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The average life comprises of just over 4,500 weeks, according to data collected in North America. Given this rather sobering statistic, it’s no wonder there is a natural desire in most of us to use our time well.
This anxiety is far from new. After all, Seneca wrote, On The Shortness of Life, in the first century AD. The modern twist we’ve put on the concept is we feel we should respond to this short lifespan by making ourselves as efficient as we can.
Soon enough, this idea suggests, we’ll be living our best lives, feel accomplished, and have more time to do with as we see fit. What’s more, you’ll get relief from the time pressure and stress of modern life. But what if we end up striving for efficiency, even after discovering doing so doesn’t bring any respite from time pressure and stress?
Let’s answer the question.
Yes. Time management used as a tool to propel us to ever-increasing levels of efficiency can fail to do what it promises, so it should be used with care. If you’re hyper-focused on recording how you spend every minute of the day, you could easily become overwhelmed because you focus on time and profit lost. That’s likely to have a detrimental effect on your efficiency and motivation — and time management can’t be said to have given you peace of mind. If you’re successful at managing your time and achieve a long-term goal, you’ll probably find the satisfaction fleeting because you’ll soon be setting yourself another goal to work towards.
Soon, we’ll look at what becoming a master of time management promises you. Now though, let’s find out more about scientific management and how it gave rise to modern ideas about efficiency.
Scientific management and the birth of personal productivity
It isn’t hard to grasp why the idea of efficiency is so enticing. It’s the promise of doing what you’re already doing, more cheaply, faster and better. Unless you’re a worker who’s being driven hard to get every last drop of value out of you, and make you as efficient as possible with little regard for your health and happiness, there’re no immediately apparent downsides.
The concept of personal productivity and efficiency first took hold in a big way in the 1880s, thanks in no small part to Fredrick Winslow Taylor, who can be said to have been the father of scientific management. His work, The Principles of Modern Management, was published in 1911. Many of the principles laid down in that book are recognisable today, including rewards, quality standards, and even suggestion schemes.
But remember, Taylor didn’t concern himself overmuch with the happiness of those working under him. His primary focus was on how well time could be used and how he could squeeze every drop of productivity and value from each member of his workforce.
The time-pressure problem was supposed to diminish as society advanced, not worsen. But John Maynard Keynes, in his now infamous 1930 prediction that we would all be working a maximum of 15 hours a week within two generations, has proved woefully inaccurate. He seems to have believed that we would start to work less as our essential needs and a few other desires were satisfied. What’s happened instead? Once we’ve satisfied one need or desire, we find something else to want or need.
So, if cutting back on work to create more time — the whole idea of good time management — is not impossible, it at the very least often feels like it.
Perhaps there is a problem with time management because, as time has gone on, the concept of efficiency has grown more individualistic and we have internalised the idea. In Taylor’s day, the lure of efficiency was used to persuade others to do more work in the same period of time. Today, we impose the same principles of managing our time optimally on ourselves and thereby maximising our productivity, even outside of the workplace.
Let’s look at how excellent, effective time management is supposed to benefit us.
The promises time management makes
Here’re some advantages striving for more efficiency is supposed to yield.
- It promises to give you a sense of control over your lives— in arguably increasingly secular societies where social bonds of community and religion have lessened — which we seem to lack.
- In the modern world of work, particularly if you’re among the growing ranks of the self-employed, striving for optimal personal efficiency and time management may be key to your survival. After all, the only person who will suffer financial penalties if you slack off is you.
- The main promise of time management is that leading a meaningful life is still possible in environments driven by profit.
- If you happen to be towards the higher paid end of the spectrum, time management seems to promise something even more desirable than efficiency — peace of mind.
The concept of personal productivity puts the burden on reconciling the demands of our working lives with our personal lives squarely on our own shoulders. It’s important, then, to investigate what problems arise from time management failing to meet our expectations.
Problems with time management
Let’s take a look at what happened to Fredrick Winslow Taylor as an example of one problem with time-management and a relentless drive for increased productivity. The much-lauded efficiency drives he implemented at Bethlehem Steel seemed promising on the surface, but left workers exhausted and unable to function consistently over a long period. Bethlehem Steel sacked Taylor in 1901, having paid him a lot, but having seen no significant impact on company profits. So much for the lesser promises of time management.
But what about the almost irresistible allure of gaining true peace of mind? It’s by no means certain that you’ll get a calm mind if you become a master of time management. What’s more, there will always be something you could be doing. So the better you become at managing your time, the quicker new tasks seem to arise. Naval historian Cyril Northcott Parkinson pointed out that, “…work expands to fill the space available for its completion.” So you might well end up just moving on to other tasks that arrive. Thereby, you may end up eliminating other benefits you may have enjoyed in the extra time you saved by completing a previous task efficiently. You will only have created more time in which to do more work, particularly if you already have a busy schedule. That doesn’t seem conducive to achieving true peace of mind, does it?
Self-consciousness plays a role in this too. Keeping a detailed time log of all your activities to figure out how long things take you to do encourages clock-watching, and can create anxiety around time. You become highly aware of time lost, never to be regained. This hyper-awareness can bring more stress and distract you from actually doing your work. You may thus find that by clock-watching too much, you actually lower your productivity. Clockwatching can lower the quality of your work, too. If that’s true, surely it’s also true that the time-pressure problem created by focusing too much on time management is bad news for business as well.
As Tom DeMarco, author of a 2001 book on the myth of efficiency suggests, you cannot force creativity. Manual work can be speeded up to an extent, but if you crank up the pressure good ideas don’t come to people any faster. Indeed, good ideas may be harder to come by when people are under increased time pressure. DeMarco argues that striving for effective time management and more efficiency can boost performance and get stuff done in the short-term. Nonetheless, it can spell disaster as a long-term strategy if a company cannot change direction and pace at need.
There’s another more insidious pitfall of time management that deserves a mention. The seemingly implacable drive for efficiency has pervaded our personal lives so that we now feel we should use our leisure time as productively as possible too. This may actually be putting further pressure on us and draining our energy. This, in turn, may indirectly affect the quality of our work and make us more susceptible to fatigue and burnout, which destroys productivity.
The take away
We should remember that exercising good time management has many advantages and can help increase your productivity in the short-term, as recognised early in the 20th century. Even so, we’ve touched on some of the drawbacks of relying too heavily on time management as a driver of efficiency. Maybe it’s best to use time management carefully in order to minimise the chance that we unintentionally decrease efficiency through becoming overly worried about time. So, cut yourselves some slack every once in a while. Who knows? You may just have a really good idea in your downtime that turns out to be the secret ingredient you need to take your working life or business to new heights.