The #1 Reason All Time Management Systems Fail (And What to Do About It)

If you’ve taken the plunge into any time management system or tool, there’s a good chance the reason was to bring about some type of order to your life, some type of discipline. As part of a greater purpose of bettering yourself, you decided it was time to get organized.

If you’re better organized, you’ll complete your work on the job on time with high quality, pay your bills punctually, take care of all your chores, and generally be on top of things. Assuming you keep it up, of course.

Yet time and again, people stop using their systems either totally, or they yo-yo back and forth between using it and not. Sometimes the system is so complicated, it’s overwhelming to maintain. Other times, after organizing all your to-dos in categories and setting dates and priorities, all one can feel is sheer overwhelm.

The worst side effect can be in the relationship department – feeling like you’re trying your best to get everything done, and your family, friends, and co-workers are doing everything to ruin your perfectly planned productivity plan. Can’t they see I’m doing important stuff here? It’s for them! If they’d just leave me alone, I’d get more done for them.

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The crescendo of interruptions will only continue to grow until your perfectly planned system is in complete disarray, which then leads to further disenchantment and cynicism with any type of system. You may simply return to “top-of-head” priorities and old habits and patterns for working until the pain of ad-hoc causes you to look for the next system or tool that promises you better productivity.

Most systems, even with their limitations, will work, but they can only work if you persist in the face of obstacles. Why do most people persist through obstacles while others buckle?

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The “Why Am I Doing This?” Question – Have You Answered It Correctly?

When implementing any new system and its accompanying set of habits, you have to be able to anticipate, deal with, and remove obstacles that present themselves. And as they suck at your will to persist, you need to be able to access the deeper reason you’re going through all of this to push through those obstacles, or at least quickly recover if you fail.

Most people get into time management wanting to “achieve their goals” or “achieve their dreams”. There’s a sense of wanting to “get organized” or “responsible”. The answer is obvious – the purpose of time management is for people to get organized and complete priorities in a timely and responsible manner.

Sounds good, but it’s not enough. Your reason for doing any system, including time management, has to be your own. It can’t simply be removing the pain of disorganization because the pain of attempting to be organized will eventually outweigh it. The momentary joy of checking off “complete” on one task will quickly be filled with three other tasks still on the list, two more that come to mind, and another that falls into your lap in the middle of the day.

There has to be a burning, deeper emotional reason behind why you’re doing this – without it, you won’t be able to maintain persistence, either with maintaining a time management system into a lifelong habit or any other long-term practice.

Getting To Your Burning Reason

In my own time management system, I keep a long list of goals, projects, tasks, and appts on various work and personal calendaring systems. It took me years to figure out a system that works for me, and I continue to tweak it now in small amounts. Why go through all this trouble?

In the beginning, it was guilt. I’m not being responsible enough with my time, and it was impacting me in college. Then marriage and kids. Great power, great responsibility, right? This was eventually supplanted by a desire to achieve various goals simultaneously. But “achieving my goals” was sort of abstract.

After going back and forth with both systems and consistency, I realized I hadn’t answered the question of why I was doing all this in a way that inspired almost zealous persistence without it taking over and owning my life and being the lense through which I evaluated all relationship interactions (i.e. this person wants my time, I have something else to do).

I realized that my burning reason was that I wanted to be physically, mentally, and emotionally present with all my relationships – when I was in prayer, I wanted to achieve a strong state of khushoo’ when conversing with my Lord, and not have to-dos going off in the back of my head. When I came home in the evening from the office, I didn’t want to think of playing with my kids as a necessary chore while completing other “things” on my to-do list when they weren’t looking – I wanted to enjoy being with them. I wanted to read and learn more that I could put into practice on the job, to workout regularly and enjoy the benefits of being fit.

These were not short-, or medium-term goals, but lifelong states of being I wanted to achieve. When I knew what I wanted my time management system to do for me, instead of using it to get things done, I was using it to clear my day for the most important relationships and activities in my life.

For example, in previous articles I mentioned creating time buckets for when certain tasks are completed – once the time for the bucket expires, all the tasks related to that time bucket move to the next time it’s available. I don’t need to complete everything, only as much as I can during that time bucket. I do this so I can let go of needing to keep going and completing everything – I’ve accepted that it’s impossible to complete “everything”, and I have a plan for when I’ll resume that work. This allows me to be present when I spend time with family.

