Time management and the art of dubious self-justification

Time management is easy, isn’t it.

Or at least it should be. There is nothing technically difficult about time management – and there is a wealth of guidance about the different challenges of prioritisation, procrastination, planning, personal organisation, managing distractions and all the rest.

And we know all the solutions:

  • the Covey quadrants
  • Assertiveness skills
  • Eat that frog
  • Diarise tasks rather than just using ‘to-do’ lists
  • Pareto prioritisation – focus on what tasks will give you the biggest (80%) results, which can often be achieved in 20% of your time. Stop spending 80% of your time getting minimal results.
  • And so on

Does all of that stuff help?

Maybe sometimes, but not always.  Why?  because effective time management isn’t really about time and tasks, it’s about managing ourselves, it’s about self-discipline – and that’s much more difficult. We routinely talk ourselves out of all the things we should be doing and instead indulge ourselves and our time on less productive activities.

Time management and the art of dubious self-justification

Human beings – especially successful intelligent ones like you and me – are masters of dubious self-justification.

Self-justification occurs when someone encounters ‘cognitive dissonance’, a situation in which a person’s behaviour is inconsistent with their beliefs, so that they then try to deny or trivialise any negative associations with the behaviours so they can justify it to themselves, and feel more comfortable with themselves and their decision.

We would feel bad about making the weak choice, so we try to make ourselves feel better by rationalising our behaviour:

  • Its ok, I’ll just do it later. Of course there will be enough time
  • It’s not nearly as important as all that
  • I’m tired so now really isn’t the best time to do more work
  • I work better under pressure so I’ll leave it till the last minute

Or another strategy is to shift responsibility onto someone or something else so that we don’t have to feel bad:

I couldn’t do that today because X insisted I do something else

There really wasn’t enough time because . . . . .

The better the justifications, the less bad we feel about making the weak choice and procrastinating further.

Time and self-discipline

So much for the analysis, but does that help us?

Maybe – catching yourself in the act of this sort of self-justification prompts you to challenge yourself and your behaviours, which might (?) set you on the path to more disciplined behaviours. Knowledge = power. Maybe.

Beyond that, what can we do?

The first area to focus on is your energy. We need energy to become more disciplined and fight off our unproductive urges. Because self-justification is so easy and natural, we need all our powers to fight through it and assert our more virtuous self. So yes, you need to eat better, drink less, exercise more, meditate and all those other things we don’t do because . . . . because . . . . because. . . . .(and there we go again with the same dubious self-justification).

Another option is to fight mind-games with mind games.  If our dubious self-justification is so seductive, we need to come back with something stronger. We need to either focus on the very real natural reward for completing the task or alternatively give ourselves rewards or incentives for being more self-disciplined and choosing the better more productive behaviours.

Do we want to award ourselves with a coffee break and a chocolate frog when we ‘eat that frog’, and stop procrastinating? We’re onto dangerous territory here. Maybe you are treating yourself and using the completion of one task to justify not getting on with the next one. Maybe – but incentives do work as long as you prioritise well and keep it all in perspective.

And finally, we can just act with more self-discipline and do what we know we need to do. But of course that doesn’t work because . . . . because . . . . because . . And there we go again.  We excuse our poor time management and self discipline by saying that these old time management strategies don’t work. When they do, but saying that they don’t makes us feel better.

Right, that’s enough blogging for now. I think I can put off my other tasks because I’ve earned myself a big glass of wine or maybe a coffee. Yes I have.


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