Modern time management strategies have helped us be more productive. But why do they work for some, and fail for others?
In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues that the main problem lies in our relationship with time. He believes that "we've unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse." And the core belief causing our time management struggles is the notion that you can manipulate it. It's treated as a resource—something you can buy, sell, and use as efficiently as possible.
But we can never "find enough time" because it isn't a resource we can control or own.
The Evolution of How We Spend Time
Our relationship with time has changed over the centuries.
Burkeman explains how we used to have "task-oriented" lifestyles. Life emerged organically from the task at hand. For instance, farmers harvested crops when it was harvest time.
You couldn't make the harvest come sooner by using a productivity technique.
But nowadays, we have time-oriented lifestyles.
In Burkeman's words, "[Life emerges] from being lined up against an abstract timeline." We obsess about reaching a perfect time management routine or set of strategies. And we try to use them to achieve a feeling of total control and limitless potential.
This mentality brings us more stress and frustration because we're ignoring the constraints of being human. Life is finite.
And our modern relationship with time management has severe costs. Burkeman explains:
"Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you're using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you're to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed."
You can't push the river, nor is it effective to go against the current. The best approach is to swim with it, steering yourself toward a meaningful destination.
The same idea applies to your limited time.
Next Steps: The Paradox of Limitation
Confronting the finitude of life is the most productive path forward.
You'll be able to work with your constraints rather than against them. It's counterintuitive, but trying to master time ends with it mastering you. This is why author Stephen Covey said that time management is a misnomer: it's not about managing it, but managing ourselves.
Want to learn more about being effective with your time? Check out our article: P/PC Balance: What It Truly Means To Be Effective.