The Guardian's Oliver Burkeman claims that time management is ruining our lives--and has been since at least Merlin Mann's "Inbox Zero" system a decade ago:
Mann advised his audience that day at Google's Silicon Valley campus, every time you visit your inbox, you should systematically "process to zero". Clarify the action each message requires - a reply, an entry on your to-do list, or just filing it away. Perform that action. Repeat until no emails remain. Then close your inbox, and get on with living.
The "rich seam of societal anxiety" that Mann was mining has since been refined into a multitude of productivity apps and time-management techniques:
And yet the truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one's personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn't reliably bring calm. Some interpreted it to mean that every email deserved a reply, which only shackled them more firmly to their inboxes.
"The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day," Burkeman continues, "everything might finally be under control:"
Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you're still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity - you're just rolling it slightly faster.
After a few years of working on a book that never materialized, Mann himself concluded as much:
"I'm mostly out of the productivity racket these days," Mann told me. "If you're just using efficiency to jam more and more stuff into your day ... well, how would you ever know that that's working?"
The problematic issue of self-consciousness affects every GTD-like system:
One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time "productively", too - an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.
Burkeman shares an anecdote from software engineer Tom DeMarco:
DeMarco points out that any increase in efficiency, in an organisation or an individual life, necessitates a trade-off: you get rid of unused expanses of time, but you also get rid of the benefits of that extra time. [...]
In the accident and emergency department [...] remaining "inefficient" in this sense is a matter of life and death. If there is an exclusive focus on using the staff's time as efficiently as possible, the result will be a department too busy to accommodate unpredictable arrivals, which are the whole reason it exists.
A similar problem afflicts any corporate cost-cutting exercise that focuses on maximising employees' efficiency: the more of their hours that are put to productive use, the less available they will be to respond, on the spur of the moment, to critical new demands. For that kind of responsiveness, idle time must be built into the system.
This passage, wherein DeMarco discusses "those sliding number puzzles, in which you move eight tiles around a nine-tile grid, until all the digits are in order," is my Quote of the Day:
To use the available space more efficiently, you could always add a ninth tile to the empty square. You just wouldn't be able to solve the puzzle any more. If that jammed and unsolvable puzzle feels like an appropriate metaphor for your life, it's hard to see how improving your personal efficiency - trying to force yet more tiles on to the grid - is going to be much help.
"Personal productivity," Burkeman concludes, "presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness:"
And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don't have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days. [...]
You can seek to impose order on your inbox all you like - but eventually you'll need to confront the fact that the deluge of messages, and the urge you feel to get them all dealt with, aren't really about technology. They're manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas. Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?