Imagine you went to your doctor, and instead of giving you a prescription, he told you that you should spend 5 dollars a day on heart pills. You’d be confused — the point is to get the heart pills. You’d be confused because he’s mixing up goal and cost — five dollars is the simply cost of the pill you need. However, as odd as this scenario may seem, it is something almost everyone does when it comes to time management.
Frequently, we talk about efficiency in terms of time — spending more time, spending less time, making time, saving time. However, like the confused doctor above, that’s placing the focus on the costs rather than on the goals. Our goal when we use our time is to accomplish some task, whether it’s going for a run or completing a project for work. But rather than focus on the goals, we focus on the costs: how much time we should spend. Instead of figuring out how best to use our most precious resource to do the things we want and need to do, we decide how much time we’re going to spend and hope for the best.
The harmful effects are much easier to observe in example. As an RA, as tutor, and as a fellow student, I frequently hear students say: “I can’t believe I did so poorly! I studied for hours!” But the fact that you spent your time is completely different from having actually completed a task (or how you spent your time). When you set the goal of studying for 2 hours, your personal incentive to do so effectively falls apart. You’ve mentally internalized the idea that for the next 120 minutes, you will be bolted to this desk, no matter how much you get done. And since you’ve made it your goal to spend time, rather than accomplish something, you start to slack. Go to a library and observe how many students “study” with music blasting on their earbuds, at least four forms of social media open, and while having a casual conversation with their friends. But when they stumble home at midnight, they feel good that they spent so much time studying.
It extends beyond simple efficiency, however. Consider how we decide if someone is a hard worker or a slacker. We might look at what has been accomplished, if it’s visible. But most frequently, we talk in terms of time. Who worked for more hours? Who stayed later, who sat at their desk longer? This element — the confounding of effort and time — creates disincentives for efficiency, but more importantly convinces people who are actually accomplishing a lot that they aren’t working hard enough because they aren’t putting in the same number of hours on the clock. Even if they are the top performer, there’s that tinge of guilt that comes when we leave while others are toiling.
This is utterly ridiculous! Imagine you work out by running, and after a few weeks, you’re able to run your 3 mile course in 25 minutes instead of 30. In the time-oriented worldview, you’re slacking by only spending 25 minutes instead of 30. In a task-oriented worldview, you’ve managed to do the same thing in less time. Those extra minutes can now be used to run further, or to do something entirely different. The important distinction is that a task-oriented approach ensures you’re maximizing how much you do per unit of time, while a time-oriented approach depends entirely on how hard you decide to work during the time you’ve sentenced yourself to.
So how do you become task-oriented? Convert time into tasks. If you normally would spend an hour studying, think about what it is you actually got done in that time. Perhaps you read a chapter, took some notes, and did 10 questions. So instead of having “study” be a slot on your schedule, make it an item on your to-do list. Think about reading, outlining, and reviewing as a tangible task you want to complete, and see how much faster you get it done. Suddenly, when you no longer feel obligated to sit at the desk for an hour, you realize that the sooner you get done, the sooner you can do something else! The earbuds turn down, the social media turns off, and you actually focus on the task at hand.
However, some items may be harder to convert. For example, if your workout routine is to use an elliptical for 30 minutes, it may be hard to see how to make that a task. For these sorts of things, consider ways to increase intensity. Could you achieve the same effect by working harder for 25 minutes? Could you change to something equivalent that is a task, such as swimming laps? Some things will defy this conversion. In that case, if time is fixed, we can still maximize our efficiency by trying to improve quality as much as possible. There might not be a way to turn a 3 day vacation into an “intensive” 2 day vacation. But you can take steps like turning off your smartphone, limiting email checking to once or twice per day, and generally restricting how much you think about work while on vacation.
The point of being task-oriented is not just to be more efficient at work. In the case of our confused doctor, we realize that we should try to get our pills as cheaply as possible so we can spend our savings on things we like. The goal of being task-oriented is the same: get more done in less time, enjoy the saved time as you please, and stop feeling guilty for wasting less time than everyone else.