Paul Scharf is a meticulous time tracker and scheduler. As a fully remote worker long before ‘work-from-home’ entered the common lexicon, Scharf has been tracking his workdays for the past seven years.
“Once I started [tracking], I just never stopped,” says Scharf. “Initially, it was just to see how many hours I was working, but then I started evaluating how I allocate time across different tasks, hobbies and passion projects. It became a way for me to prevent multi-tasking and be more honest with myself.”
Scharf, whose interest led him to a role as head of the engineering department at a time-tracking software company, regularly pores over his detailed time logs to optimise his workflow. “I always schedule at least a day in advance, right down to my breaks, half-hour daily walks, mealtimes – even what I’ll eat,” he says. Scharf believes that organising the micro-details of his day helps allay decision fatigue. “I don’t want to be sitting there at lunchtime thinking, do I want a sandwich or a salad?”
But even a hyper-organiser like Scharf is aware of the line between organising time to enhance productivity versus viewing it as an end goal, or a litmus test to define a life well spent. “When I’m with family or involved in a leisure activity, productivity isn’t the goal. I actually greatly value time away from schedules,” he concedes.
So where, exactly, is the line? For many people, time management is a huge priority. That means allocating windows to particular tasks, with a view to optimising days for maximum productivity. Yet some experts suggest that there are tasks that don't fit well into a calendar grid, such as creative work or leisure activities. In fact, research shows that scheduling these activities could actually reduce our ability to perform them, as well as our enjoyment of them. There are also emotional impacts and consequences of hyper-organisation, particularly when something doesn’t go to plan.
Fortunately, there are alternative strategies to time management that can mitigate some of these downsides, helping us stay on course without feeling shackled to our calendars.
Why some tasks don’t suit scheduling
Our obsession with optimising time can be traced back to the 1700s, when the desire to afford exotic goods imported to Western Europe drove us to work more, and more efficiently, explains Brad Aeon, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences at the University of Québec in Montréal. Aeon believes time management as a concept gained traction when we started equating time with money. “When you put a price tag or monetary value on your work, i.e. 200 dollars an hour, your time becomes commodified, and you want to make the best out of it,” he says.
These days, there is a huge array of devices, platforms and apps that can help us use our time more efficiently (Credit: Getty)
As organising our time became more of an individual responsibility, rather than one regulated by fixed institutional constraints or traditional 9-to-5 employment, more tools entered our arsenals. “It’s the productivity treadmill,” says Aeon. “As productivity standards rise, the higher standard becomes normalised.” Today, many of us approach time management with even more precision, squeezing blocks into our schedules as we try to turn daily planning into an exact science. Yet not all tasks and activities – whether professional or personal - lend themselves well to scheduling.
For a start, some intellectual tasks may not benefit from excessive scheduling. A review of decades of research shows that scheduling time tightly can induce a sense of time pressure that can help with efficiency, but not necessarily performance, explains Aeon. “This means a tight schedule can help you achieve more or less acceptable results in a short amount of time, but if you want to create a masterpiece, it’s not going to work.”
Tasneem Ali, a 20-year-old sophomore at Habib University in Karachi, Pakistan, finds it difficult to schedule her time accurately for essays analysing her favourite poetry, for example. “My ideas don’t take an appointment before coming to me,” she says. While her professors might encourage scheduling small steps in the writing process across weeks or a month, “I might just hammer out 3,000 words in one night if I’m feeling inspired.”
Then there are leisure tasks, which many of us jot down in our calendars to ringfence time for them. Yet research by Selin A Malkoc, associate professor of marketing at the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University, shows that scheduling ‘fun’ tasks can actually reduce our enjoyment of them.
In one of her randomised experimental studies, Malkoc set up a coffee shop on campus during finals week and offered students vouchers for a free cookie. While half the students could collect their cookie any time between 1800 and 2000, the other group was asked to write down the time they anticipated they’d swing by so logistical arrangements could be made. While students who committed to a time invariably had a higher likelihood of showing up, those with a wider window to collect their cookie reported enjoying it 18% more than the strictly scheduled group.
Structuring our lives too temporally robs leisure of its innate spontaneity and enjoyment
This is because structuring our lives too temporally robs leisure of its innate spontaneity and enjoyment. “Scheduling a leisure activity (vs. experiencing it impromptu) makes it feel more work-like and diminishes its utility, both in terms of excitement in anticipation of the activity as well as experienced enjoyment,” the study found.
The emotional impact of over-optimisation
Too much optimisation can also affect how we view time as well as impact our emotions.
