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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