox. 

Also consider setting timelines and expectations for responding to after-hours emails. When employees check email on evenings and weekends, it only contributes to symptoms of burnout, leaving workers little time to recharge. Give employees permission to disconnect. 

Additionally, make sure all employees have a trusted backup. It’s vital for all workers to have downtime and vacation time to be effective. Now, granted, inevitably the head of IT or another system-monitoring department will say their people can never be out of touch in case of a system failure. This is usually followed by, “But it’s OK because those emergencies rarely happen.” 

However, this is far from OK. Any employee expected to be available 24/7/365 effectively gets no time off because they are constantly on call. Every individual needs time to disengage from work. Ensuring all workers have a trusted backup who can share responsibilities or fill their role in case of emergency sets employees up for success. It also guarantees that the company has a solid succession plan in place. 

Ultimately, by helping your team learn attention management, you’ll increase employee efficiency, empower them to feel more accomplished, and help to decrease burnout and turnover — all of which will add value to your organization’s bottom line.

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. Her proprietary Empowered Productivity™  System has been embraced by the likes of the U.S. Army, L’Oreal, and Dell. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. Maura is frequently featured in major business outlets including Business Insider, Fast Company, and Huffington Post, and she’s also a regular contributor to both Forbes and the Harvard Business Review, with articles there viewed over a million times. Follow her on Twitter @mnthomas. 

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