One of the main reasons I started this blog is because I enjoy reading about time management, daily routines, and productivity. So naturally I was intrigued by the title of this piece in Quartz by business psychologist Tony Crabbe “Time management is only making our busy lives worse.” Before the Industrial Revolution, Crabbe explains, work was not governed by time on the clock but by tasks, a style that was well-suited to an agrarian culture. We all know what happened after the industrial revolution because, well, we’re still living it. Industrialized nations started relying on clock time in order to synchronize the labor of large amounts of people in factories and a love/hate, can’t-live-with-you/can’t-live-without-you-relationship with clock time has been intensifying ever since.
I share this love/hate relationship with clock time. A few years in my early twenties of 9-5 work left me eager to explore alternative models, so one of the most appealing aspects of academia was that it seemed to shirk clock-time-driven work. Knowing better now, it is not that academia is free of clock-time work, far from it, but it is certainly more a mixture of task-based (research, writing) and time-based (teaching, meetings, advising) work than many professions out there.
In this mixture, however, it can be difficult to strike a balance between time-driven and task-driven work. We often struggle with how to avoid getting swallowed up by our time-driven work and “make time” for the task-driven work. One popular strategy for many academics: treating task-driven work more like time-driven work through time management strategies. Examples of this include creating detailed schedules and using timed methods like Pomodoro. The logic goes something like this: since I always seem to be able to accomplish most/all of my time-driven tasks, if I treat my research and writing more like a time-driven task, I will get more of it done sooner and more efficiently.
But Crabbe rejects the notion that time-management will solve our woes. He writes,
Time management, we believe, is the solution to our busyness: if we could organize our time better, we’d be less overwhelmed, happier, and more effective. We are completely wrong on all three counts, and it’s damaging our lives and our careers.
He makes three points…
1 Time management only makes you busier
Crabbe argues, “If we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don’t get it all done—we just become busier.” This brought to mind something Chelsea Johnson wrote in her post for this blog: “…nothing is ever done. You could always think more, write more, do more, and conduct more interviews.” What both are saying is that productivity is a feedback of loop that always leads to more work. That feeling of immense relief when you hit “send” on an email containing a completed manuscript, is quickly replaced by the feeling of the need to return to other open projects or begin the next project as soon as possible. These feelings are further intensified the closer you are to the periods in your career when academic productivity is at its most-scrutinized: when entering the ultra-competitive academic job market, or during review for tenure.
What we can take from this is not that we should aim to be less productive per se, but that it would serve us to drop the illusion that time management necessarily leads to more free time and in many cases it leads to less free time. That is not to say that more free time can’t be a result of better time management. It can, but often only after being proactively pursued and vigilantly protected against encroachment.
2 Maximizing your time means fracturing your attention
This is where Crabbe calls out our beloved gadgets, often purchased with the intention of realizing all of our productivity dreams, for serving us in all the wrong ways. He writes,
As we seek to maximize our time, we slice and dice it into ever-smaller increments. This leads to what Brigid Schulte calls time-confetti; however, the real impact isn’t on our time, but on our attention. When we scatter our attention across a thousand micro-activities, we prevent ourselves from engaging deeply or thinking properly.
Stop. How delightful of an image is time-confetti? I’m going to look up this Brigid Schulte and… a twenty-minute hiatus from writing this post later and I’m back to talk about
my our ragged attention spans. You know when you feel productive because you replied to an email on your phone on a walk between meetings? Or when you bring a book you need to read for research on your commute (but if it’s a short commute and you’re like me, you will just read the same few paragraphs over and over again)? These multi-tasking strategies feel like a necessity for a lot of us because our lives are so hectic we can’t imagine any other way. And maybe for some there isn’t another way. But what’s important about what Crabbe is saying here is that these behaviors are believed to have a measurable affect on our attention.
Crabbe follows this by contrasting fractured time with being in a flow state. In my view, endeavoring to cut down on our propensity for multi-tasking in the name of productivity is only part of the picture. Between the binary of fractured time and flow, there are all kinds of mental states including the increasingly rarified state of boredom. We need to learn to value those times when we aren’t being traditionally productive, because those “non-productive” times provide the mental space needed for deep analysis and and innovative thinking. Feel like exploring this idea more? I recommend trying out the Bored and Brilliant Project.
3 Time awareness makes us less effective
Now Crabbe gets a little esoteric, shifting the discussion from time, to “time awareness.” He explains that effectiveness is the result of the ability to prioritize and achieve. He continues by explaining,
When we prioritize well, we choose to do the right things, not just the obvious things. Yet when we have a strong time awareness, our attention narrows and our ability to make good choices declines. We make decisions based on the immediate demand, rather than zooming out to look at the bigger picture. We prioritize the urgent and immediate, rather than the important and strategic. In our time-driven frenzy, our gaze seldom lifts from things like the inbox and task list…No business or life was changed by an empty inbox and anyone who gets to zero tasks simply lacks imagination!
He had me up until the last part. I agree that time awareness often distracts us from our main goals, which is why we often put smaller things with deadlines (grading, conference proposals) ahead of larger things without deadlines (dissertation, book projects, etc). But as someone who completely overhauled their system for dealing with email a few years ago, I must say that having an empty inbox can in fact be life-changing. Feeling in control of my email inbox and the accomplishments of other smaller tasks empower me daily to tackle the larger things. With an empty inbox, my mind feels freer and I don’t experience the creeping feeling of email guilt (when you keep meaning to reply to someone but you haven’t yet). This may not apply to everyone (example, my husband has 19,000 unread emails in his inbox and is completely unfazed by this), but for me, having an empty inbox has led to fewer distractions and better effectiveness, period.
But quibbles about the value of an empty email inbox aside, the morsel of wisdom in this section is this: citing a study on perceived time pressure, Crabbe writes,
…the very sense of a lack of time—rather than an actual lack of time—reduces our performance.
Carbon copy this to every university administrator looking for ways to push out PhDs faster and faster these days. What’s clear to me is that while time-awareness may positively affect our productivity, it does not mean we are always producing our best work. So rather than try to do more with our time, we ought to try to focus on doing less with our time in order to do it better.
In Crabbe’s final point, he argues that time management is over-prioritized:
Time management was a brilliant invention, and helped to transform society 250 years ago. It is just not helpful anymore; in fact it’s harmful in a world of too much. It’s time to develop a different strategy—one that starts from the recognition that, in our overloaded world, the greatest shortage is not time, but attention.
Crabbe’s article was a reminder to step back and reflect on the relationship between how and why we work. After all if the point of time management and productivity is to enhance our lives, and all it really does is make us busier, our thoughts more fragmented, and dilutes our performance, then how can we begin to reclaim our behaviors in ways that better support our aims?
What are your thoughts on this? What is your relationship with time management?