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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.

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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.

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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?

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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Siraaj is the Operations Director of MuslimMatters as well as its new lead web developer. He's spent nearly two decades working in dawah organizations, starting with his chapter MSA in Purdue University, and leading efforts with AlMaghrib Institute, MuslimMatters, and AlJumuah magazine. Somewhere in there, he finds time for his full-time profession as a software engineer in Silicon Valley. He holds a bachelor's in Computer Science from Purdue University and a Master's certificate from UC Berkeley. He's very married and has 5 wonderful children

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Avatar

    waleed ahmed

    October 16, 2015 at 10:54 AM

    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. Avatar

    Aafia

    October 20, 2015 at 5:13 PM

    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. Avatar

    Bint A

    October 20, 2015 at 11:13 PM

    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…? :(

    • Avatar

      Siraaj

      October 22, 2015 at 11:42 AM

      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. Avatar

    AM

    December 5, 2015 at 5:59 PM

    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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#Current Affairs

This Eid And Beyond Boycott Goods Made With Enslaved Labor Of Uyghurs Even If It Is Your Favorite Brand

Bidding farewell to Ramadan, celebrating Eid?

Well, the Muslims of East Turkestan under Chinese occupation had neither Ramadan nor will they have Eid…

Not only that, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) run government has transferred Uyghurs and other ethnic minority citizens from East Turkestan to factories across the country. Under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour, Uyghurs are working in factories that are in the supply chains of at least 83 well-known global brands in the technology, clothing and automotive sectors, including Nike, Gap, Adidas, Ralph Lauren, Carters and others. Read Uyghurs for Sale for more information

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CCP is also pressuring governments across the world to extradite Uyghurs back to occupied East Turkestan.

Here is what you can do to help them:

Action Items

  1. Keep making dua for the oppressed of East Turkistan and the world.
  2. Boycott Chinese products! Do not be complicit in slave labour. Start with focusing on the companies in the graphic. Share it with #SewnWithtTears, #StopChina, #BoycottChina. Write to them and demand that they do better.
  3. Raise awareness on the plight of Uyghurs and the East Turkistani cause. Learn more at SaveUighur.org
  4. Work towards reducing your country’s economic dependence on China.
  5. Build alliances with all people of conscience to demand a cessation of China’s oppression of all faith groups, be it Muslim Uyghur, Hui; Chinese Christian; or Tibetan Buddhist.
  6. Encourage and promote fairer trade and commerce with Muslims and others rather than China.
  7. Inquire about Uyghur diaspora members in your area. Organize to help out orphans, widows, and students.
  8. Pressure governments to provide legal protection to Uyghur refugees-exiles by granting either citizenship or refugee/asylee status. Stop the “extradition/repatriation” of Uyghurs to China!
  9. Get your universities/endowments to divest from China. Raise awareness about Chinese espionage and hired guns in academia. Demand academic and financial support for Uyghur scholars and students. Request more academic attention and funds for Central Asian, Uyghur, Turkistani studies. 

Read a greater discussion of action items in A Response to Habib Ali Al-Jifri’s Comments on the Uyghurs, which also contains a greater discussion on East Turkistan’s history and its current situation. A condensed Arabic version of the article can be found here

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 9: A Good Word

Now that we have learnt about the life of this world, let’s talk about a good word.

I want you all to close your eyes and think of a beautiful tree. 

Question: Who can tell me what their tree looks like? Is the tree big and strong? Does it have lots of branches and leaves? Does it have fruit?

Now, I want you to think of a time when someone said something really nice to you.

Question:  What are some of the nice statements you remember people telling you?

Question: How did those statements make you feel?

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Yes, they fill us up with a warm feeling. We may have felt proud of ourselves and we may have felt loved. Do you know that Allah [wt] describes a good word to a good tree? 

