You Versus the Clock
Books on time management almost always quote Mary Oliver, I’ve learned. In her poem “Sometimes,” Oliver offers “Instructions for living a life: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” Part of me wants to end this essay here, because this is what time management really comes down to: being conscious of what you do, when you do it, and why. But the reality for many of us is that this kind of focus is hard. Fret not, however; there’s a dizzying array of advice promising to make it easier.
Randi Zuckerberg—the entrepreneur, investor, and sister of Facebook founder Mark—suggests in Pick Three that we can live more-fulfilling lives by abandoning the idea of doing it all. Instead, we should choose three areas of focus each day, out of a total of five: work, sleep, family, friends, and fitness. “Yes!” I exclaimed as I began to read, having already started setting up similar priorities in my own life. Unfortunately, Zuckerberg’s interesting argument becomes insufferable at book length, padded heavily with profiles of semi-celebrities. And although she does make useful points—for example, offering a work expert’s conclusion that “you’re not going to feel perfectly balanced every day,” but you should “aim for a larger sense of balance in your week or month”—they are undermined by bubbly chatter that will make your eyes roll. (“All this work talk has me exhausted,” she writes. “Guess that’s our cue to talk about sleep!”) It’s also hard to shake the irony of Zuckerberg’s encouraging us to focus while her sibling’s business is predicated on the neurological high of seeing a little red notification. But I digress.
The antidote to Zuckerberg’s fluff might just be the updated version of The Pomodoro Technique, by Francesco Cirillo, a longtime consultant to the software industry whose focus is efficiency and productivity. This book, first released in 2009, gets us closer to Oliver’s idea of being aggressively attuned to every single thing we do. Cirillo suggests that we divide all tasks into 30-minute increments with built-in breaks, measured with a timer. (When he came up with this idea, in college, he used one shaped like a little tomato—hence the name of his technique.) If you want rules and formulas without a lot of excess language, this may be the approach for you. I was mostly on board until I started to feel like I was being initiated into a time cult. “Rule: A Pomodoro is indivisible,” Cirillo insists repeatedly throughout. That said, the new edition includes a section on applying the technique to teams, something worth trying. After all, a single interruption can bring the work of multiple people to a halt.
For less-cultish, more-commonsense advice, you can turn to two other recent releases: Make Time, by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky of Google Ventures, and Hyperfocus, by Chris Bailey, who not only studies productivity but conducts experiments on himself (for example, limiting his iPhone use to 60 minutes a day or binge-watching 296 TED talks in a week). Like Cirillo, these authors recommend writing down exactly what you do, day in and day out, but their arguments are less stiff. Make Time is practical and engaging, offering tips on everything from designing your day to the benefits of cutting out cable news and eschewing plane Wi-Fi in favor of time away from work. Especially useful for me was the guidance on e-mail. It turns out that being slow to respond is a terrific way to take control of your time. (Sorry, colleagues.)
Hyperfocus begins, in what might be the most telling commentary about our collective inability to focus, with a chapter on how to read it without being distracted. Full of circle diagrams and 2x2s, it instructs us on how to pay attention to only one meaningful thing at a time, and why—echoing Zuckerberg—we should pick only three things to accomplish a day.
This brings me to perhaps the most quietly radical of this selection of new books on time. Laura Vanderkam’s Off the Clock bears the subtitle Feel Less Busy While Getting More Done. I initially thought this would be an instructional guide or a better version of Pick Three, and it does emphasize the importance of tracking everything you do. But it also goes beyond work activities and contends with the messier, more philosophical aspects of time management: What will we remember doing, and what will we regret not doing? How can we be disciplined but also kind to ourselves when things go awry? The book also stresses the importance of acknowledging difficult times and lingering over beautiful moments, even if it means we don’t “feel” productive.
Vanderkam made me hopeful but also a bit skeptical. If we take back our time—focusing on productivity but also allowing time for goofing off—won’t we butt up against serious social norms? If you’re expected to be on e-mail into the night for work, what will the consequences be if you aren’t? What if you work in a retail or service industry and have very little control over your schedule? And what about issues outside the office, such as the gender imbalance in who shoulders the burden of household chores and caregiving?
Time management is not just a problem that individuals need to address; it’s one that must be taken seriously by our partners, employers, and policy makers. Some companies have already taken positive steps. An experiment at the Gap, for example, eliminated “on calls” and gave employees two weeks’ notice of their schedules. The stores that participated saw a 5% rise in labor productivity and yielded $2.9 million in increased revenue during the study’s duration. But such initiatives are still the exception.
The sheer volume of time management advice out there represents a subtle rallying cry, pushing us to overcome the discomfort of saying “no” to some things, despite any feared repercussions. If enough of us push back, maybe together we can establish a new normal that will make us a whole lot happier.
For me, these books have mostly served to reinforce Mary Oliver’s timeless wisdom: “You do not have to be good.”
You Versus the Clock
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