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Clearly, then, the challenge of how to live our lives well is not a new one. What is uniquely modern about our fate is that we feel obliged to respond to the pressure of time by making ourselves as efficient as possible — even when doing so fails to bring the promised relief from stress.
The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In , John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week — whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied.
Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Taylor narrowed his eyes: The Bethlehem workers, Taylor calculated, were shifting about Extrapolating to a full work day, and guesstimating time for breaks, Taylor concluded, with his trademark blend of self-confidence and woolly maths, that every man ought to be shifting 50 tons per day — four times their usual amount.
The idea of efficiency that Taylor sought to impose on Bethlehem Steel was borrowed from the mechanical engineers of the industrial revolution. It was a way of thinking about improving the functioning of machines, now transferred to humans.
And it caught on: It is not hard to grasp the appeal: What could be wrong with that? B ut as the century progressed, something important changed: As the doctrine of efficiency grew entrenched — as the ethos of the market spread to more and more aspects of society, and life became more individualistic — we internalised it.
Time management promised a sense of control in a world in which individuals — decreasingly supported by the social bonds of religion or community — seemed to lack it. In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing, and time management can give you a valuable edge. Indeed, if you are among the growing ranks of the self-employed, as a freelancer or a worker in the so-called gig economy, increased personal efficiency may be essential to your survival.
Above all, time management promises that a meaningful life might still be possible in this profit-driven environment, as Melissa Gregg explains in Counterproductive, a forthcoming history of the field.
With the right techniques, the prophets of time management all implied, you could fashion a fulfilling life while simultaneously attending to the ever-increasing demands of your employer.
Especially at the higher-paid end of the employment spectrum, time management whispers of the possibility of something even more desirable: Time management gurus rarely stop to ask whether the task of merely staying afloat in the modern economy — holding down a job, paying the mortgage, being a good-enough parent — really ought to require rendering ourselves inhumanly efficient in the first place.
Besides, on closer inspection, even the lesser promises of time management were not all they appeared to be. Bethlehem Steel fired him in , having paid him vast sums without any clearly detectable impact on its own profits. One persistent consequence of his schemes was that they seemed promising at first, but left workers too exhausted to function consistently over the long term.
As with Inbox Zero, so with work in general: As for focusing on your long-term goals: The supposed cure just makes the problem worse. There is a historical parallel for all this: Technology now meant that washing clothes no longer entailed a day bent over a mangle; a vacuum-cleaner could render a carpet spotless in minutes. Yet as the historian Ruth Cowan demonstrates in her book More Work for Mother, the result, for much of the 20th century, was not an increase in leisure time among those charged with doing the housework.
Instead, as the efficiency of housework increased, so did the standards of cleanliness and domestic order that society came to expect. Now that the living-room carpet could be kept perfectly clean, it had to be; now that clothes never needed to be grubby, grubbiness was all the more taboo. These days, you can answer work emails in bed at midnight.
So should that message you got at 5. But it was also because, these days, being even modestly anti-productivity — especially in the US — counts as a subversive stance. It is not the kind of platform that lends itself to glitzy mega-events with generous corporate sponsorship and effective marketing campaigns. The conference-goers discussed schemes for a four-day working week, for abolishing daylight savings time, for holding elections at the weekend, and generally for making America more like countries such as Italy and Denmark.
But the members of Take Back Your Time were calling for something more radical than merely more time off. It makes no sense! And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds.
We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create. In his book The Decline of Pleasure, the critic Walter Kerr noticed this shift in our experience of time: If all this increased efficiency brings none of the benefits it was supposed to bring, what should we be doing instead? At Take Back Your Time, the consensus was that personal lifestyle changes would never suffice: But in the meantime, we might try to get more comfortable with not being as efficient as possible — with declining certain opportunities, disappointing certain people, and letting certain tasks go undone.
Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not — we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: Y et if the ethos of efficiency and productivity risks prioritising the health of the economy over the happiness of humans, it is also true that the sense of pressure it fosters is not much good for business, either.
This, it turns out, is a lesson business is not especially keen to learn. DeMarco is a minor legend in the world of software engineering. He began his career at Bell Telephone Labs, birthplace of the laser and transistor, and later became an expert in managing complex software projects, a field notorious for spiralling costs, missed deadlines, and clashing egos.
But then, in the s, he committed heresy: What was needed, he had come to realise, was not an increased focus on using time efficiently.
It was the opposite: But it was never a constant. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think. But good ideas do not emerge more rapidly when people feel under the gun — if anything, the good ideas dry up.
Part of the problem is simply that thinking about time encourages clockwatching, which has been repeatedly shown in studies to undermine the quality of work. In one representative experiment from , US researchers asked people to complete the Iowa gambling task, a venerable decision-making test that involves selecting playing cards in order to win a modest amount of cash.
All participants were given the same time in which to complete the task — but some were told that time would probably be sufficient, while others were warned it would be tight. Contrary to an intuition cherished especially among journalists — that the pressure of deadlines is what forces them to produce high-quality work — the second group performed far less well. Remember the time difference between the Philippines and your location! The best time to chat with the Filipina girls that have jobs or attend college is from 10am to 11pm.
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