In Surah Ibrahim, Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says:

أَلَمْ تَرَ كَيْفَ ضَرَبَ اللَّهُ مَثَلًا كَلِمَةً طَيِّبَةً كَشَجَرَةٍ طَيِّبَةٍ أَصْلُهَا ثَابِتٌ وَفَرْعُهَا فِي السَّمَاءِ 

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تُؤْتِي أُكُلَهَا كُلَّ حِينٍ بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهَا ۗ وَيَضْرِبُ اللَّهُ الْأَمْثَالَ لِلنَّاسِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَتَذَكَّرُونَ 

Have you not considered how Allah presents an example, [making] a good word like a good tree, whose root is firmly fixed and its branches [high] in the sky? [Surah Ibrahim; 24]

It produces its fruit all the time, by permission of its Lord. And Allah presents examples for the people that perhaps they will be reminded. [Surah Ibrahim; 25]

Question: Now, I want you to think of a time when someone said something mean to you. How did that make you feel?

It’s not fun to remember the mean stuff right? Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) continues in Surah Ibrahim and says:

وَمَثَلُ كَلِمَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ كَشَجَرَةٍ خَبِيثَةٍ اجْتُثَّتْ مِن فَوْقِ الْأَرْضِ مَا لَهَا مِن قَرَارٍ

And the example of a bad word is like a bad tree, uprooted from the surface of the earth, not having any stability. [Surah Ibrahim; 26] 

Question: What do you think are good words we can use to build strong, firmly rooted trees?

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30 Khawaatir in 30 Days- A Parent’s Guide | Day 8: The Life of This World

Now that we have learnt about qalbun saleem, let’s talk about the life of this world.

Question: Do you know that there is an ayah in the Qur’an that takes us through all the stages of life and tells us what we find to be the most important aspect based on our age?

This ayah is found in the chapter named Al-Hadeed. 

Question: Does anyone know what Hadeed means? 

Yes! It means iron! The verse in Surah al-Hadeed starts by saying:

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اعْلَمُوا أَنَّمَا الْحَيَاةُ الدُّنْيَا لَعِبٌ وَلَهْوٌ 

“Know that the life of this world is play and amusement.”

Question: When you were really, really young, what was something that was important to you?

Yes, playing! You would use your imagination, play with your toys, and build legos. That is what  لَعِبٌ la’bun means. Then you got a bit older and you wanted to hear stories and be entertained. 

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Question: Can you tell me in what other ways you’re entertained? (Examples can include watching TV, reading books, etc)

Yes! This is what is meant by  لَهْوٌ l(ahwun). Then we get a bit older and our goals change. The ayah continues by saying, وَزِينَةٌ وَتَفَاخُرٌ بَيْنَكُمْ (wa zeenatun wa tafakhirun baynakum). All of a sudden, you become a tween and a teenager, and you really care about your looks. You want to dress in the nicest clothing and look beautiful. This is zeena

Then you get even older and you enter college. You compete with your classmates and show off your knowledge and skills to impress future employees. This is tafaakhirun baynakum , i.e. boasting with one another. 

Then what usually happens after college? Work, marriage, and children! The ayah continues by saying, وَتَكَاثُرٌ فِي الْأَمْوَالِ وَالْأَوْلَادِ (wa takathur fil amwaali wal-awlaad), i.e. and competition in increasing wealth and children.

As parents, we try to give you the best life and education, and we work hard to provide for you. But, we always have to remember that it won’t be permanent, right? 

Question: We will be so happy, like farmers watching our seeds grow into beautiful plants, but what happens in the fall when it’s no longer sunny and becomes windy and cold? 

Yes, the plants turn yellow. Remember that toy you used to love playing with as a really little kid? Is it as interesting to you anymore? Remember that TV show you could not stop watching? You even memorized all the lines in it. Do you remember the title? Are you interested in something else now?

This is the example of our whole life. Once we get something we once were so excited to have, we realize that after some time has passed, that it has “turned yellow” to us. 

Question: What do you think that means?

Yes! It’s not as interesting as it once was. So knowing that this is going to happen, how can we make sure to not get distracted by the bright and shiny and stay focused on Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

We’re in luck, because Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) gives us the answer! Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) says:

 “سَابِقُوا إِلَىٰ مَغْفِرَةٍ مِّن رَّبِّكُمْ وَجَنَّةٍ 

Race toward forgiveness from your Lord and Jannah! 

Question: How do you think we can race towards Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)?

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