People are obsessed with time management. Every single person I have discussed this subject with had a strong opinion. There were fierce debates between those who say nothing works, those who swear by their low-tech Moleskines, and those who cannot live without their apps.

The stories always start in a hopeful tone, but often end on a sour note. Charlotte Bordewey, an entrepreneur in Herefordshire, UK, has tried all sorts of apps, books, and techniques – and wasted hours later, she still feels like time is melting between her hands. “I never seem to be organised enough to set myself tasks and actually complete them,” she despairs.

Whatever you start doing, it works for a while, and then it stops working – Ana Cecilia Calle

Ana Cecilia Calle, a PhD student in Austin, Texas, started to keep track of so many tasks she thought her mind would not be able to cope. Time-management tools offered “this promise that you would gain certain control over your life”, she says. “But whatever you start doing, it works for a while, and then it stops working.”

When this happens, most people try another app or another technique. There are hundreds out there, from straightforward to-do lists to complicated services with dozens of features. It is its own genre of internet self-help, with countless blogs and videos about it. Most universities in the US and the UK offer time some form of time-management training.

Still, searching for a technique that works leaves many people frustrated, anxious and guilty – the opposite of the ‘stress-free productivity’ that time management is supposed to achieve.

The available evidence suggests these tools and strategies work for some people in some settings, but not for others. “The link between time management and well-being exhibits much variability,” write researchers Brad Aeon, from Concordia University in Montreal, and Herman Agurnis, from George Washington University, in a research paper.  

What makes so many people frustrated with time management? And, is there a better way of dealing with time?

The problem with productivity

After Calle missed an important dissertation deadline, she started to go to time-management classes in her university. It seemed like a logical solution, as she felt overwhelmed with her reading, teaching, lectures, and grant applications. There, she learned how to use many time-management tools to cope with her multiple commitments. But as she tried one after the other and failed, there was something that kept upsetting her. “We always ask ourselves if we are not as productive as we can be, but we never wonder if we are doing more than we could,” she says.

Pursuing productivity for its own sake is the reason why many people get frustrated with time-management tools

She has a point. Pursuing productivity for its own sake is counter-productive. Aeon claims that this self-imposed pressure is the reason why many people get frustrated with time-management tools. Most of them “have been written with this unstated ideology that you have to outperform yourself all the time”, he says.

This is a self-defeating strategy, Aeon says. Most people feel able to complete more tasks when they start using these tools, but they don’t bear in mind that they can’t keep increasing their productivity forever, and they commit to more and more. In a few weeks, they are more productive but still frustrated. “The real problem is that they are overworked, [it’s] not a time-management problem.”

Another consequence of uncritical productivity is that it often makes people lose track of their real motivations. According to Christine Carter, senior fellow at the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Centre, this is a primary reason why these tools do not work for many people. Most of them rely on willpower to succeed – they are often written like a large list of don’ts – but “you are not really motivated by willpower as much as by your emotion.” 

 “Most people want to feel loved more than they want to feel productive, and social media is very good at promising make you feel good,” she says. “You might want to check out how many likes you got in a post – that makes you feel loved.”

Balancing act

Why, then, is there an expectation to do more and more? Back when more people worked in factories, labourers did not have to deal with time management, says Aeon. “At the assembly line, time was managed for you."

But most office workers today have considerable freedom to organise their time, and with it comes a lot of pressure. “Freedom comes with a responsibility: you have to think a lot more about how you manage your time,” Aeon says.

Many professionals have to juggle multiple projects, as well as the demands of family and social life. It’s easy to drop the ball, “and if you screw up, you are the only person to blame.”

So, people feel unproductive, pick up a tool, use it successfully for a while, pile on more work, and feel unproductive again. What does it take to break that cycle?

One size does not fit all

Even when people have their priorities clear, finding the right time-management tool is tricky. These tools assume a lot of things about the environment where they are used and the individual personalities of people who use them.

Some people are more conscious about time than others: they have a better awareness of how much of it they will spend on a particular task. Others are very prone to be optimistic when ‘budgeting' it – a common pitfall when managing time, called ‘the planning fallacy’. Some prefer to do one thing at a time, while others feel comfortable multi-tasking. Also, the norms and expectations about time vary a lot between workplaces and cultures.

Many productivity tools are made by a very particular group of people: software developers

The thing is, many of these tools are made by a very particular group of people: software developers. “We always want to solve a problem we have ourselves. And the most recurrent one is the daily mess we have in our own desk,” explains Hernán Aracena, a Venezuelan entrepreneur who created Effortless, a to-do list app and timer.

