If you feel like you're up against it regularly, it might be time to try and diagnose your time management problem.
My day job is a hospital CEO and during the course of most weeks, I see my medical friends and colleagues juggling a huge array of competing demands for their time and attention.
I often think they could do with a little advice about some time management basics — and it's strange that this doesn't seem to be on the syllabus at medical school.
I don't want my doctor struggling to stay on top of their proliferating to-do lists, any more than I want him or her to be unable to clear their head and good decisions in my best interests whenever I require.
Surely some form of training on time management basics would help.
The medical profession is a stickler for codifying and categorising disorders, diseases, syndromes and the rest. So I thought I'd offer my own (not entirely serious) time management disorders manual.
Perhaps busy doctors might take an interest in time management basics if they thought it would help their patients.
The irony is, it probably would.
The quick navigation (below) will take you straight to any of the 12 major disease groups so you can quickly diagnose your time management problem.
Each malady has a section on symptoms, presentation and treatment.
Major Disease Groups
Typical symptoms include racing pulse, high blood pressure and confusion. May also show signs of lethargy and depression.
Acute infodiscopia often occurs when poorly organised information channels terminate in inboxes that are already chronically overrun.
Staging is important in defining the treatment course (see below).
End-stage infodioscopia, characterised by total inertia and apathy is a potentially career-limiting condition.
Long-term therapy of GTD (or similar) is usually indicated, although occasionally good results have been seen from an aggressive short course of internet abstinence (see Internetism below).
Emailitis is under-reported and many patients suffer low-grade symptoms for years without seeking treatment.
Patients typically reveal a three or even four-digit notification on their email application.
They are likely to report missing important communication or deny receiving it at all. Occasional missed opportunities are inevitable.
More seriously, emailitis can lead to the creation of additional email accounts in an attempt to rectify their overloaded inbox. Email that needs acting on will stay buried under a mountain of less important communication.
Treatment involves the emptying of the primary inbox as a one-off exercise. Thereafter a system must be introduced to prevent a recurrence.
There are many self-help resources available including the invaluable How To Beat Email and Quadruple Your Best Time.
Symptoms include notifications dinging or flashing at the periphery of the patient's attention, uncontrolled episodes of browsing aimlessly, irregular or absent downtime and a highly reflexive tendency to flick between work and social newsfeeds.
Patients will frequently present complaining that they are struggling to complete assigned tasks, and will often exhibit symptoms of stress.
On examination there will be a wasting of their ability to focus and will often glance at their phone will talking to you.
It is not uncommon for a patient to claim they are an expert multitasker and some will display a reckless disregard for their and others safety by attempting to multitask while driving.
A period of total abstinence is effective if only to demonstrate that the world will keep spinning on its axis without constant reference to such content.
A recent article by Cal Newport, On Analog Social Media, reports on a study he carried out with 1600 readers who agreed to opt out of social media for a 31-day period in January 2017. An extract from this article might be a useful teaching aid:
" When it comes to tools like Facebook, Twitter or Instagram: don’t let the fear of missing out dictate how you live your life. The most productive and fulfilled people I know often got where they are by doubling down on the activities that return them huge benefits, while happily ignoring everything else."
Patients will exhibit at least four of Allen's Signs.
- Disorganised or absent to-do lists
- A badly overrun calendar
- Moderate to large piles of paper on their desk
- One or more 'secret' drawers full of last month's correspondence
- At least one missed deadline in the last week
- A vague but deep-seated anxiety about their future prospects.
Any patient who claims 'putting things off has never done me any harm' should be considered at increased risk of Asystemoly (see below).
Procrastinopathy is a serious complication of simple procrastinitis and is often diagnosed late. Whereas procrastinitis is usually amenable to self-talking therapy and often spontaneously improves, procrastinopathy occurs when the patient's action taking aversion becomes reflexive and is a serious and debilitating condition.
Treatment involves a course of life-planning so that important goals can be identified. These are then incorporated into a daily system that allows an action to be prompted each day.
This should be supplemented with the development of skilful project management capabilities, enabling large and seemingly overwhelming jobs to be broken down into much smaller steps so that making progress is less intimidating.
Some have reported that allocating time in short 30-minute bursts to tasks which are being resisted can be helpful using Pomodoro techniques.
There has been a suggestion that eating a frog each morning can be helpful. It is thought that by dealing with the 'worst' thing you're going to face that early on, everything else will more palatable.
No account of time management disorders would be complete without a reference to this malady.
Asystemoly (the absence of any of the time management basics in everday use) is a surprisingly common condition.
