Focusing on Time Management Probably Isn’t Great

Stress management book with broken cup
So, the post I wanted to write for today relied on a link I’ve saved in Instapaper, which at last count has been down for a full day or so. Not great. But sometimes, the gods of Twitter are friendly, and someone will randomly post a link to the month-old article you’d wanted to write about, and all is well with the world.

The article in question is Oliver Burkeman’s excellent “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives.” Burkeman’s article is exactly what it says on the tin: a strong assertion that discussions of personal productivity can’t lead you to nirvana, and will probably end up making you miserable:

Likewise, it remains the frequent experience of those who try to follow the advice of personal productivity gurus – I’m speaking from years of experience here – that a “mind like water” is far from the guaranteed result. As with Inbox Zero, so with work in general: the more efficient you get at ploughing through your tasks, the faster new tasks seem to arrive. (“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion,” as the British historian C Northcote Parkinson realised way back in 1955, when he coined what would come to be known as Parkinson’s law.)

Then there’s the matter of self-consciousness: virtually every time management expert’s first piece of advice is to keep a detailed log of your time use, but doing so just heightens your awareness of the minutes ticking by, then lost for ever. As for focusing on your long-term goals: the more you do that, the more of your daily life you spend feeling vaguely despondent that you have not yet achieved them. Should you manage to achieve one, the satisfaction is strikingly brief – then it’s time to set a new long-term goal. The supposed cure just makes the problem worse.

Burkeman sketches a quick history of the personal productivity / time management approach, and has thoughtful observations about the new gig economy, the way you end up shouldering the burden of the other’s quest for efficiency, and more.

My one quibble is that he makes Merlin Mann’s “Inbox Zero” a bit of a whipping boy at the beginning of the essay, as an example of how fetishizing getting to the bottom of your inbox was making people a bit . . . tense. This is unfortunate, as Mann’s whole argument was against a narrowly technical understanding of chasing “inbox zero,” and about finding out a way to live so you don’t wake up at 2am panicking about your unread count.

It’s a #longread, as they say, but lucid and well-worth a few minutes’ consideration.

Do you have a favorite essay on productivity on the minute? Please share in comments, or on Twitter or Facebook!

Photo “Day Sixty – Stress Management for Professionals” by Flickr user The Crystal Fairy / Creative Commons licensed BY-2.0

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