Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives

Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice. The problem of how to manage time, accordingly, goes back at least to the first century AD, when the 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,” he said, chiding his fellow citizens for wasting their days on pointless busyness, and “baking their bodies in the sun”.

Clearly, then, the challenge of how to live our lives well is not a new one. Still, it is safe to say that the citizens of first-century Rome didn’t experience the equivalent of today’s productivity panic. (Seneca’s answer to the question of how to live had nothing to do with becoming more productive: it was to give up the pursuit of wealth or high office, and spend your days philosophising instead.) What is uniquely modern about our fate is that we feel obliged to respond to the pressure of time by making ourselves as efficient as possible – even when doing so fails to bring the promised relief from stress.

The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In 1930, 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 – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Depending on your rung of the economic ladder, it’s either impossible, or at least usually feels impossible, to cut down on work in exchange for more time.

Arguably the first time management guru – the progenitor of the notion that personal productivity might be the answer to the problem of time pressure – was Frederick Winslow Taylor, an engineer hired in 1898 by the Bethlehem Steel Works, in Pennsylvania, with a mandate to improve the firm’s efficiency. “Staring out over an industrial yard that covered several square miles of the Pennsylvania landscape, he watched as labourers loaded 92lb [iron bars] on to rail cars,” writes Matthew Stewart, in his book The Management Myth. “There were 80,000 tons’ worth of iron bars, which were to be carted off as fast as possible to meet new demand sparked by the Spanish-American war. Taylor narrowed his eyes: there was waste here, he was certain.”

The Bethlehem workers, Taylor calculated, were shifting about 12.5 tons of iron per man per day – but predictably, when he offered a group of “large, powerful Hungarians” some extra cash to work as fast as they could for an hour, he found that they performed much better. Extrapolating to a full work day, and guesstimating time for breaks, Taylor concluded, with his trademark blend of self-confidence and woolly maths, that every man ought to be shifting 50 tons per day – four times their usual amount.

Workers were naturally unhappy at this transparent attempt to pay them the same money for more work, but Taylor was not especially concerned with their happiness; their job was to implement, not understand, his new philosophy of “scientific management”. “One of the very first requirements for a man who is fit to handle pig iron,” wrote Taylor, is “that he shall be so stupid and phlegmatic that he more nearly resembles in his mental makeup the ox than any other type … he is so stupid that the word ‘percentage’ has no meaning for him.”

The idea of efficiency that Taylor sought to impose on Bethlehem Steel was borrowed from the mechanical engineers of the industrial revolution. It was a way of thinking about improving the functioning of machines, now transferred to humans. And it caught on: Taylor enjoyed a high-profile career as a lecturer on the topic, and by 1915, according to the historian Jennifer Alexander, “the word ‘efficiency’ was plastered everywhere – in headlines, advertisements, editorials, business manuals, and church bulletins.” In the first decades of the 20th century, in a Britain panicked by the rise of German power, the National Efficiency movement united politicians on left and right. (“At the present time,” the Spectator noted in 1902, “there is a universal outcry for efficiency in all the departments of society, in all aspects of life.”)

It is not hard to grasp the appeal: efficiency was the promise of doing what you already did, only better, more cheaply, and in less time. What could be wrong with that? Unless you happened to be on the sharp end of attempts to treat humans like machines – like the workers of Bethlehem Steel – there wasn’t an obvious downside.

But as the century progressed, something important changed: we all became Frederick Winslow Taylors, presiding ruthlessly over our own lives. As the doctrine of efficiency grew entrenched – as the ethos of the market spread to more and more aspects of society, and life became more individualistic – we internalised it. 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 that we impose on ourselves. (...)

Time management promised a sense of control in a world in which individuals – decreasingly supported by the social bonds of religion or community – seemed to lack it. In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing, and time management can give you a valuable edge. Indeed, if you are among the growing ranks of the self-employed, as a freelancer or a worker in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency may be essential to your survival. The only person who suffers financially if you indulge in “loafing” – a workplace vice that Taylor saw as theft – is you.

Above all, time management promises that a meaningful life might still be possible in this profit-driven environment, as Melissa Gregg explains in Counterproductive, a forthcoming history of the field. With the right techniques, the prophets of time management all implied, you could fashion a fulfilling life while simultaneously attending to the ever-increasing demands of your employer. This promise “comes back and back, in force, whenever there’s an economic downturn”, Gregg told me.

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. “It is possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control,” the contemporary king of the productivity gurus, David Allen, declared in his 2001 bestseller, Getting Things Done. “You can experience what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water’, and top athletes refer to as ‘the zone’.”

As Gregg points out, it is significant that “personal productivity” puts the burden of reconciling these demands squarely on our shoulders as individuals. Time management gurus rarely stop to ask whether the task of merely staying afloat in the modern economy – holding down a job, paying the mortgage, being a good-enough parent – really ought to require rendering ourselves inhumanly efficient in the first place.

Besides, on closer inspection, even the lesser promises of time management were not all they appeared to be. An awkward truth about Taylor’s celebrated efficiency drives is that they were not very successful: Bethlehem Steel fired him in 1901, having paid him vast sums without any clearly detectable impact on its own profits. (One persistent consequence of his schemes was that they seemed promising at first, but left workers too exhausted to function consistently over the long term.)

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.

There is a historical parallel for all this: it’s exactly what happened when the spread of “labour-saving” devices transformed the lives of housewives and domestic servants across Europe and north America from the end of the 19th century. Technology now meant that washing clothes no longer entailed a day bent over a mangle; a vacuum-cleaner could render a carpet spotless in minutes.

Yet as the historian Ruth Cowan demonstrates in her 1983 book More Work for Mother, the result, for much of the 20th century, was not an increase in leisure time among those charged with doing the housework. Instead, as the efficiency of housework increased, so did the standards of cleanliness and domestic order that society came to expect. Now that the living-room carpet could be kept perfectly clean, it had to be; now that clothes never needed to be grubby, grubbiness was all the more taboo. These days, you can answer work emails in bed at midnight. So should that message you got at 5.30pm really wait till morning for a reply? (...)

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. As the philosopher Thomas Nagel has put it, on any meaningful timescale other than human life itself – that of the planet, say, or the cosmos – “we will all be dead any minute”. No wonder we are so drawn to the problem of how to make better use of our days: if we could solve it, we could avoid the feeling, in Seneca’s words, of finding life at an end just when we were getting ready to live. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means.

But the modern zeal for personal productivity, rooted in Taylor’s philosophy of efficiency, takes things several significant steps further. 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. It is up to us – indeed, it is our obligation – to maximise our productivity. This is a convenient ideology from the point of view of those who stand to profit from our working harder, and our increased capacity for consumer spending. But it also functions as a form of psychological avoidance. The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices – because there will be enough time for everything – the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one.

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. “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, in what reads like a foreshadowing of our present circumstances. “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

by Oliver Burkeman, The Guardian |  Read more:
Image: Pete Gamlen