On an individual level, disruptions to our schedules can have negative effects. We know, for example, that interruptions can trigger anxiety and annoyance (though research shows that if we consider the interruption ‘time worthy’, we may view it more positively). Ali, for example, doesn’t believe in assigning immutable windows for writing. “If I set a time limit, I’m erasing all the variables of human life. What if my mother comes in and sits down? I can't do my essay with her in the room… If I only give myself three hours, I spend more [time] having a panic attack.”
Research also shows that scheduling our time too rigidly can make us feel that we have less of it. “When we create boundaries around scheduled time, it makes our utilisation of unscheduled time less meaningful,” says Malkoc. Our sense of time gets warped as a scheduled work task approaches, she explains, because our perception of time is non-linear.
For instance, if a meeting is at 1600, our perception of the hours before the meeting will make us think of them as being progressively less sufficient, almost as if time shrinks towards the task. In her research, which focuses on how limited a time period feels, rather than how fast it actually goes by when using it, Malkoc found that participants tended to cram that time before a meeting (which they deemed insufficient to take on a substantial project due to the looming commitment) with less meaningful work, such as emails.
Our obsession with time management can leave us feeling stressed when interruptions or delays occur (Credit: Getty)
More broadly, the way we fetishise having airtight schedules has wider implications for society.
“Time waste, even minor, is a major cause of anger in the United States,” Aeon points out. “Hyper-organising our time can make us less patient and, in some cases, less likely to help other people out,” he says, referencing the Good Samaritan experiment, a social psychology test from the 1970s suggesting that feelings of time scarcity significantly reduce our capacity to care about other people.
Other research suggests that simple reminders of how fast-paced life has become, such as being exposed to pictures of fast food, can hamper our enjoyment of pleasurable events. People who are paid by the hour spend less time volunteering, notes Aeon, because the value of their time is so specifically quantified and the commodification of time so deeply entrenched that they don't want to give any away for free.
Redefining time management
There are, of course, various ways we can mitigate these downsides, using targeted strategies, reframing how we understand ‘time management’ as a concept and giving power back to ourselves as the creators of our schedules, instead of letting them dictate our lives.
Malkoc recommends performing work tasks back-to-back, then leaving large blocks of time unscheduled for hobbies, leisure or work projects requiring deep concentration. And if there are slots in the middle in which you might find yourself ‘devaluing’ that time, she says: “Trust your clock, not your gut.” If, for instance, you have ‘only’ an hour before a meeting, remind yourself, “I could watch two shows in 55 minutes. That’s a lot of time.”
Aeon also warns against scheduling leisure time too rigidly. “Instead of having a rigid schedule with start and end times, you can simply decide what activities you want to do without adhering to a precise schedule (e.g. going to the museum in the morning and to the beach in the afternoon).”
Organising our time can certainly make our lives better, but that depends on what you manage your time for - Brad Aeon
Malkoc’s research has also shown that when people schedule roughly – by drawing lines outside the confines of the calendar grid, adding question marks or shading in large blocks of time, people perceive the activity to be just as fun as a spontaneous, impromptu one. Yet this doesn’t lend itself to the digital world; as Malkoc points out: “There isn't a real way to schedule roughly in a calendar.”
Of course, we can’t go through life shunning schedules completely. Some experts suggest we focus on using time-tracking as a means to an end. For example, Laura Vanderkam, a writer and speaker, proposes curating a list of 100 dreams. By doing this, we aren’t simply tracking for the sake of data and productivity – or to bill a client. Instead, we’re being mindful about spending time on what matters. Or, as she says, prioritising ‘the good stuff’.
Aeon, meanwhile, suggests different approaches fit different personality types. When we start identifying our chronotypes, natural rhythms and personality styles, a schedule can be “a perfect glove made just for you,” he says. He believes it takes trial, error and a great dose of ‘knowing thyself’ to create a schedule that’s an accurate reflection of our values, identity and beliefs. “Ultimately, organising our time can certainly make our lives better. But that depends on what you manage your time for,” Aeon concludes.
During his last vacation to Ireland, Scharf managed to find his happy medium between structured and unstructured time through mindful time organisation and rough scheduling. “The only things we had scheduled were the flight there, the flight back and the car we’d rent. Every day, we decided which bed and breakfast to go to, and a few cool places to see on the way. We had nobody waiting for us, no hotel to check into—we took beautiful detours and just enjoyed the coast. It was potentially the best vacation of my life,” said Scharf.
He loved it so much he never left. Today, Scharf lives in Ireland with his wife and two-year-old daughter, happy to track and schedule his workday just as diligently as he upholds free-flowing family time and leisure.
Try it out sometime. If your schedule allows.