Productivity strategies can be quite helpful and do in fact result in greater productivity, but for many people something important is missing. Oliver Burkeman offers a refreshing view on this issue in a withering analysis of the time management schemes to which so many of us resort as we struggle to fit everything important into our lives.
In his Guardian article, Why time management is ruining our lives, he observes that most of us feel overwhelmed by the increasing number of tasks we are required to accomplish in less time. And this is why productivity strategies are flourishing as never before. He cites examples like “Inbox Zero”, the email efficiency strategy to keep your email inbox empty that was hatched by Merlin Man in 2007. Yet, Mr. Man eventually disavowed his own productivity strategy. He recently told Mr. Burkeman, “I’m mostly out of the productivity racket these days, 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?”
Besides, notes Burkeman, as many of us have also noticed, “the more efficient you get at ploughing through your tasks, the faster new tasks seem to arrive.”
So, does all our hard work at becoming more efficient succeed in making our lives less anxious? After all, ” The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Burkeman thinks not. He says, “work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. . . . 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.”
But it was not supposed to be this way. In 1930, economist 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.” Though economists continue to argue why the excessive leisure predicted by Keynes failed to materialize, one answer, suggests Burkeman, is capitalism. He presents the story of Frederick Winslow Taylor, who may have been the first “time management guru” when he tried to increase the efficiency of workers at Bethlehem Steel at the turn of the 20th century. His strategy at that time was a somewhat transparent effort to overwork the workers, simply forcing more manual work in less time. Though Taylor was successful in the short term, basically he just exhausted the workers and he was later fired for having no discernible effect on profits for the company. Nonetheless, his gospel of efficiency was forever embedded in the mindset of businessmen. Worse yet, notes Burkeman, “In Taylor’s day, efficiency had been primarily a way to persuade (or bully) other people to do more work in the same amount of time; now it is a regimen we impose on ourselves.”
The author also asks what one might think was an obvious question, though it is rarely asked: “It’s understandable that we respond to the ratcheting demands of modern life by trying to make ourselves more efficient. But what if all this efficiency just makes things worse?”
Mr. Burkeman, who claims years of experience with time-management practices, has found that efforts to become more efficient in order to regain control of our lives tend to have the opposite effect. Yet, we continue to strive to improve our personal efficiency. One reason may be an underlying attraction, a hidden promise of “personal productivity”. What is it? Burkeman claims, “Especially at the higher-paid end of the employment spectrum, time management whispers of the possibility of something even more desirable: true peace of mind.”
“If only we could find the right techniques and apply enough self-discipline, it suggests, we could know that we were fitting everything important in, and could feel happy at last.” Burkeman suggests further: “At the very bottom of our anxious urge to manage time better – the urge driving Frederick Winslow Taylor, Merlin Mann, me and perhaps you – it’s not hard to discern a familiar motive: the fear of death. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means.”
Perhaps, this is one aspect of our scramble to manage our time that remains largely unspoken. Yet, it is a fear that has been around for a very long time. Burkeman turns to Seneca, writing in the first century CE: “Roman philosopher Seneca wrote On The Shortness of Life. ‘This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily, and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.'” What hardworking adult has not, at some point, thought about the brevity of life and how full it is with tasks that often feel utterly meaningless?
But Mr. Burkeman offers another more appealing point of view. There are time management gurus who have come to different conclusions. Tom de Marco discovered something interesting in the 1980s after consulting with Microsoft for years: “what was needed, he had come to realize, was not an increased focus on using time efficiently. It was the opposite: more slack. ‘The best companies I visited, all through the years, were never very hurried,’ DeMarco said. ‘Maybe they used pressure from time to time, as a sort of amusing side-effect. But it was never a constant. Because you don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think.’ Manual work can be speeded up, at least to a certain extent, by increasing the time pressure on workers. But good ideas do not emerge more rapidly when people feel under the gun – if anything, the good ideas dry up.”
What Mr. Burkeman seems to be making clear is that even “if the ethos of efficiency and productivity risks prioritising the health of the economy over the happiness of humans, it is also true that the sense of pressure it fosters is not much good for business either. This, it turns out, is a lesson business is not especially keen to learn.”
Could it be that the highly productive individual, so worshipped in America, may be leading us, through his or her example, down the garden path? Mr. Burkeman’s article adds another brick in the mounting wall of evidence that a meaningful life is not likely to be found by becoming more efficient and accomplishing more and more. In fact, greater productivity may just be more of the same. As Burkeman notes: “Personal productivity 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.” And Burkeman suggests what some of these questions may be: “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?”
Mr. Burkeman’s article offers a strong indictment of time management schemes, offering many examples of how they fail to reduce fear and anxiety or add any meaning or happiness to our lives. Interestingly, his point of view is complemented in many ways by the views of a different analyst, Dan Pink, who also examines approaches to business productivity. Coming from the point of view of motivation, Dan Pink examines the outdated attitudes in business toward productivity in his TED talk, The Puzzle of Motivation, with over 17 million views. While he does not specifically examine the phenomenon of personal productivity strategies, he presents, with clarity and humor, a powerful critique of the widely practiced business strategies in pursuit of greater productivity, basically the “carrot and stick” approach of rewards and punishments.
Although Mr. Pink does agree, and cites scientific experiments, that rewards and punishments do have limited value for mechanistic and repetitive types of work, he demonstrates persuasively, also with scientific data, that financial incentives and other rewards and punishment do not in fact produce the desired effect of greater productivity for tasks that require creativity and/or thoughtful analysis. Instead he makes a convincing case for intrinsic motivators including “autonomy, mastery and purpose” for the worker, rather than extrinsic motivators like rewards and punishment.
His presentation is an excellent complement to Mr. Burkeman’s case that productivity strategies not only fail to bring greater productivity, but also fail to bring us peace of mind, less anxiety, and greater meaning to our lives. Both men are, in different ways, pointing to our modern predicament of being busier than ever before, yet living lives that are less fulfilled, less peaceful and less meaningful.
It is likely that Mr. Burkeman would agree with Dan Pinks’ conclusion about the pursuit of productivity in business. In his presentation, Mr. Pink had supported his argument with scientific data, thus he appeals to science as proof of his ideas. But perhaps his conclusion is something that we all intuitively understand. “There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Here is what science knows. One: Those 20th century rewards, those motivators we think are a natural part of business [rewards and punishments], do work, but only in a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances. Two: Those if-then rewards often destroy creativity. Three: The secret to high performance isn’t rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive– the drive to do things for their own sake. The drive to do things because they matter.”
As new technology and the speed of change increases the complexity of our lives, many of us struggle to keep our heads above water. And maybe this is an apt metaphor. The fear of falling behind sometimes feels like fear of drowning, just keeping up with day-to-day responsibilities feels like a survival struggle. Thus, strategies that promise to increase our efficiency seem to be virtual life preservers floating on a heaving sea of responsibilities. Yet, although these techniques may provide some temporary psychological relief, they fail to address the deeper reasons for our dissatisfaction and unhappiness. Humans are complex beings and desire more than simply to survive; have higher aspirations than simply to be more productive.
Both Mr. Burkeman and Mr. Pink point to something very important. Humans are happiest and perform at their best when they are doing something that “matters” to them. It is not efficiency and productivity, but rather meaning and purpose that bring fulfillment in life. Productivity techniques may be useful tools at best, or “just another form of busyness” at worst, but should not be yet one more distraction to keep us from finding deeper meaning and purpose in our lives.