Time management and tidiness: what’s actually important?

time management coaching

Whether a workplace has one or 1000 employees, productivity and perfect time management are strived towards as a goal. Why?  Alex Brooks explains that embracing real people and keeping them engaged and energised is always the perfect quadrant to be in. 

This story was first published on Flying Solo by Alex Brooks

Once upon a time, I had a boss who thought my messy desk was a sign that I wasn’t organised. I was sent to a suburb far, far away to learn something called “time management”.

This corporate training proclaimed there to be a difference between ‘urgent’ and ‘important’ and the secret to becoming a highly productive manager was allocating tasks into time quadrants, a bit like the diagram below.

Time management done the prescriptive way

‘Aha!’ cried my fellow workshop attendees, as though this was a revelation more amazing than receiving free leather-bound diary planners breaking each and every work day into four quadrants.

Something about this method didn’t sit well with me. I figured it would take me out of my zone and distract me into writing tasks in a planner rather than actually getting stuff done and writing briefs to my team or flatplanning a magazine or checking proofs that needed to be sent to a printer ASAP (yes, those were the days when magazines actually made money and had big teams).

I told the trainer that I preferred to write messages on the inside of my wrist in black pen or write on post-it notes to leave attached to my computer to remind me of tasks to do or delegate next.  He smiled at me kindly, as though I was an idiot, and told me I should do whatever worked for me. He still insisted I take the leather-bound diary planner. So I did. And promptly gave it to one of the sub-editors, who loved the illusion of control it gave her.

I still write messages on my wrist and, these days, I often send myself emails to remind me of a task, or note down a new idea. And it works. For me.

How we manage our time is intrinsically linked to our personal skills, values and workplace culture. I think time management training sessions like the one I was forced to attend decades ago are something that managers fall back on when they don’t truly understand – and perhaps haven’t experienced – the power an engaged and energised workplace brings to productivity.


Appearing ‘organised’  is a value judgement. Just because someone has a tidy desk and cuts meetings short to run to their next “back to back” doesn’t make them more organised than the dude slowly sipping coffee in the corner creating the designs for a new product.

In my experience, the most productive team members are those who love the challenge of their work – no matter how awkward, hard or difficult that can become – and are truly engaged with the projects and tasks they need to complete. Team members who are willing and able to perform to their full potential – even when success isn’t guaranteed – are not only a delight to work with, but inspire those around them to tackle that next project with that extra bit of zest.


I get that C-suite leaders are busy. I get that the receptionist is also busy. We all are. But there is a weird cult of busy-ness that’s permeated some businesses, to the detriment of team members who look up and start to think they must start behaving the same way if they are to be successful.

Lots of people think conquering their calendar and administering their emails down to zero is a sign of success. I say ‘boo’ to indulging in the busy-buzz and thinking that inbox zero equals zen.

There are two types of people: which one are you?

I know some people scream in horror when they see that my inbox has 165,000+ emails waiting to be read. Most of these unread emails are ridiculous newsletters I sign up to in a moment of passion, only never to read again. I simply scroll past these each day and read what I need, respond to what needs to be done and leave the deleting and unsubscribing to another day. Others can only feel anxiety from such an approach. C’est la vie. Different strokes for different folks. Remaining calm and focussed is the key. Not ticking off to-do lists.


I am as guilty of checking the online news, Facebook, Insta – or whatever – as much as the next person. Having digital distractions just a browser tab away as we work is as tempting as finishing up all the chocolate in my pantry when I am ‘in a mood’.

It must be so hard for those in the early stages of their career to stay away from these temptations and learn how to find their zone (that special place where nothing can distract you because your work is so much more compelling).

Novelist Jonathan Franzen – who had me gripped with his book Purity – has blocked his computer from  internet access and even shoved super glue into the ethernet port:  “What you have to do,” Franzen explains, “is you plug in an Ethernet cable with superglue, and then you saw off the little head of it”. There’s even a new kind of mobile phone for those who don’t want to get distracted by their smartphone. It’s called The Lite Phone and it has already raised more than $3m in crowdfunding.

There is only one way to overcome digital procrastination, and that’s to be so enthralled by your own work and projects that you can resist the lure of the scroll. Also, getting up and walking to the pantry or refrigerator seems to help.


German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe thought of it this way: he believed the way someone spends their time can tell you everything. “If I know how you spend your time,” he writes, “then I know what might become of you. ”

Those time management obsessives will tell you that unproductive meetings and endless emails are your enemy. But sometimes – just sometimes – they are not. It takes only a spark or a quick connection to inspire the next big idea. While it’s great to have a plan, sometimes un-plans are the best thing to take you down a different path.

Meeting a new contact in an otherwise dull meeting could create something incredible. Ideas and inspiration are relatively easy to come by, but only those who are truly engaged and energised by their work will put the intentional effort behind them to become real world solutions.


Giving our very best at work doesn’t come in quadrants any more than it comes in a tidy desk. For those who do love a schedule and a productivity hack, I reckon behavioural designer Nir Eyal has a great scheduler here.

My old boss – the same one who sent me to time management training and also thought he was being helpful by leaving notes on my desk trying to shame me into cleaning it up – didn’t remain as my boss for much longer. Less than a year, I think. I chose to leave. And I can’t help but smirk every time I read what Albert Einstein – who had a famously messy desk – had to say on the topic:

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?”

Albert Einstein’s university desk
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