Symptoms include pervasive untidiness, a tendency to clutter of all kinds, a commitment to spontaneity at any price, a tendency to be seen as unreliable by others, periodic confusion about responsibilities, sudden bouts of anxiety when deadlines are missed (again) and a well-developed sense of humour.
Patients will often appear to be oblivious to the long-term consequences of this disorder, and it is not uncommon for colleagues and friends to despair at the unreliability of the affected person.
Presentation often follows a guilt-inducing life-event: a missed birthday, anniversary or critical work deadline.
At such moments the patient is likely to be highly receptive to treatment but see the caution below in relation to the relapsing-remitting variant.
Asystemoly can be treated with a prescription only time management system. The dose is calculated according to the degree of system derangement based on a comprehensive audit of time utilisation.
In the majority of cases, rapid improvement in functioning is often followed by a recurrence — the relapsing-remitting variant of asystemoloy. In such cases, thorough training in time management basics is recommended.
6. Acute Productivity Disorder
Acute Productivity Disorder (APD) is an infection of the central productivity system and occurs only in patients with an established time management method.
- Rising levels of anxiety and distress
- A tendency for self-criticism based on a presumption that having the established time management basics in place is protective
- Tunnel vision (this has always worked in the past, so I just need to keep going), and a growing imbalance between work and non-work activities.
The liberal use of the word 'should' is a useful diagnostic indicator because patients with APD are often markedly self-critical.
Patients with APD present as urgent cases. The central productivity system is likely to have been stressed for a prolonged period, with periods of quiet desperation leading up to the acute crisis.
APD is an inflammatory response to chronic stress and the practitioner must help the patient to tackle the underlying aetiology while treating the acute eruption.
A distinctive sign of APD is the characteristic coffee ring stains which can often be found on the scraps of paper and folders strewn across their desk.
Patients with APD frequently self-medicate and are likely to have high than normal levels of caffeine in their bloodstream.
Bi-focal therapy is the normal treatment choice for APD. First line therapy aims to re-boot the central time management system.
The most effective remedy is to implement the first two steps of the Five Steps (GTD) model.
These two steps are:
- Capture: collecting 100% of whatever has your attention.
- Clarify: working out what your pile of stuff means, then dumping, doing it, delegating or delaying it) can help stabilise and restore equilibrium.
The second line therapy is to tackle the underlying, chronic stress. Meditation is one of the best evidence-based interventions. Calm is a useful meditation app that can help people get started.
7. Type 1 Meeting Disorder
Type 1 Meeting Disorder (sometimes referred to as Acquired Meeting Disorder) is caused when people are forced to attend meetings arranged by other people that are badly organised and unproductive.
Symptoms include irritation, disseminated boredom, and anxiety caused by the loss of productive time.
Anxiety can easily shift into anger with long-term exposure.
Sufferers are often found sat alone in darkly lit rooms or in huddled groups with fellow sufferers furtively discussing avoidance tactics.
Typically a person with Type 1 disease will have a characteristic glazed expression when attending such meetings and will have well-developed ways of reading emails, texting commentary about the ludicrous waste of time they are currently experiencing or randomly surfing social media channels.
Total abstinence is recommended whenever possible as exposure to such meetings is highly damaging to productivity.
8. Type 2 Meeting Disorder
Type 2 Meeting Disorder (sometimes referred to as Owngoalitis) is caused by people failing to organise the meetings for which they have responsibility.
Symptoms include twitchiness around the time of the meeting as the realisation that it has been badly organised (again) sinks in, excessive perspiration as desperate attempts to exert control fall apart, depression and self-recrimination.
People with Type 2 Meeting Disorder often present as a complication of established asystemoly.
Fortunately this malady is easy to treat with the provision of some planning tools and a to-do list system that can be built into any personal organiser software.
Crisisitis is a highly infectious disorder, particularly in any moderately sized organisation.
Crisisitis (or Mussolini Syndrome) is caused by an over-inflated sense of one's importance, coupled with an emotional need to feel at the centre of things.
- A marked tendency to convert molehills into mountains
- Panicky, knee-jerk responses to situations
- A pervasive ability to over-complicate and cut corners inappropriately
- Failure to engage most of the right people in solving problems.
People suffering from crisisitis are usually found at the centre of a group of people who look terminally exhausted and frustrated.
Typically, sufferer's will use the pronoun 'I' at least three times as often as the baseline for other people.
This statistic is reversed when discussing failures when the pronoun 'you' is much more likely to be used.
There are significant public health consequences which can be caused by untreated crisisitis, which can lead to endemic stress and poor organisational culture.
