Time Management: Stress Liberator or Stress Generator?

Time management: Stress liberator or stress generator?

 3rd December 2019

The eternal human struggle to live meaningfully in the face of inevitable death has entered new heights in this technology-driven. We compete with others and ourselves to be more performant - always more performant.

Most of us have experienced this creeping sense of being overwhelmed: the feeling that our lives are full of activity and that time is slipping out of our control.

Time management promises that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness.

It is understandable that we respond to the constant demands of modern life by trying to make ourselves more efficient. But what if all this efficiency just makes things worse?

Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable. “Time management” was devised back in the 19th century as a means of quantifying all the things we have to do, working out their importance and scheduling them accordingly.

And today, the quest for increased personal productivity – for making the best possible use of your limited time – is a dominant aspect of our modern societies.

The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week and humanity would face its greatest challenge; that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally reduce working hours once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied.

Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Depending on where you stand on the economic ladder, it is either impossible, or at least usually feels impossible, to cut down on work in exchange for more time.

Some argue that time management could be exacerbating the issue of stress, highlighting a mounting to-do list. There’s another argument that time management ends up managing us through obsessional list-checking and scheduling. It may also be true that super-efficiency breeds more work.

Part of the problem is simply that thinking about time encourages clockwatching, which has been repeatedly shown in studies to undermine the quality of work. In one representative experiment from 2008, US researchers asked people to complete the Iowa gambling task - a decision-making test that involves selecting playing cards in order to win an amount of cash. All participants were given the same time in which to complete the task - but some were told that the time allocated would probably be enough, while others were warned it would be tight. Contrary to what some may believe, that the pressure of deadlines is what forces them to produce high-quality work, the second group performed far less well. The mere awareness of their limited time triggered anxious emotions that got in the way of performance. [2]

But that all comes down to how we use time management as a simple tool, and how rigidly we can remind ourselves that it is there to increase productivity so that we can free up time for the things we really want to do.

The Journal of Educational Psychology found that student populations who mastered the art of prioritising their time felt more satisfied with their work and, most importantly, their lives at large [1]. And the majority of leading health bodies suggest employing some form of time management to reduce stress levels and stay healthy and happy.

So, where earlier versions of time management might have been about trying to have (and do) it all, perhaps the new version is more about revisiting what is fundamental to our happiness and shelving the rest, so that we can enjoy life a bit more?

Learning to manage our time is a skill which allows us to re-order and prioritise any kind of task—in all areas of life—and it can help to:

  • Ease the feeling of being overwhelmed: When we have too much on our plate we start to lose focus. If we can organise our priorities it brings back clarity and gives the brain a place to focus, which is where real productivity begins.
  • Reward ourselves by showing progress: We all respond well to ticked boxes and crossed off tasks. It’s a real measure of the progress we have made and it drives motivation.
  • Give us back our control: Instead of drowning in a sea of demands, we can assess the importance of the things we need to get done and learn to push back those things which are not a priority. We are no longer just blindly saying yes to everything, we are taking charge of our time.
  • Shift us back into a healthy cycle of ‘work’ and rest: Better time management can allow us to draw a distinction between time for work (or tasks) and time for rest. And better rest leads to better productivity and wellbeing in the long-run.


So to answer the question; ‘Time management: stress liberator or stress generator?’— well, probably both depending on how it is used. It is our inability to juggle modern demands which leads to stress and shortens lifespan. Time management is just a tool in the kit that can help us get better at dealing with those demands.

Take it further

Resilience is the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties and is something that is becoming more important in our increasingly fast-paced and changeable working environment and is vitally important to how an organisation performs, particularly where change is being managed. But how is mental resilience developed? One important route is to establish a culture of self-help, where individuals are able to recognise wellbeing issues and feel confident to seek support that helps them remain healthy and effective.

Our Building Resilience and Mental Strength Workshops are designed to give employees the tools they need to take control and be more productive and mentally healthier as a result.

We often use a mental toughness questionnaire (MTQ48+) to complement the development. The tool offers an insight into current resilience levels, offering personalised feedback on areas that could be developed and strengthened.

To find out more please contact us or check out our upcoming workshop dates.



[1] How Time Management Can Help Reduce Stress

[2] Is Time Management Ruining Our Lives