Time Precious Time: On Unread Emails and Productivity Panics

Our phones were piled on top of each other on the table near the charger. […]

David Zahl / 1.10.17

Our phones were piled on top of each other on the table near the charger. Not just mine and my wife’s but those of the four friends who had dropped by for dinner. People had been showing each other photos earlier in the evening and someone had suggested we leave our devices in the kitchen while we ate. How disciplined of us!

When it was time to go, the first guest grabbed the one on top, clicked it on and… nearly jumped out of her skin. The little number next to the email icon read “2448”. Needless to say, it was not her phone, it just looked identical.

She explained that she worked diligently to stay on top of her inbox–the sight of so many unread messages almost gave her a panic attack. “How do you live like that?!” she asked the phone’s true owner, as if she had just peered into a closet and found a litter of wild coyotes. The owner shrugged and chuckled, “That’s just how I roll.” It was one of those awkward moments where friends realize just how different they actually are.

An admittedly silly story but one that kept coming to mind when I read Oliver Burkeman’s year-opening column for The Guardian, “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives”. (A fastball down the middle of the mockingplate is how one friend described the article). The author of The Antidote (and speaker at our upcoming NYC Conference!) has struck again, big-time. For those who don’t have the, er, time to read the whole thing, the tagline pretty much says it all, “All of our efforts to be more productive backfire – and only make us feel even busier and more stressed.” So we’re deep in choir-preaching territory here.

Of course, while some/many might view email-related anxiety as the epitome of a ‘first-world problem’ (hate that phrase), Burkeman’s unearthing of the existential stakes reveals it to be anything but: namely, an indicator of one of the more tragic ironies at the heart of 2017 life. He begins by discussing Merlin Mann’s well-known strategy for managing one’s messages, “Inbox Zero”. Mann introduced the method about ten years ago, into a context in which our inbox had come to occupy much more than server space, ht MG:

Email had become far more than a technical problem. It functioned as a kind of infinite to-do list, to which anyone on the planet could add anything at will. For the “knowledge workers” of the digital economy, it was both metaphor and delivery mechanism for the feeling that the pressure of trying to complete an ever-increasing number of tasks, in a finite quantity of time, was becoming impossible to bear.

In other words, email by its very nature (and despite its many advantages), tends to exacerbate the pressure-cooker aspects of daily life and communication, a vehicle ideally suited for accelerating demand on the individual to be, above all, “productive”. That we would seek innovations to minimize those demands goes without saying. Sadly, the solution turned out to be less simple than expected. Mann himself flamed out a few years later while trying to write a book about his own program, claiming that he had “abandoned [my] priorities to write about my priorities”. Burkeman articulates the doublebind this way:

The truth is that more often than not, techniques designed to enhance one’s personal productivity seem to exacerbate the very anxieties they were meant to allay. The better you get at managing time, the less of it you feel that you have. Even when people did successfully implement Inbox Zero, it didn’t reliably bring calm. Some interpreted it to mean that every email deserved a reply, which only shackled them more firmly to their inboxes.

The allure of the doctrine of time management is that, one day, everything might finally be under control. Yet work in the modern economy is notable for its limitlessness. And if the stream of incoming emails is endless, Inbox Zero can never bring liberation: you’re still Sisyphus, rolling his boulder up that hill for all eternity – you’re just rolling it slightly faster.

Hmmm…. sounds familiar. Time management itself is not the problem. Nor is little-l law, such as it may be. Because for the most part, these are salutary methods. Sin is the problem, expressed here as the desire for control, dominion, divinity, what have you. The law is simply the means by which the sinner tries (in vain) to achieve those ends. Alas, when wedded to an overly optimistic view of human nature, all such projects seem to produce is more sin, more demand, more isolation, more insanity, AKA, the opposite of what we think/hope/assume it will bring us. If it sounds a tad dystopian, well:

The time-pressure problem was always supposed to get better as society advanced, not worse. In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need…

Especially at the higher-paid end of the employment spectrum, time management whispers of the possibility of something even more desirable: true peace of mind. “It is possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head and a positive sense of relaxed control,” the contemporary king of the productivity gurus, David Allen, declared in his 2001 bestseller, Getting Things Done. “You can experience what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water’, and top athletes refer to as ‘the zone’.”

It is significant that “personal productivity” puts the burden of reconciling these demands squarely on our shoulders as individuals.

