Do terms like ‘time management,’ ‘productivity,’ or ‘efficiency’ dictate your hectic 21st-century life?
In today’s modern world, the need for optimum efficiency has been championed both at work and at home, backed up by a multitude of apps, articles, books, talks and self-appointed gurus that all pay homage to living life in its neatest, most efficient form.
But what if all that buzz about efficiency was actually, after all that, making us less efficient?
More than two-thirds of employees say they are working longer hours than two years ago, but only 10% believe they are actually any more productive. Something isn’t adding up.
So here’s why you can chuck away your time management manual, and channel your inner chaos to achieve best results.
1. Don’t measure productivity by hours spent in the office
John De Graaf, president of campaign group Take Back Your Time, champions the importance of leisure time for an overworked, over-stressed America. He claims the US works nine weeks more in a single year than most European countries.
Yet more hours at the office does not necessarily mean more things achieved.
John cites an experiment where one group worked long hours, and another group in the same company stopped work at 5pm, took vacations, and were not allowed to take calls and emails outside of work. The second group were not only happier and healthier, they also ended up producing very slightly more than the other group. “It’s counterintuitive. But it’s real”, he tells me.
France has embraced a similar science, with a new law last week giving workers the right to ignore business emails that arrive after hours, while Sweden have introduced a six-hour work day.
So switch off your phone after work, take your annual leave and don’t feel bad about spending a weekend not thinking about work. You might just return all the more jazzed to achieve come Monday morning.
2. Don’t live from deadline to deadline
We’re all led to believe that smashing your deadlines equals smashing life. Charlie Brooker’s advice for anyone trying to write was always to “get a deadline. Just pay someone larger than you to kick your knees until they fold the wrong way if you don't hand in 800 words by five o'clock.”
Yet when it comes to producing our best work, science might beg to differ.
Studies have repeatedly proved that thinking about time encourages clock-watching. One such experiment asked two groups of participants to complete the same task. One group were told time would be sufficient, the other that time would be tight. The second, time-pressured group ultimately performed far worse, when their anxiety overtime pressure got in the way of performance.
Former project management expert Tom DeMarco said recently,
“The best companies I visited were never very hurried. Maybe they used pressure from time to time, as a sort of amusing side effect. But it was never a constant.”
So while some deadlines are unavoidable, and we all love to tick off a to-do list, don’t impose unnecessary ones on yourself. They’ll only serve to get you in a flap.
3. Build idle time into your day
We’re not talking three-hour lunches or rolling into the office at 12pm. This is more about keeping some flexibility in your day, rather than booking it out solidly task to task, or meeting to meeting.
As Tom De Marco points out, “the more hours that are put to productive use, the less available people are to respond, on the spur of the moment, to critical new demands. For that kind of responsiveness, idle time must be built into the system.
“You don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think.”
To think you can increase people's work by rationally and unemotionally adding a formula or script to a process is to simplify us to computers, Melissa Gregg, former academic and author of Works Intimacy and forthcoming Counter Productive, tells me. We are human beings, and need time and space to react, create, and be the inherently social creatures we are.
4. Don’t obsess over your inbox
One of the initial leaders of the personal productivity movement was Merlin Mann, the productivity magician who came up with ' inbox zero,' which captured efficient-minded imaginations around the world.
His concept was simple: every time you visit your inbox, process its contents down to zero. Reply, file, delete, whatever you need to do. Tackle it now, not later, and go out there and live your life.
A good theory, on paper. It tapped into a deep societal anxiety - that we simply weren’t achieving enough in the day - and thousands subscribed wholeheartedly to his theory.
Yet eventually people, and Mann himself, slowly started to realise that the more emails they dealt with, the more they seemed to receive… and so their workload simply increased, not lessened.
Merlin eventually denounced his own theory when he realised how much more time he’d spent writing about spending time well than he had actually doing so.
“I’m mostly out of the productivity racket these days,” Mann said recently. “If you’re just using efficiency to jam more and more stuff into your day … well, how would you ever know that that’s working?”
5. Keep your free time free
We have a real tendency to try and be as ‘productive’ in our leisure time as we do at work. John suggests that the quest for maximum productivity has become ”akin to addiction” for many of us.
So instead of enjoying things for the sake of it, we’re completing a mental to-do list – is this making me thinner, more worldly, more educated, more liked on social media?
As Melissa Gregg points out, “Instagram has become like a brand campaign of yourself. And that’s a form of work too. We have our corporate life, and our personal life – and two have started to cross over.”
6. Technology isn’t fixing anything
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted technological progress would make us so efficient, we’d be working 15-hour work weeks by 2030. But instead, Brits are working around 37.4 hours a week. Ouch.
As Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioural economics, says, “We're all time stressed. And technology is not really reducing this stress anymore. In fact, it's making it worse. It allows us to take more projects on for longer terms, and have larger to-do lists.”
A great example is the invention of the hoover in 1901. It was heralded as the great time saver, yet instead, expectations of cleanliness soared, and people (predominantly women) spent longer than ever preening their households.
So, as John says, instead of staying in the hamster wheel, why not share some of the benefits of these labour saving devices, and get out there and live our lives?
7. Embrace your inefficiency
Human ambition means there’s always more to earn, more to buy, and more work to be done to achieve it. And of course we freak out about it. Our time on this Earth is limited, and we’re all trying to squeeze the best out of it, and achieve as much as we can, while we’re still here.
So Melissa Gregg believes the answer lies in long-term thinking, rather than the immediate to-do list of today.
“Work can get you stuck in tunnel vision of what you need to achieve in the next hour. So identify your priorities, and genuinely ask yourself - what is the meaning of my life? How does that affect my decisions on a day-to-day basis?"
No one ever lamented on their deathbed about the time they wished they’d spent at the office. So get out there, embrace your chaos, and live your best life.