Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Should you really throw away your to-do list? Reflections on why time management is an essential life skill

Books about how to avoid what has been called ‘the busy trap’ are somewhat of a trend these days. From Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness to Ariana Huffington’s Thrive to Tony Crabbe’s Busy, it seems as if every major publisher wants to get into the stillness game and publish it’s own best-seller about how to slow down and de-stress. The most well known of these books is probably Crabbe’s Busy. Here in the Netherlands, where I teach at University level, it was hard to avoid for a while. Ads for the book were everywhere: in the papers, in magazines. Crabbe was on Dutch television twice and gave a Ted talk at TedxAmsterdam. Some of his Dutch fans even tried to get him to come to Amsterdam for a public-speaking event by crowd-funding it. 
In and of itself, the success which Busy has enjoyed isn’t all that surprising. There’s a lot to like about the book: it’s got jokes and references to movies like Life of Brian and The Matrix, it’s written in a humble and friendly tone of voice, and it’s got tons of references to interesting research to back up most of its claims. On the whole, it’s an enjoyable and inspiring read. I’m not all that convinced, however, whether the book will really succeed in the mission which Crabbe has set for it: to make people less busy and stressed-out. The reason I believe this is because Crabbe claims throughout the book that time management is a useless activity that should be abandoned. In fact, he even states that the use of time management techniques is one of the root problems of the current busyness epidemic. Since one of the topics I lecture on occasionally is time management, and thus have first-hand evidence of how useful it can be to students, this is an opinion that I have a serious problem with.
So why does Crabbe have a problem with time management techniques? In Busy, he explains it like this:

We feel harried and overwhelmed for much of our waking moments. So what strategy do we employ to address this? For most of us, it is time management. We believe that if we could manage our time more effectively, we’d be more in control of our life and more effective. However, in a world of infinite demand, the more we manage our time, the more we can cram into our days.

What Crabbe is describing here is a classic beginner’s mistake, that anyone who’s ever got serious about learning time management techniques will recognise: once you get good at organising yourself it’s quite tempting to want to get to ‘inbox zero’. You want to finish the day with an empty email inbox, and preferably an empty to-do list too. End result: you work even harder than you used to, in pursuit of a goal which is forever out of reach. As Crabbe correctly points out, working like this is not healthy behaviour. What Crabbe is wrong about, however, is the conclusion he draws from this observation: that we should give up on time management altogether. Crabbe wants us to go straight to what he calls ‘mastery’: the ability to make tough decisions about what to focus on. He writes repeatedly that he wants us to manage our attention, not our time. The problem with this position is that you cannot separate managing your time and managing your attention. In order to manage your attention you have to manage your time. Yes, you can manage your time badly, but you can also manage it wisely. Truth of the matter is, though, that you’ll have to manage it in some shape or form if you want to be more creative and less stressed.
In this regard, Crabbe is like a ski instructor who wants to a take his inexperienced pupil off-piste during the first lesson. Forgetting about your to-do list occasionally (as Crabbe advises in chapter 1 of Busy) is great advice - but not for someone who doesn’t know how to handle a to-do list properly to begin with. Such skills - which, for want of a better word, we might call time management - are highly relevant in the complex and ever-changing world we inhabit. In fact, I consider them essential life skills, which should be taught in high schools and Universities. Martin Lewis - the brains behind the hugely popular Money Saving Expert website - has been arguing the same thing about finance skills for years. Time management skills, according to me, are in the same category. If we don’t teach young people that they exist and how they should be used properly, we’re sending them off into the wilderness without a map and a compass. This is one of the reasons why I recently wrote a time management book for students, and why I will keep on devoting some of my research and service hours at University College Roosevelt (where I am a lecturer in the Humanities department) to teaching and writing about time management. Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed Crabbe’s book, and will certainly be recommending it to my students. But for I get them started on reading Busy I’m going to make sure they’ve learned the basics first. Going off-piste on your first day of skiing is bound to lead to broken legs. 

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