Top Wharton prof. Adam Grant: Time management doesn't help productivity — here's what to do instead

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Everyone has their time management tricks — Mark Cuban conducts business over email instead of wasting time in long meetings and Kevin O'Leary prioritizes his to-dos with Post It notes.

But according to Adam Grant, a top professor at The Wharton School of business and an organizational psychologist, if it's productivity you're seeking, it isn't really about time management.

In fact, Grant actually says time management is "part of the problem."

"Being prolific is not about time management. There are a limited number of hours in the day, and focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste," Grant writes in an essay for the New York Times.

"A better option is attention management: Prioritize the people and projects that matter, and it won't matter how long anything takes," he explains. "Attention management is the art of focusing on getting things done for the right reasons, in the right places and at the right moments."

The right reasons

"If productivity is your goal you have to rely on willpower to push yourself to get a task done," Grant writes.

And that doesn't get to the heart of the issue. "Often our productivity struggles are caused not by a lack of efficiency, but a lack of motivation," Grant writes.

So instead of focusing on specific tasks, "If you pay attention to why you're excited about the project and who will benefit from it, you'll be naturally pulled into it by intrinsic motivation," he says.

At the right time

Grant says another important component of attention management is taking note of when you get things done: "It's not about time; it's about timing," he says.

Grant points to studies that have found employees are more productive when the weather is bad, for example, because they are "less likely to be distracted by the thought of going outside."

He also references something underscored in Daniel Pink's book "When," which is that your circadian rhythm (aka, whether you're a morning or night person) can help you figure out when is the right time to do productive work, and when is the right time to do creative work.

"It's not time management, because you might spend the same amount of time on the tasks even after you rearrange your schedule," Grant writes in the Times. "It's attention management: You're noticing the order of tasks that works for you and adjusting accordingly."

Grant isn't the only expert to tout the effectiveness of attention management as opposed to time management.

"Better attention management leads to improved productivity, but it's about much more than checking things off a to-do list," productivity expert Maura Thomas wrote in the Harvard Business Review. "The ultimate result is the ability to create a life of choice, around things that are important to you. It's more than just exercising focus. It's about taking back control over your time and your priorities."

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