The truth about time management

Is it a complete myth?

Self-discipline strategist and best-selling author Rory Vaden* gave a wildly successful TED talk** during which he stated that time management is a complete myth. There simply is no such thing. You can’t manage time—you can only manage yourself.

Three concepts of time management

In the 1950s, time management was viewed as “one-dimensional”—a concept centered on the idea of efficiency. The myth was that if we could develop tools to help us do things faster, we could have more time. Sadly, we now know that this concept doesn’t work. Even today, despite our amazing technology, we’re still constantly running after time. Vaden compares the efficiency theory of time management to running on a hamster wheel.

In the 1980s, the great Stephen Covey*** promoted “two-dimensional” time management. In his famous time-management matrix, Covey differentiates tasks that are urgent or not, and important or not.

This led to the concept of prioritization, which, again, is a myth. You can’t create more time out of thin air. Prioritizing merely means that task No. 5 becomes task No. 1 because it is perceived as more important or more urgent than other tasks.

Vaden compared the prioritization theory of time management to borrowing time from one activity to spend on another.

“You cannot solve today’s time management problems with yesterday’s time management thinking,” he said.

This idea led him to a third theory—a concept favored by people he calls “multipliers,” who introduce a third dimension: significance.

Here is how Vaden explains the three paradigms:

  • Urgency is “How soon does something matter?”
  • Importance is “How much does it matter?”
  • Significance is “How long is it going to matter?”

Most people ask “What’s the most important thing I can do today?” or “What’s the most urgent thing I can do today?” Multipliers ask “What can I do today that would make tomorrow better?” or “What can I do right now that would make the future better?”

The Focus Funnel

Vaden uses a Focus Funnel to summarize this view of time management. All tasks are at the top of the funnel. You need to ask yourself three questions about those tasks.

Question No. 1: What can I eliminate? We all have things on our to-do lists that we think we need to do, but that really should be eliminated. High achievers actually have a “not-to-do list.” It could include items like eliminating useless meetings, returning some phone calls, and playing Candy Crush.

Question No. 2: What can I automate? If you use surgery report and discharge instructions templates, then you already use automation. If you don’t, you should!

Other examples:

  • Spend an hour setting automatic payments for your personal and professional bills to save hours in the future.
  • Schedule recurring monthly tasks in a digital calendar to receive automatic reminders to take care of them at the right time.

Think of these ideas as investments—investments of time. Spend time on things today in order to create more time tomorrow. Instead of return on investment, this is called return on time invested.

Question No. 3: What can I delegate? In other words, to whom can I teach this job? For example, stop calling clients about patients with normal test results—train your nurses to do it.

Most of us have convinced ourselves that nobody can do things as well as we can, so we keep performing activities we shouldn’t. Of course, this has to do with our ego. Even if someone were able to perform a task 90 percent as well as you, wouldn’t it be wiser than keeping it on your list?

Everyday examples include colleagues who insist on ordering supplies, performing dental cleanings, intubating patients, trimming nails, and creating invoices (all of these are actual examples I observe at my clinics).

If your staff truly is incapable of taking over these tasks, maybe it’s due to your inability to train them—or maybe you have the wrong staff. The fact is that countless colleagues have successfully delegated these jobs to team members who excel at them on a daily basis.

If you truly cannot eliminate, automate, or delegate, then the activity falls on your lap.

The last question

Do you need to take care of this task now or later?

  • If you need to do it now, you have to concentrate, which means that you have to eliminate distractions and focus on the task until it gets done.
  • If you don’t need to do it now, then you can procrastinate—the right way. Vaden calls this “procrastinate on purpose.” This is different from true procrastination, where we postpone something that really should get done, like working out, starting a diet, or doing your taxes.

A task that truly can be postponed goes back to the top of the Focus Funnel. When it crosses your radar screen again, ask yourself if you can eliminate, automate, or delegate. Then either concentrate and do it, or procrastinate on purpose again.

And one day, the activity that keeps getting bumped will be taken care of. Ideally, you will realize that it didn’t need to be on your list to begin with!

Vaden’s philosophy of time management makes a lot of sense for high achievers. By following his logical step-by-step process, you will be able to truly focus on the most important tasks that only you can perform.

When you experience this giant “a-ha” moment, you will experience a whole new level of freedom.

* Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time, Pub. Perigee, 2015.
** “How to Multiply Your Time,” TEDx Douglasville, 2015.
*** The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Simon & Schuster, re-edited 2013.

Dr. Phil Zeltzman is a board-certified veterinary surgeon and serial entrepreneur. His traveling surgery practice takes him all over Eastern Pennsylvania and Western New Jersey. Visit his websites at and

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