Practitioners will be particularly challenged when treating crisisitis patients and will need to resist the temptation to resort to non-evidence based methods, including corporal punishment.
The most effective treatment is to organise 360-degree feedback to be undertaken. The practitioner should also review time management processes in order to rule out an underlying disorder such as asystemoloy.
10. Non-inflammatory NO disorder
Non-inflmatory NO Disorder (NIND) is caused by a chronic weakening of the negative adaptive response circuit, leading to a reduction in the ability to say 'no'.
- A vastly over-committed schedule
- Frequent bouts of panic typically around the time of promised delivery of key commitments
- High levels of stress
- Underlying anxiety, exhaustion and in extreme cases collapse.
NIND patients will occasionally spontaneously combust, one of the more remarkable scenarios a practitioner is likely to encounter.
More typically, however, NIND sufferers will simply present as approaching burnout with bags under their eyes, a pocket full of used tissues (for the tears that are frequently present) and an unusually strong adaptation to long hours and infrequent holidays.
The best treatment is a prolonged break mixed in with some assertiveness training. NIND patients need to be reminded that whenever they yes to one thing, they are in fact saying no to another.
Learning how to prioritise and building good systems to keep all these prioritise in sight can reinforce the building of some new habits.
Untreated NIND is a progressive disorder and has long-term and serious health consequences.
Prioritosis is caused when poor or absent prioritisation causes bad smelling plans to emerge. Symptoms include plans that never seem to get off the ground, frustration, and crumbling personal and professional respect.
Priorititis can be recognised when sufferers carry round dog-eared notebooks full of densely written notes, accompanied by scraps of paper usually found in pockets or else paper clipped to the back of the notebook.
Usually, the priorititis sufferer will know they are poorly organised and will be open to treatment options.
Most cases can be cured with a short course of GTD or equivalent.
Internetism is an attentional disorder caused by overuse of all things online.
- Profuse dinging and ringing on devices as notifications arrive
- Large numbers of open tabs on browsers
- Poorly controlled social media streams (see social fibrosis above)
- Erratic use of time management systems.
Sufferers are likely to become addicted to multitasking despite the know health hazards this creates.
Note: Patients might benefit from reading Why Multitasking Is Bad For You (And What To Do About It).
Internetism is frequently a complication of other maladies including social fibrosis, procrastinitis and infosiscopaia. Internetism should however always be treated as a separate syndrome requiring specialist treatment.
Treatment involves the implementation of time blocking using Pomodoro techniques which should be applied in 30-minute intervals up to three times per day.
The article What Is The Best Time Management Software? provides an overview of further useful software and apps that could help you cover the time management basics more easily.
GTD: Getting Things Done – David Allen
The procrastinologist has skills and expertise in the treatment of all forms of procastinopathy (acute and chronic personal inertia).
A systemologist can diagnose untreated asystemoly and work with sufferers to build simple workflows and other time management basics that can dramatically improve quality of life and personal effectiveness. A systemologist is often used as a primary referral source for time management basics.
The productivologist is an expert in the many forms of productivity tools, methods, mindsets and systems available today. They are usually keen researchers and are often early adopters of new technologies.
4. Occurensic Surgery
Occuresnic surgery is the surgical treatment of unnecessary, wasteful or poorly organised meetings.
A neo-unitariumologist is an expert in the establishment of improved organisational skills, including the development of time management systems and practices.
Endocopology is the practice of exploring the reasons for time management difficulties. It is a diagnostic speciality and is useful in ensuring the right diagnosis is made.
7. Public Stealth
Public Stealth is concerned with protecting online identity, personal data security and the active management of distracting email and other subscriptions.
Help For Time Management Problems
The following articles and websites are recommended:
- Getting Things Done
- Getting Results The Agile Way
- Zen Habits
- Asian Efficiency
- What Is The Best Time Management Software?
- Why Multitasking Is Bad For You And What To Do About It
Real Time Management Problems
This article is written as a light-hearted look at some of the time management basics and why help is so often needed.
It is not intended to underplay the real and significant health problems that poor time management practices can lead to. One of the most important consequences of poor time management is that it's a leading cause of stress.
Doctors and other medical professionals perform hugely important tasks for all of us. They have my undying respect, one and all.
If you're looking for some additional reading beyond these time management basics that could help you reduce your levels of stress, have a look at What Is Stress Management About? for some practical suggestions and useful advice.
If you're worried about the impact that stress might be having on your health, however, please contact your local (real) medical practitioner.
What are the other time mangement maladies?