Unsurprisingly, tech workers are among these tools’ biggest enthusiasts. One of the most recent books on the issue, Pick Three, was written by entrepreneur and investor Randi Zuckerberg (Mark’s sister), creator of Facebook Live. Francesco Cirillo, the inventor of the famous Pomodoro Technique, the idea of organising your day in 25-minute bursts, is a veteran software industry consultant. The 43Folders technique creator, Merlin Mann, has given conferences for employees of Apple, Google or Adobe, among other technology giants.

Indeed, Aracena created Effortless after becoming frustrated with the many apps he used for managing his work. “I began to quit tools one at a time”, he says. After successfully scaling back to a pen and a notebook, he missed having a timer to know how much time he had left to finish a task. His app mixes these two features, and nothing more: “I did not want a Swiss army”, he says.

Many techniques evolved as a particular solution for a specific problem someone else had – someone else who most likely does not work or think like you

Many of the most popular apps and techniques evolved this way, as a particular solution for a specific problem someone else had – someone else who most likely does not work or think like you. Hence, it makes no sense to feel sorry for being unable to take advantage of them: it would be like feeling bad because someone else’s shoes do not fit in your feet.

All this sounds fine when people work on their own. But in corporate settings, where people’s routines and deliverables are connected, it gets more complicated. Sometimes companies buy expensive software suites with many features, but people have a hard time learning how to use them, says Eduardo Álvarez, the founder and CEO of Workep, a project management software aimed at companies.

These tools often do not fit their user's work style, and since they are mandatory and essential for coordinating tasks between team members, they become a nuisance. "Flexibility is important in these tools. You have to offer each team member a way to see their work comfortably," he says. But flexibility is also important in another sense: people will not always get everything done, and that is OK – even if you run a productivity software company. “Sometimes I saw a lot of expired tasks in my own inbox,” he confesses.

How can it be solved? Álvarez believes technology can help. Workep will soon launch an AI ‘coach' that will remind users of their unfinished tasks. It will check their calendars and warn them if they do not seem to have enough time to complete their to-do list. "First it teaches you how to organise your time, and then it helps you to do it," he says.

But others beg to differ. Aracena’s main advice is surprisingly low-tech: “start without an app and try to understand what is important to you”.

‘Take control of your life’

You are going to die – and this is a crucial fact for time management that is very often neglected. “Cemeteries used to be downtown, but now most of them are pushed out of sight, so we don’t have to think about death,” says Aeon. “In modern society, there are not many reminders of our mortality, of the fact that we have to take charge of our lives and be happy for whatever time is left.”

You are going to die – and this is a crucial fact for time management that is very often neglected

After taking seriously the fact that he was going to die, Aeon decided to break with other people’s expectations and create his own rules. He wakes up at 9am after a nine-hour sleep, and only works for four hours a day. His e-mail signature warns that he only checks his inbox on weekdays at 1pm. He goes to the gym and reads every day – something that allowed him to get valuable insights for his research.

He actually uses a lot of tools: to-do lists, calendars and timers. But this is not what he means. Instead of using them to cramp your life with work, he says they “should allow you to take control of your life, and then structure your work around it” – not the other way around.

‘Take control of your life’ can sound like heavy advice, and it is: “Do I want this job? Do I leave my spouse? Do I want kids? They all are time-management questions.” In a TEDx talk, Aeon lamented that this field is "philosophically empty" because almost no-one considered these things when managing their time. “People would rather not think about it because it is difficult,” he says.

No holy grail

Life’s big questions aside, there are some early steps anyone can make.

First, bear in mind that productivity is not an endless race, just a tool with limits. Second, experiment often, as finding an approach that fits your personality and habits can be hard. Many people who despise time-management tools “realise that being systematic allows them to deal better with nuisances and be creative”; those who ruthlessly live by their schedules “also should see what life is like without calendars, take a vacation [from] them”, Aeon says.

The flashy videos and optimistic blog posts of productivity tools promise an easy way to get things done. But each person who starts using them embarks on a journey that is more difficult than it appears to be. Calle ended up using a spreadsheet; she still hates productivity apps. Bordewey realised that the five-second rule works for her: she just takes a deep breath, counts from one to five, and starts working on whatever annoying task she has to do. None of them found a holy grail yet, and it is unlikely that there is any.

Still, there is one thing we all can do to have a healthier relationship with work: don’t be too hard on yourself. If the reasons above don't convince you, try this one: self-criticism is terrible for your productivity. Carter says it triggers a stress response, and the part of your brain that you need for time management will go offline.

Compassion is way better than self-judgement, she says. “We are all in this together”.

Andrea Díaz Cardona contributed reporting.

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