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Why is improving our time management and productivity so hard?

Anis News, Productivity, Quantified Self 2 Comments

Time management is a crucial issue, yet one that we have very few solutions  to. We have yet to wrap our heads around the many recent changes in the way we approach our productivity. Emmanuel and I animated a discussion on the subject at the Quantified Self (QS in the rest of this article) conference in Amsterdam on the 18th of September (#QSEU15), and several very relevant points were brought up, which we thought would be worth sharing with you. Many thanks to everyone who attended and made the conversation interesting!

Five known issues with time management and productivity

1. We are bad at perceiving our biological time

Human cultures have always had a deeply-rooted awareness of passing time. That might be due to the fact that we perceive our life as a finite timeline. In other words, we have at some point gained an intuitive understanding of death, and that makes every minute of our lives matter.

But a major shift happened in modern times, especially when the use of tools such as watches became widespread. We moved from a practical perception of time (the time it takes me to finish my lunch) to a precise, measured time (one hour, yes I’m a slow eater).

In the process, we looked for and found a common ground to talk about time: we departed from a subjective expression of time and started making use of an external representation through different units and numbers; a measure.

The thing is: we all agree that time is important, and we do have an objective way of measuring it. We also have that quantified-self tendency to try and optimize quite a few different things. So one would assume that we would all be trying to get the most out of our time, as consistently as possible.

Yet it appears that is not case. We still do not know how exactly we spend our time, and when it comes to measuring productivity, we are utterly lost. Basically, we struggle with reconciling the objective measure of time we created with the subjective experience we have of it.

There are two crucial questions we have to answer: how do I measure and improve my productivity and how do I measure and better manage my time?


2. We struggle with defining and measuring productivity

The first idea that comes to mind when talking about productivity is an intent focus on the task at hand. The word for it in productivity lingo is “flow” – that parallel state to which you shift when you are concentrating very hard on something and your productivity reaches its peak. It is very much “the state to be in” when it comes to personal productivity. But that is again a subjective perception. The issues arise when it comes to fitting productivity into an objective measure.

Indeed, measuring productivity is a complex subject, first of all because it is difficult to define what it actually means to be productive. For instance, I among others do not see my idle moments as “unproductive”, because they are a part of my thought process – a much needed pause that allows me to recover and move on (and also I enjoy doing nothing at times).

However we can all agree that to even start estimating how productive we are, we need to keep track of what we have achieved and how long it took us to get there.

So it came as some surprise that, even among the community of quantified selfers, very few people subject themselves to that process, even though almost everyone recognises the need for it.


3. Our ways of improving productivity are imperfect

On the other hand, most of us have tried different methods to improve our productivity.

A popular one is the pomodoro technique. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, it’s based on the idea that no matter how hard it is to stay focused on something, you can do it for a short enough time, say 30 minutes. That period is one pomodoro. Then you reboot your timer for another 30 minutes and do it again. That’s two pomodoros. You get the drill. I like to use this technique on those days when I don’t feel very energetic and I know it will be harder to focus, and I can attest it actually works.

But the pomodoro technique doesn’t cut it for everyone. First, it’s hard to determine the proper duration to use, as you might be a bit tired and maybe your usual 1h timer is going to be too long today. More importantly, the technique is supposed to help you focus but at the end of each period you have a signal interrupting you to let you know you are doing well. Paradoxical, and extremely annoying if you had managed to finally reach that state of flow we talked about.

Others have tested tools that stop you from going on Facebook, or that try to make your habits into a game and reward you for the good ones. But all those methods suffered from the same flaw: almost nobody kept using them for a significant period of time.


4. We give up too easily

We agree that we have about 24 hours to get stuff done. But the bit that really gets at us is this: those 24 hours are all we have. Indeed, we all recognize the very unique property of time as a resource in that it goes only way, and it’s down.
Yet when it comes to understanding and managing that resource, very few of us succeed at accomplish something in the long run. In fact, many people have tried a wide range of methods but they very quickly gave up on them.

Emmanuel explains it by the combination of these two main effects when we try new methods:

CurveAnis
The “inspirational effect” is the boost to our motivation and concentration when trying to be more productive. It is mostly short term, like when I bought new running shoes to trick myself into running, then gave up after just a few weeks.
The “efficiency effect” is the actual gain to our productivity thanks to the method. It usually comes pretty fast and is stable in time – but we do have to keep to the method for a long enough time to be able to reap its long-term benefits.
And there’s the rub: while we are aware that all the valuable things in life come at a price, most people tend to give up on their attempts once the inspirational effect wears off. One reasons is that the end of the inspirational rush often leaves people disappointed by what they see as weak gains.

