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Especially at the higher-paid end of the employment spectrum, time management whispers of the possibility of something even more desirable: true peace of mind. 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. 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: the more efficient you get at ploughing through your tasks, the faster new tasks seem to arrive. As for focusing on your long-term goals: the more you do that, the more of your daily life you spend feeling vaguely despondent that you have not yet achieved them. The supposed cure just makes the problem worse. 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.


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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. 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: reform would have to start with policies on vacation, maternity leave and overtime. 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. 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: he started arguing that ramping up the time pressure on your employees was a terrible way to drive such projects forward.

The new age of corporate monopolies - Margrethe Vestager

What was needed, he had come to realise, was not an increased focus on using time efficiently. It was the opposite: more slack. 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.

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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.

The mere awareness of their limited time triggered anxious emotions that got in the way of performance.

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But worse perils await. DeMarco points out that any increase in efficiency, in an organisation or an individual life, necessitates a trade-off: you get rid of unused expanses of time, but you also get rid of the benefits of that extra time. A visit to your family doctor provides an obvious example. The more efficiently they manage their time, the fuller their schedule will be — and the more likely it is that you will be kept sitting in the waiting room when an earlier appointment overruns.


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For that kind of responsiveness, idle time must be built into the system. To use the available space more efficiently, you could always add a ninth tile to the empty square. If only we could find the right techniques and apply enough self-discipline, it suggests, we could know that we were fitting everything important in, and could feel happy at last. It is up to us — indeed, it is our obligation — to maximise our productivity.

This is a convenient ideology from the point of view of those who stand to profit from our working harder, and our increased capacity for consumer spending. But it also functions as a form of psychological avoidance. The more you can convince yourself that you need never make difficult choices — because there will be enough time for everything — the less you will feel obliged to ask yourself whether the life you are choosing is the right one. Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness.

Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon?

Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters? For Merlin Mann, consciously confronting these questions was a matter of realising that people would always be making more claims on his time — worthy claims, too, for the most part — than it would be possible for him to meet.

And that even the best, most efficient system for managing the emails they sent him was never going to provide a solution to that. This article contains affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if a reader clicks through and makes a purchase. All our journalism is independent and is in no way influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative.

By clicking on an affiliate link, you accept that third-party cookies will be set. Change can also be initiated from tapping into ancient wisdom traditions that move us away from our typically analytical approaches into nonlinear practices. Meditation, chanting, dance, and journaling soothe our spirits and plumb our depths. Opportunities for personal evolution are generally close at hand, right in the family crucible. Those nearest us attune to our intentions as well as our actions.

The situations that ignite our anger also hold the power to illuminate parts of ourselves that are aching for actualization. Because the hectic nature of modern life makes it difficult even to schedule meals together, we suggest many ways to enrich and soften family time. But no matter how hard we try to make our family time nurturing, if we are not satisfied at work the residue taints our hours at home.

Finding work that feeds our soul as well as body is no small task, yet the possibilities have never been greater. The call to help humanity and the Earth can also lead us into service that offers great emotional richness. As we forge new paths through our stressful, hi-tech world, the need for supportive associations is more important than ever. People are finding ways to relieve isolation and create community through potluck suppers, discussion circles, e-mail exchanges, and cohousing. The more real our relationships with those close to us, the fewer gaps we need to fill with expensive purchases that spend down our resources.

Download Taking Back Our Lives In The Age Of Corporate Dominance

If two heads are better than one, even more powerful are two hearts. There is synergy in sharing and collaboration. This book is a perfect example of that. Although you will see only one of our names at the top of most chapters, the book is ours together. In chapters with personal stories, we have indicated primary authorship so you will know who is speaking, but our words and ideas thoroughly entwined through the months of writing.

In offering this book, we do have a bias.