Four reasons time management is more difficult now than in the past

Time Management Is Hard

I recently saw a comment on a blog post questioning whether our world is so much more complex than it used to be (did our grandparents live in “a simpler time”?), if they actually had less work, or whether there is something wrong with us.

Time Management is so much more difficult in our current knowledge economy era than in the past for four reasons:

We have more control over our time

You have a surplus of time. No really, you do. As hurried as you feel right now, the fact is you have a lot of control over how you spend your day.  Most of you who are reading this post are not stuck on a factory line for 12 hours, working a field from sun up to sun down (and sometimes beyond), or walking for miles to gather water.

We have the exact same number of hours in the day, the exact same needs to meet, but technology and economic advances in the last several decades have given us much more control over how we spend our time.  You are able to do your work and meet your needs more quickly and efficiently than in years past.  It feels like we have less time and more to do for the following three reasons.

Our tasks lack definition

From the beginning of time till just a few hundred years ago, the daily work of almost everyone on the planet was laid before them very plainly. Farm, Blacksmith, Make bricks, Keep Order.  Some of us still have these type of jobs.  But more of us have “knowledge work” jobs. We deal primarily in ideas and information. Research and problem solving are our tasks and tools.

Fewer and fewer of us work on factory lines inserting widget A onto part B. Must of us have jobs that are nebulously defined and we need to spend time figuring out what our task actually is before executing it. Most of our tasks start with “Figure out if…”, “Decide whether…”,  “Ask so and so about…”.  Almost none of these tasks come with step-by-step instructions.

We are aware of all the options

“Information overload.”  50 million google search results.  108 different kinds of toothpaste on the shelf at Walmart.  75 different possible extra-curricular activities for my kids (and they MUST be in SOME of them, right?)  2,218 broadcast television channels (in 2006).  The 24-hour news cycle.

I can find out what is going on in almost every single part of the world in any given instant, immediately. In any given moment, I can choose from a virtually unlimited set of options on how to spend my time. Instant access to information via computer (that in a past age would have been called “super”) that lives in my pocket (or is permanently glued to my hand) is a far cry from opening a news paper that was printed this morning, with a finite sampling of yesterdays events, or Walter Cronkite signing off for the evening, letting us know there is nothing more to see today. And because of this…

We are more distracted

We have only recently entered into the era where access to all this information is possible. We are new to this technology, all of us, even those of us that were born with it.  We don’t yet know how to manage it and live in it.  We are suffering shock.  We are hesitant to commit to anything in the future because everything might change in the next five minutes.  Our decision making is reactionary and short sighted. We jump every time our phone rings, text message buzzes, or Facebook (or Instagram, or Twitter, or Snapchat, or, or, or, or…) notifies. We divide our brain amongst dozens of digital conversations at a time, and we don’t take time to think or reflect.

How to fix it – Budgeting and Dieting

This situation needs to be helped. And it can be. The excess of control over our time and information requires the same sort of discipline, and identical principles to our excess money (which we all have in America), and excess access to food.  Dieting is a concept that can be applied to our information intake, and financial budgeting is a concept that can be applied to our time.

This is what “productivity systems” like GTD are all about, and why I am so convinced of the universal necessity of them.

This post is essentially a reflection and digestion on the first chapter of Matt Perman’s excellent book “What’s Best Next”, which you all should read.