But the main reason invoked was even simpler: “it takes too much time”. We also heard “I’m not sure how I would do it or what I would get out of it”, or “it’s too much of a pain”. Mostly, people were held back by the fear that they might never get in the future the return on the investment of time and energy they have to make today. The entry cost is simply too high for most of us, and if we are to become better at understanding our time use, that needs to change.


5. We are bad at taking our own advice

>>It’s 7:00, wake up. Go buy that thing. Send that email. Read this article.

Annoying, isn’t it? When you are merely following instructions from an app or any bit of software, you can very quickly get the feeling that you are “becoming a robot”, or that you are being pushed around. We also heard the word infantilization, and indeed it is a natural risk to feel diminished by anything (or anyone for that matter) that assumes one of the natural roles of a “parent”: reminding you to do this or that, ordering you to brush your teeth, to go to bed or to do your (home)work.

The worst part is that we do not even need to feel constrained by a third party for the insubordination to arise. We even rebel when we are the ones who wrote the instructions! Indeed, our tyrannical present self is so very bad at going against its impulses that it willfully ignores the nudges of our past, better-intended self.

That does beg the following question: if even I cannot efficiently give myself instructions or set goals without feeling annoyed in the long run, then who can do it for me? How can I delegate such a power over myself without feeling alienated? Crucially, how do I evaluate which of the decisions I made were good, how do I trust something else to make decisions for me, and whom or what do I trust?

Focus and productivity are a team effort

Like almost everyone else, I have had a hard time focusing in the past. I like to think I am past that, but right now I am struggling to finish this article without alt-tabbing to Amazon to shop for video games (in case you wondered, I just broke down and ordered the video-game Fallout 4.)

So while I was musing on my next virtual post-apocalyptic carnage, I remembered an experiment one of the attendees mentioned. They were implementing it in their university after having observed some success with it in other schools. Students would volunteer to be put in a group with other students, and a chunk of each student’s final grade would be based on the results of the other members of the group. In effect, the aim is to create teams in the classroom, with the hope that a concentrated effort towards a shared goal will produce better results than lonely work.

And then it hit me like a truck. We tell ourselves or others to “focus”, “be productive”, “manage your time”, etc. But even if we succeed at doing our part and put right everything that is under our control, we are still basically left in other people’s hands.

Focus and productivity are a team effort, in the sense that without the support of a group, even the best efforts can be thwarted.

Imagine that every time you try to go running, someone calls you right before you step out of the door and keeps you on the phone. That’s basically what some of us experience when we try to focus on something at work, and some external signal comes distracting us, such as an actual phone call or a colleague popping up a question.

At the end of the day, focus and productivity are a team effort, in the sense that without the support of a group, even the best efforts can be thwarted. Thus our best bet if we want to be able to focus in an environment that is not completely isolated is to establish some codes with our colleagues or our family, a socially acceptable equivalent of “do not knock on the door”, so that the “productivity mode” can become a shared ritual.

Once that bit is out of the way, the group can cease being a hurdle and can become a powerful source of  motivation. Which is paramount when it comes to productivity (if you have read the page defining the “flow” concept, then you know motivation is a big part of it.)

It is a well known mechanism that the previously mentioned “inspirational effects” can sustain themselves for a lot longer if our spur-of-the moment impulse is supported and renewed by the energy of the people around us. And this is why many people find a great motivator in the person of a mentor: even though mentors do not have any kind of hierarchical power, the simple fact of having someone to talk to about your work helps you connect emotionally to your tasks and motivates you to complete them.


Despite their importance, time management and productivity are difficult to get a hang of, for at least two reasons.

First, we have no easy way to keep a record of all the things we do and how long we spend doing them.

Second, we do not put enough emphasis on the social component of productivity. We focus mostly on individual productivity, at the risk of actually blocking individual efforts instead of supporting them.

Several recent studies have started looking into the second point, such as the 2013 study on open-space shortcomings. The next step is for companies to become fully aware of the issue and to communicate that awareness to their employees up to the point where it becomes a part of our work culture.

As to the first issue, that is precisely the one we have decided to tackle at Smarter Time. Automatic time-tracking has already helped us make progress in our personal and professional lives. We hope it will do the same for you.

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Comments 2

  1. Pingback: The trick to being productive and happy all at once – How to kill your time?

  2. Pingback: The pomodoro technique and the ultradian rhythms mystery - Smarter Time

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