You probably don't need research to tell you that people are feeling more and more overwhelmed and overscheduled, but if anecdotal evidence isn't enough to make this clear, studies do exist. Americans tell pollsters they struggle to find work-life balance and generally feel like they spend their days on a slightly too fast treadmill scurrying to catch up.
But no worries--this problem has an obvious solution, right? All we need is better time management--get more done, choose and batch tasks more wisely, keep tabs on our to-do list more carefully, etc.
That seems reasonable but it's totally wrong, according to a fascinating article by business psychologist Tony Crabbe that appeared on Quartz recently. The in-depth piece looks at the history of the relationship between work and time (hint: we weren't always so clock obsessed) and goes on to argue that, as we've misdiagnosed what ails us, the prescribed treatment--time management--is actually making our problems worse.
"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," Crabbe writes.
Lopping off Hydra heads
How does that work? "Research does show that if you increase people's time awareness--by placing a big clock in front of them, for example--they do more stuff," Crabbe explains. Which sounds like just what the doctor ordered, but there's a fatal flaw to this thinking, he points out.
"In our infinite world, we will never be able to get on top of everything, ever again; there is just too much to do. In Greek mythology, when you cut off one of Hydra's heads, two would grow back. Like with the Hydra, when we complete more tasks, all that happens is more appear to take their place--send more emails, get more replies. In essence, if we do more as a result of better managing our time, we don't get it all done--we just become busier," Crabbe argues.
Time management has another weakness as well. In our efforts to be productivity ninjas, we tend to try and cram more and more tasks into smaller and smaller blocks of time, resulting in severely fractured attention and difficulty concentrating for any significant length of time.
"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," Crabbe says. Good-bye life-altering conversations and a satisfying sense of flow; hello rat-race exhaustion and mental overload!
Time management, in other words, is making you crazy, and while it might help you tick off long lists of busy work, it's not helping you accomplish work that truly matters. If you want to achieve something of substance, it's time to give it up.
"In today's business environment, we don't need more repetitive, synchronized activity like we did in the Industrial Revolution. We need more thinking, more creativity, and more problem solving. A focus on time will undermine all of these. It will make you feel more overwhelmed and miserable too!" Crabbe concludes.
Are you ready to give up on time management?