A recent article in The Guardian by Oliver Burkeman titled “Why time management is ruining our lives” addressed — well, how time management is ruining our lives.
How we spend each day and string those days together into a meaningful life has been a central human question since ancient times. But in this modern world of striving, time management has taken on a life of its own. As busyness has become a source of both status and misery, we have learned to focus on maximizing — fitting in more work, more experiences, and more self-improvement into each moment.
Thousands of productivity-boosting apps, scheduling tools, and professional organizing gurus promise that we can make the most of every minute, gain control over ever-multiplying demands, and ultimately become better people. We will be able to cycle through more tasks more quickly – keep our email inboxes clean, tidy our homes, shorten out work meetings, and wipe out the busy work so we can focus on real work.
But, says Burkeman, this proliferation of time management tools may be fanning the very anxieties they try to allay and ironically, make us less productive.
There is nothing wrong with exploring better ways to allocate time. The problem is in focusing exclusively on getting more things done sooner. Efficiency may not be everything. For one thing, the more efficient we become, the more tasks and pressures we seem to take on. For another, focusing on efficiency can distract us from getting our big work done.
More important, there’s a dangerously illusory promise in time management — the idea that if only we master the right techniques and apply the right self-discipline, we can find happiness. We can meet all the demands of work and family and still have a fulfilling life.
It probably is not true. But it is a lot more appealing than the alternative, which would be to make hard choices. What should we say no to? What is truly most important? Which relationships take priority? Those are terrifying questions.
Swarthmore psychologist Barry Schwartz has found that having too many choices increases our negative emotions because our sense of opportunity cost increases. While some choice is good, too much is paralyzing. That’s why looking at a to-do list with 35 things may not make you more productive.
Schwartz divides the world into “maximizers,” who always try to make the best choice, and “satisfiers” who make choices that are “good enough.” Maximizers “exert enormous effort reading labels, checking out consumer magazines and trying new products.” Satisfiers stop looking when they find something that meets their standards. But even if maximizers believe they make better choices than satisfiers, they feel more anxiety beforehand and less satisfaction afterwards. The fear of regret weighs heavily on them.
The lesson? To reduce anxiety and increase happiness, we should become more like satisfiers. We should decide what is important and stop believing we need it all. Or as Shane Parrish says: “Stop trying to do too much, and more importantly, stop wasting your time on things that you know don’t matter.”