Doing more things in less time isn’t just a fast route to a heart attack, it’s deeply unproductive.
Time management? Waste of bloody time
The very idea of managing time has, for a long time, struck me as being rather ridiculous. Scientists even struggle to prove that time exists in the way that you and I conceive of it. Is it a fundamental part of the structure of the universe or simply a way for the human mind to organise events, a way of deriving meaning from sequence?
Such philosophical meanderings barely impede the march of the contemporary Taylorists, disciples of time management guru Frederick Winslow Taylor.
Armed with a Day Planner diary and a To Do list, the importance of which always warrants Capital Letters, these corporate ambulance chasers seem to believe the success or otherwise of our working lives depends on our ability to order things, as they order us.
The application of reason, discussion and idle reflection (a pleasant but vastly underrated mental state) is secondary to our ability to determine the difference between a fourth and first quadrant issue.
Here, then, is a plea for mindfulness over managerialism.
I once read a book (the title of which I shamefully forget) on the personality types of successful business people. It should be noted that these were individuals who had built their own businesses, not slithered up a corporate pole in search of a huge options package and a blank cheque. It was a dull, earnest tome, as business books tend to be, but it contained one observation that struck me.
The author had tried to find common character traits among his subjects. Were they energetic or reserved, outgoing or reclusive, passionate communicators or serial rationalists? The search for universal traits led nowhere. Some individuals preferred to leave their office door closed while others had no office at all. Some drew on a deep well of ideas, with endless enthusiasm for every one, while others traded on the only great idea they’d ever had and spent their lives making it work for them.
But one trait was common to almost all interviewees: the ability to take an issue or task and finish it to its conclusion, without being distracted by anything else along the way.
It wasn’t about doing four things at once but doing one thing at a time and doing it well. We all know this approach to be inherently more productive but because our lives are crammed with so many obligations and demands, we even develop a language to justify the behaviours that such a world engenders.
Multitasking happens to be the name that we give to this particular behaviour, legitimising as it does something that we all know to be foolish. If you doubt this, try and have a conversation with your partner while he or she is watching telly. My brother, who is convinced that eating a bowl of cereal while driving to work is a wonderfully productive use of his time, is yet to learn this lesson.
Buddhists have known this to be true for a few thousand years although, strangely, they’ve never tried to cash in on it. The technique they apply to slow the mind and the body is called mindfulness. It means becoming intentionally aware of one’s thoughts and actions as they occur. And you don’t have to be sitting crossed-legged on a yoga mat with a few hash cookies in the oven to do it. It’s simply about recognising your state of mind and what’s happening in your body and, in so doing, avoiding getting into a right state. Somehow, simply observing your heart racing and noticing its effects tends to diminish its impact.
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I suspect the subjects in this book intuitively knew this. It’s only when we become flustered or stressed that our concentration lapses and our attention drifts. Before we know it, we’re doing four things at once and none of them well. So next time you’re feeling anxious, don’t reach for your BlackBerry or furiously scribble a list of things you have to do on a Post-It note. Take a deep breath, watch your thoughts (in a non-judgemental way), recognise what’s happening in your body and keep doing it until everything simply slows down. Then pick up the phone, sack your time management guru, and get back to doing one thing at a time.
We’ve had slow food, slow travel and even slow cities. It’s now time for slow work. Do it and watch your productivity jump and your stress level plummet.