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Personal-Productivity Efforts Are Doomed To Fail

Andrew Unangst
Getty Images

In 1889, Bethlehem Steel brought engineer Frederick Taylor on board in an attempt to streamline its vast operation.

Taylor had recently invented a theory of "time management" in which the same principles used to optimize machines was applied to people. Taylor stalked the floors of the Bethlehem plant armed with a stopwatch and a clipboard noting the time it took for workers to complete tasks, like loading iron bars onto waiting railcars. Taylor's eventual recommendation to the company's executives were simple: The workers should be made to do more in less time.

Some 120 years later, the plan Taylor laid out for big business has now become internalized within us all. Called the "Personal Productivity Movement," it's subtly woven into the fabric of our digitally mediated lives.

That's not a good thing.

There is an argument to be made that our emphasis on personal productivity is not only slowly killing us, it's also doomed to fail. In fact, this exact argument was made in a piece of long-form journalism by Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian late last month. Since my last book focused on the links between changing cultural "time-logics" and changing scientific conceptions of time, I found a lot to agree with in Burkeman's piece. So, today, let's spend a few moments unpacking our mania for personal productivity, its historical roots — and the reasons why it's a long road to nowhere.

Google "personal productivity" and, pretty quickly, you'll get the gist of what this movement means. There's the "The 7 Rules of Personal Productivity" and "8 Simple Rules to Extreme Personal Productivity" and "20 Suggestions to Boost Your Personal Productivity." Clearly, there are a lot of rules. Here are a few of them: write things down; avoid distractions; schedule your email and social media checking; balance focused work with focused rest.

There are, not surprisingly, personal productivity apps to help you stick to these rules. Some will keep your lists and help you prioritize them. Others go further. For example there's ATracker to help you track "repetitive daily routines at work." And Eternity Time Log that allows you to "track many projects and sub-projects, generate and export detailed hierarchical reports to know exactly where your time goes."

Burkeman correctly links the birth of this mania for efficiency and productivity with Frederick Taylor's scientific time management. But while it was Big Business that kept workers "at the sharp end" of Taylor's proposals, in our digital age we have mostly volunteered to do that job "to" ourselves.

The reasons for this are manifold. Much of the gospel of personal productivity begins with an eye towards our jobs. Since we live in an age where you can answer work-related emails at 9 p.m., well, then, shouldn't you? Are you risking your position by not answering it? As Burkeman puts it: " In an era of insecure employment, we must constantly demonstrate our usefulness through frenetic doing." But, as Burkeman shows us, the new and inherently unfair economic conditions driving the range for personal productivity won't change its outcome. As he explains:

"An awkward truth about Taylor's celebrated efficiency drives is that they were not very successful: Bethlehem Steel fired him in 1901, 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.)

Exhaustion. That's the key word. That's why our personal productivity efforts are bound to fail in the same way they failed in Taylor's day. In our modern, digitally rendered age we are all are caught by the promise that we can squeeze more out of our time. By abstracting life into a series of digitally manipulatable lists, we're told we can optimize ourselves. In this way, we come to believe we really can get more quality parenting time, while still getting to the gym everyday, while still reading more books, while still learning to cook Indian food and so on and on and on. The list literally goes on forever — and that's the problem.

The list is a lie.

What struck me most when I was writing my book about the braided evolution of scientific and cultural time was the role of invention in both. I found that every culture invented ways of parsing the day. These were what I called cultural time-logics. They were nothing more than social constructions built from the imagination and the dominant technology each culture had at its disposal (i.e. rope and sail, gears and springs, wires and silicon chips). The real point was that none of them was any more real than other. A culture built on hunting and gathering would have one way of organizing the day, while one built on farming would have another. Neither was more "true" than the other.

But seen from within, each culture's time-logic was invisible. It seemed obvious. It seemed given. It just was.

From that vantage point, our mania for personal productivity is just a reflection of the technology we've built our modern culture upon. Our machines now parse time in nanosecond chunks. They do more than earlier machines could because they make more time by moving faster. We, however, do not have that option. Even though our digital technologies give us tools to exactly meter time, it is not really our time. It's not the kind of time we were born to as biological entities enmeshed in a living world.

Burkeman rightly ends his essay by pointing out how much of our mania for personal productivity can be traced back to a much older impulse — a fear of death:

"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."

That is where the choice comes back to us. Every culturally imposed time-logic is an invention. It's something we made up. The time-logic we dreamed up in building this new version of society has some great aspects, not because it allows us to do more things but because it allows us to do things we could not do before. That should be enough. We lie to ourselves if we think we can get more out of time. That's because, ultimately, the time we get will always be all the time there is.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking onFacebook and Twitter:@adamfrank4

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Adam Frank was a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. A professor at the University of Rochester, Frank is a theoretical/computational astrophysicist and currently heads a research group developing supercomputer code to study the formation and death of stars. Frank's research has also explored the evolution of newly born planets and the structure of clouds in the interstellar medium. Recently, he has begun work in the fields of astrobiology and network theory/data science. Frank also holds a joint appointment at the Laboratory for Laser Energetics, a Department of Energy fusion lab.