Those whose work is mostly or entirely dictated by outside forces and those whose work has to be driven mostly or entirely from their choices.
Think of the first group as all the people you know who have JOBS. Even those who have high pressure, high paid managerial jobs have the boundaries of their work largely set by organizational priorities.
The second group can best be summarized as people who are, to a significant extent, self-employed. This can include the partially self-employed like therapists who have a private practice on the side of their agency job, or side hustlers who offer services or consulting outside of their full-time, corporate or non-profit jobs. Or it can be the entirely self-employed, like therapists and coaches in full-time private practice or founders of small to medium sized companies.
We did work that was assigned to us and were graded on other people’s expectations. Unless you were raised by entrepreneurs, this kind of cog-in-the-organizational-wheel was likely the foundation of your understanding of work.
Now, just to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with thinking about work that way. I’m not saying that doing your part for the mission or finding safety and comfort in a large organization is somehow “less than.” And I’m certainly not saying that a job is somehow less demanding than being self-employed. In fact, the busiest people I know have jobs!
When you are working at a demanding job these days it tends to look like you are chipping away at a mountain of relational tasks (send this report to Anna, follow up if you haven’t heard by Thursday, re-send your availability to nail down a time to meet… and on, and on, and on). Anyone who has ever worked in consulting, or on Wall Street, or in any number of other high-pressure, project driven careers knows exactly what I’m talking about.
For these people, who are largely managing incoming requests, working through projects they’ve been assigned, and trying to figure out timelines for when work can be completed, traditional time management is a HUGE RELIEF.
It’s a high-touch, super structured way to get your to-do list out of your head and managed. By following the tenets of GTD you can take the drama out of all those little commitments and find headspace for the strategic and managerial aspects of your work. It can be a lifesaver; it was for me when I was a consultant and drowning under the weight of 14 projects.
The problem arises when someone who is self-employed attempts to utilize a typical time management system to manage the messy interdependency that is their life and business and finances.
Here’s an example: A therapist tries to use GTD and within a few hours gives up. “I could never do all of this!” she begins, throwing her pen down. And, then (and this is the tragic part), “I guess I just wasn’t meant to do this. I’m so disorganized and such a procrastinator… If I can’t even get myself to do what I put on my to do list, I’m never going to make any progress.”
But what seems to happen instead is that the self-employed cast around looking for certainty from a boss that doesn’t exist. (Un)Fortunately, the internet is full of (ill-conceived, probably irrelevant) advice. Because we just want to be told what to do, we take on these expectations in an almost unconscious way. “Finally, here’s the checklist on how to do this the right way” we say, and then we run ourselves into the ground on the hamster wheel of “best practices” and “tips and tricks.”
These realities (which are DIFFERENT from the realities of our friends with jobs) are why any serious attempt at time management can result in panic.
Now, just to be clear, this doesn’t mean that time management isn’t possible for the self-employed.
We don’t get to start with a list of foregone tasks based on a job description or the guidance of a supervisor.
Instead, we have to dig in and build a messy, imperfect vision. What do you want your practice to be like? How many clients are enough clients? How much time off do you want? How important are those other areas of your life (health, family, adventure, friends)?
It’s very important that you operate from a place informed by the answers to THOSE questions.
When that is in place, you will be ready to manage your time.
Amanda Crowell, PhD is a cognitive psychologist obsessed with how people make change. She is best known for translating cutting edge research into practical strategies that can be used right away.