In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman calls into question whether the quest for better “time management” or “productivity” is misguided:
The modern discipline known as time management—like its hipper cousin, productivity—is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.
He admits to being a recovering “productivity geek” himself, and directs a couple of jabs at a younger version of himself.
“I’ve squandered countless hours—and a fair amount of money, spent mainly on fancy notebooks and felt-tip pens—in service to the belief that if I could only find the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline, I might actually be able to win the struggle with time, once and for all.”
Is Burkeman right to suggest that our attempts to increase our productivity are all mistaken? Or is he throwing the baby out with the bathwater here?
Some context: a bit about myself
I don’t consider myself a “productivity geek”, though others might disagree. On one hand, I do use apps like Todoist, Obsidian and (to a lesser degree) toggl, and I’ve tried a number of other productivity-related apps. I also love me some keyboard shortcuts, listen to podcasts at 1.5x speed and rarely cook anything that isn’t in a batch. (Plus, Sundays do tend to be the days on which I batch-cook.)
On the other hand, my morning routine is about as unremarkable and minimal as possible. And I’ve barely read any of the “top productivity books” that pop up in a Google search. The only one I have read, years ago, was The 4-Hour Work Week, which I didn’t even consider to be a productivity book. However, Deep Work, Atomic Habits, and Essentialism are on my reading list.
Finally, I spend very little time perusing productivity blogs, forums, or videos – maybe an hour a month, tops? As such, I probably don’t know the “productivity community” as well as Burkeman does. With that wee disclaimer out of the way, let me explain why I think Burkeman was too hasty in dismissing the time management and productivity genres.
What do we mean by “productivity”?
As is often the case, definitions are paramount, so let’s try to clarify what we mean by “productivity”. (I focus on productivity here as it’s easier to define, but many of the same arguments also apply to “time management”.)
Ultimately, productivity is about how efficiently you can do things – i.e. output divided by hours worked or cost. The general economics definition of productivity is GDP per hour worked, but, in this context, I think it makes sense to broaden the denominator and include costs other than hours worked, such as mental energy, willpower and happiness. For example, a “hack” that would save you 1 hour each week, but increase your stress and strain your social relationships, would be inefficient and counterproductive. On the other hand, building a good habit, such that exercise or eating well feels automatic and doesn’t require less willpower, can be efficient as it reduces the mental energy used.
Sometimes people think of productivity as just producing more, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Obviously if you’re more efficient, then you can get more done in the same amount of time. But increased efficiency could just give you more free time to spend with loved ones, do hobbies, or sleep.
There’s also seems to be a strain of the productivity genre that involves (over-)optimisation. Optimisation may involve coming up with the “best” morning routine, having the “ideal” time management system, or generally being a perfectionist. That’s not necessarily productive, either. In fact, it can be the opposite, because there are usually diminishing returns to your efforts. Spending an hour working out how to improve your time management system may well be worth it. If that hour saves you 10 hours in the long run, it would be an excellent return on investment. But if spending 8 hours only saves you 12 hours in the long run, that’s not productive. That first hour or two may have been; the other hours were counterproductive.
Efficiency is still worth pursuing
Burkeman seems to aim his criticisms of the productivity genre more at the “getting more done” and over-optimisation aspects. I don’t think he’s suggesting that pursuing productivity is always a bad idea, just that this pursuit can lead to some wrong-headed beliefs. Getting more done doesn’t necessarily equate to a better life and it’s worth remembering that. And, past a point, efforts to optimise may become counterproductive. Besides, we – and productivity peddlers – may not always pick the right things to optimise.
The goal of increasing efficiency still seems worthwhile, provided you take an appropriately broad view of “output” and “costs”. Many of Burkeman’s examples, like mailing a birthday card remotely or getting food delivered, may turn out to be inefficient under that broader view. They’re only “productive” if you focus solely on minimising “costs”, and take a narrow view of what those costs are.
I, for one, have found some things from the broader productivity sphere have truly enriched my life. Todoist has helped relieve anxiety. Being able to add tasks as they crop up lets me relax in the knowledge that important errands won’t fall through the cracks. Obsidian has similarly been a life-changer. I can now keep a record of my random thoughts and form better, more nuanced, thoughts as a result. It’s quite probable that I wouldn’t have started this blog without it.
I certainly have not adopted every suggestion I’ve seen wholesale, and I doubt anyone else would, either. There’s an inevitable degree of picking and choosing what works for you. In particular, much of the advice is produced by entrepreneurs primarily for students or the self-employed. Understandably, such people may need to intentionally manage their workflows to accomplish anything, since it’s much easier to procrastinate. Whereas I’m currently a salaried employee, whose work requires (or allows) me to be less self-directed. I have to “show up daily” if I want to keep my job. Plus, since it’s salaried, there’s less incentive for me to optimise anything (there’s also less opportunity to, because other people’s workflows and processes act as constraints).
To summarise, there are at least three possible things one might mean when they talk about “productivity”:
- Getting more done; and
While Burkeman does not distinguish between these different meanings in Four Thousand Weeks, his criticisms seem to be directed more at the latter two. In my view, efficiency is still worth pursuing.
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What do you think of the productivity genre? Do you agree that efficiency is worth pursuing? Share your thoughts in the comments below!