The pitfalls of time management

Is time management an idea that’s been oversold? Oliver Burkeman recently wrote an article in The Guardian entitled “Why time management is ruining our lives,” which raised a number of interesting points.

Burkeman doesn’t seem to be writing about all time management strategies, but rather the obsession with productivity and getting as much done as possible in any given day, week, month, or year. One problem: When you get incredibly efficient, cramming ever more things into each day, you lose the slack time which allows new, creative ideas to emerge.

Slack time also allows you to respond to unanticipated demands on your time. Burkeman wrote about how this plays out in the workplace and the doctor’s office (where that doctor’s focus on efficiency may cause you to wait way past your appointment time when an earlier appointment runs long). But the same need to deal with the unexpected can happen to any of us. I recently had a dear friend who was facing some medical issues, and I was glad that my schedule was not fully booked so I could readily be there to help her.

Burkeman used the Inbox Zero approach to dealing with email as a specific example of a time management strategy that doesn’t always help the people who implement it. He wrote:

My own dismaying experience with Inbox Zero was that becoming hyper-efficient at processing email meant I ended up getting more email: after all, it’s often the case that replying to a message generates a reply to that reply, and so on. (By contrast, negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.)

For another critique of Inbox Zero, Burkeman pointed to an article by Sara Stewart in the New York Post, which begins as follows:

It’s happened to me more than once lately: A friend sees the glaring red number on my iPhone’s email icon (2,052, if you must know) and their eyes do that cartoon thing where they bungee out of their sockets. “How do you live?” they’ll ask in a horrified whisper. “I could never stand to see that every day.”

Really? Because to me, that little number represents the freedom I feel from the compulsion to check and erase, check and erase, like a rat in a lab experiment, all day, every day. …

I’d like to suggest an alternative: Inbox Whatever. As in, who cares?

But more than anything, these sentences in Burkeman’s article are what resonated with me:

We might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible — with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone. Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not — we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realise our potential on every dimension, or fit more in.

I certainly want to be reasonably productive so I earn a decent living, serve my clients well, maintain key friendships, give back to my community, etc. But I’ve also decided that I’m not going to try to be a super-achiever, so I can also have time for things like lazing around in bed with my cats on a stormy winter day.

At times we may all need to be that super-achiever for various reasons, and get as much done as possible. But it’s worth stepping back every once in a while to make sure we’re still making time management choices that work well for us.

2 Comments for “The pitfalls of time management”

  1. posted by Casey on

    Thanks for the post, Jeri.
    To be productive shouldn’t mean to do more and more and more…
    It should be about being able to filter your tasks, prioritize and keep focus.
    And after this, to choose the best technology assistance (apps, tools, extensions) to help you organize this workflow.

  2. posted by Pam R on

    Great article, really made me think. Also loved the Guardian article that you referenced. It’s Sunday and I’ve just decided to spend some time looking out the window and watching the snow fall.

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