As another example, I write every single thing that comes to mind in my task list, following David Allen’s GTD principle of getting everything out of my head and into my organizer. This keeps me from being distracted. I’m using time management principles, practices, techniques to serve me rather than letting the system simply be a way to track things I still have to do.

I’ve mentioned my own reasons, but those don’t have to be your own. Each person will have different motivations, but the key is to find the one that really hits you in a way that stays with you, that burns inside you constantly so that even if you fail today, you won’t simply fall off the wagon for 6 months – instead, you’ll pick yourself up the next day and try again. Some implicitly advocate a particular goal to use the system for besides pure organization, but you need to own your reasons and then run with them.

Concluding Thoughts

Do you have your own “burning reason”? If so, what is it? or do you think there’s a different reason time management systems fail? Let us know in the comments below :)

Read more posts by Siraaj here.

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5 responses to “The #1 Reason All Time Management Systems Fail (And What to Do About It)”

  1. waleed ahmed says:

    i can certainly relate to this problem..but I hadn’t actually considered the ‘why’ question. Now that I think about it, its similar to yours. I don’t want to be always thinking about ‘things I have to do’ on my to-do list when I am trying to do things that appear unproductive on the outset i.e. recreational time, spending time with family etc. I hate that feeling of being unproductive all the time and not being able to enjoy anything in a real sense…cuz it all appears to be a waste of time/productivity.

  2. Aafia says:

    My burning reason is to recover my lost Personality.I used to be an independent healthcare practitioner but after marriage,I stopped working and simply lost my identity.So I dedicated myself in Islamic education and Islamic Productivity.

  3. Bint A says:

    Br. Siraaj I really hope there’s a Part 2 and 3 to this!

    Everything you were saying was EXACTLY my situation. But other than having a burning underlying reason to propel it all… how do you make yourself accountable?!?! please share your experience! Do we tackle one area of life that will bring us closer to our underlying reason (ex. khushoo in salah) and then move our focus to another area, or try to tackle all areas at once?
    For example, when we are in school, our focus is solely our studies and so we are able to focus on one area and achieve high results. Then we may dedicate some time to achieve some goals and targets related to Islamic development (ex. memorize Quran) and then accomplish that. Then professional life so we may dedicate it to work, or married life which we may dedicate to marriage. But how to balance ALL these aspects without neglecting the other parts of life you’ve worked so hard to achieve??

    Where and how…? :(

    • Siraaj says:

      Salaam alaykum Bint A,

      I’d focus on one priority, get good / make significant progress while keeping the others in maintenance mode. Oftentimes new goals come with new habits and behaviors that take adjustment, and attempting multiple new goals and behavior changes at once is taxing / exhausting.

      Accountability is an interesting thing. I give myself permission to fail and be imperfect, provided I will try again sooner rather than later. This allows me to be human while continuing forward. Some people prefer having others hold them accountable, and while that can provide quick short term results, it also creates a dependency which, if not available, leaves you without the personal tools to get the job done independently.

      One method I’ve used for accountability with success for others in the past is to set goals that have to be completed each week. If not done, I would penalize them 0.1% of their monthly net income. I made them agree failure meant they owed me, and if they tried to hide their mistake, they would still be in debt to me and would have to deal with it on the DoJ =) key is to have someone who will take your money and not spend it in a way where you can rationalize it away (eg husband, charity, etc), and to commit to a long-term timeline, so if you keep failing, you have to keep paying. It differs from traditional coaching in that instead of charging you a monthly fee, you’re only charged for failure, i.e. instead of paying someone to talk to you to motivate and brainstorm with you, the idea is that you’ll figure things out on your own if a sufficient financial penalty comes with noncompliance.

      Finally, with all the responsibilities you have, you may lifechanging events – job, moving, kids, etc – give yourself permission to let things get into disarray when those events come about so you can focus on one or two things. As an example, if there’s a new baby in the house, you’re schedule is shot so set your expectations lower and commit to your goals on a “best effort” basis, meaning, whatever can be done can be considered successful. If you’re changing careers, you may need more time to acclimate to the new job, so other goals need to be de-prioritized temporarily, just keep them somewhere in mind that you’ll get back to them.

  4. AM says:

    Assalamu’alaikum Br Siraaj

    Thank you for the article.

    I’ve read something similar in Stephen Covey’s book and unfortunately I have to admit that I don’t have the burning reason. Does it go without saying that everyone has one?

    I would have thought that as a Muslim my burning reason would be to please Allah but if it hasn’t been working so far I may have to reconsider my intentions….

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