This study just blew open some myths about time management and success

“Time management” has become a nearly unavoidable buzz phrase over recent years. Countless articles, seminars, and influencers argue that smart and efficient time management is an absolute necessity when it comes to succeeding both professionally and academically. But, what does the relevant research have to say?

To find out, scientists at Concordia University performed a comprehensive meta-analysis of all research pertaining to time management dating back four decades. While they discovered that improved time management can absolutely lead to positive life outcomes, the specifics of those findings don’t exactly fall in line with prevailing time-management beliefs.

In short, the study authors report careful time management is more closely correlated with improved well-being and life satisfaction than either academic or professional performance. That’s not to say great time management won’t help one find tangible success, just not to the same degree it is associated with overall happiness.

“Time management helps people feel better about their lives because it helps them schedule their day-to-day around their values and beliefs, giving them a feeling of self-accomplishment,” explains study co-author and graduate researcher Brad Aeon in a release.

It’s funny, many people who are averse to stringent time management tend to think of a strict schedule as a self-imposed prison sentence. Such individuals are afraid they’ll become enslaved by their routine. They don’t want to be bogged down worrying about if they’ve spent too much or too little time doing this or that, they simply want to live their lives and do what they want in the moment. 

Ironically, however, it’s usually this relaxed approach to life that leads to feelings of helplessness. Implementing more careful time management puts you in better control of your life, even if that means sacrificing a little bit of spontaneity. In this sense, it makes sense that better time management fosters improved well-being.

Regarding cold hard results, time management can help with that too. In fact, the research team believes strong time management skills are even more of an asset to the modern employee than they would have been a few decades ago.

“We found that it does have a moderate impact on work performance,” Aeon says. “But we found that the relationship between time management and job performance actually increased over the years, and significantly so.” 

“People have more leeway in deciding how to structure their own time, so it is up to them to manage their own time as well. If they are good at it, presumably they will have a better performance,” he notes. “And if they are not, they will have an even worse performance than they would have had 30 years ago, when they had more of their time managed for them,” he continues.

Notably, in comparison to career outcomes time management skills appear to have less of a positive impact on academic results for students. For instance, researchers found no evidence suggesting that better time management leads to higher standardized test scores. They theorize this is because no amount of studying can improve certain aspects of fluid intelligence. 

As far as specific demographics (gender, age, personality traits), researchers say women generally tend to be better at managing their time than men. 

“The only trait that did correlate strongly with time management was conscientiousness,” Aeon comments. “That involves people’s attention to details, their desire for organization, to be reliable and systematic. That is understandable, because there is a lot of overlap there.”

Another fascinating finding from this work is the revelation that much of proper time management comes down to just how strongly one believes one is in control of their own life. 

Technically termed “locus of control,” some people are much more confident that they can make meaningful changes in their life (internal locus of control) while others feel more vulnerable to outside circumstances and developments (external locus of control). Study authors report people with an internal locus of control usually excel at time management.

In conclusion, Aeon and his team point out that it’s also important not to get too caught up with comparing one’s schedule with others. There will always be someone out there describing, or perhaps bragging, about how their time management skills are second to none.

“You see these social media posts saying, ‘Yes, there’s a pandemic, but I learned a new language or I woke up at 5 a.m. and accomplished more in a few hours than you will all day,'” he notes. “It makes the rest of us feel bad and creates unrealistic standards as to what we can and cannot do with our time.”

A total of 158 prior studies conducted across six continents and involving over 53,000 people were analyzed for this project.

So, all in all, pursuing better time management may absolutely help you land that big promotion, but it’s just as if not more likely to leave you feeling more satisfied each night as your head hits the pillow. 

The full study can be found here, published in PLOS ONE.