Burkeman goes on to explain how exactly the backfire occurs. To paraphrase, if the grace engenders self-forgetfulness and gratitude, exhortation cannot but increase self-consciousness. Not only that but the standard of performance recedes the closer we get to it:

b6a39b1ea9cf27594b62f29f56fe0b54Virtually every time management expert’s first piece of advice is to keep a detailed log of your time use, but doing so just heightens your awareness of the minutes ticking by, then lost for ever. As for focusing on your long-term goals: the more you do that, the more of your daily life you spend feeling vaguely despondent that you have not yet achieved them. Should you manage to achieve one, the satisfaction is strikingly brief – then it’s time to set a new long-term goal. The supposed cure just makes the problem worse…

As the efficiency of housework increased, so did the standards of cleanliness and domestic order that society came to expect. Now that the living-room carpet could be kept perfectly clean, it had to be; now that clothes never needed to be grubby, grubbiness was all the more taboo. These days, you can answer work emails in bed at midnight. So should that message you got at 5.30pm really wait till morning for a reply?

Burkeman then mentions a conference he attended called Take Back Your Time, hosted by group of UK subversives bold enough to question the entire productivity mindset:

“You keep hearing people arguing that more time off might be good for the economy,” said John de Graaf, the not-even-slightly-relaxed 70-year-old filmmaker who is the [Take Back Your Time]’s driving force. “But why should we have to justify life in terms of the economy? It makes no sense!”

img_1546One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.

Even rest and recreation, in a culture preoccupied with efficiency, can only be understood as valuable insofar as they are useful for some other purpose – usually, recuperation, so as to enable more work…

Plenty of unpleasant chores are essential to survival. But others are not – we have just been conditioned to assume that they are. It isn’t compulsory to earn more money, achieve more goals, realize our potential on every dimension, or fit more in. In a quiet moment in Seattle, Robert Levine, a social psychologist from California, quoted the environmentalist Edward Abbey: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.”

Sounds a bit like Jonathan Franzen.

Anyway, by the end of the article, we’ve traveled from relatively petty handwringing over unanswered email to the anxiety beneath every anxiety:

At the very bottom of our anxious urge to manage time better, it’s not hard to discern a familiar motive: the fear of death… No wonder we are so drawn to the problem of how to make better use of our days: if we could solve it, we could avoid the feeling, in Seneca’s words, of finding life at an end just when we were getting ready to live. To die with the sense of nothing left undone: it’s nothing less than the promise of immortality by other means…

Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don’t have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days. “How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think,” wrote Friedrich Nietzsche, in what reads like a foreshadowing of our present circumstances. “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

Not much to add that we haven’t mentioned elsewhere. Suffice it to say, we love time management apps/book/seminars for the same reason we love work itself: because they appeal to our own sense of agency and allow us to feel productive and worthy while distracting us from deeper, less manageable realities. To put it in Law/Gospel terminology, if what we produce with our time has traditionally been a means of appeasing judgment, today it is that and a way of fleeing from it simultaneously. A distraction from conscience, or loneliness, or grief, or simply vulnerability–a way of imposing order on the chaos of relating to another person or even oneself, to say nothing of God. Like the addicts we are, captivity to the illusion of control is not merely our dereliction but our predilection.

I’m reminded of the picture that Martin Luther sketched in the Thirteenth Argument of the Second Antinomian Disputation–of a world that’s that’s all law and no grace, ht SZ&JL:

Furthermore… “law” ought not to be taken in a technical or material or grammatical sense… but as it is and sounds forth in your heart, urging and battling your heart and conscience, so that you do not know where to turn. For the law is that experience or power or, as Paul calls it (Col. 2:14) that handwriting impressed on our hearts, castigating and beating it, so that […] you would soon have to despair… Yet this one Law occupies and fills the whole earth. Indeed it is so big that the world can barely contain it… For even if you were to remove these letters: L-A-W, which can be very easily deleted, the handwriting etched into our hearts, which condemns and drives us, nonetheless remains. (p 189-193)

Luther is describing a world (and human race) that sounds a lot like the one Burkeman profiles in 2017, one which is weighted entirely in one direction and understandably given to exhaustion and despair. And yet, isn’t this is the very same world into which the wise men made their absurd announcement? Concerning a do-nothing baby who would grow into a healer of astounding insufficiency, a man who failed to maximize his short time on Earth, instead reserving his ministry for a few short years of intermittent activity in unpopular locales. This is a man, as we know, who told stories about a kingdom where reward is not a matter of merit but grace, where people are valued according to their presence rather than their product, as children rather than employees.

What he taught is what we never quite learn, the message that is as bottomless as our need for it: God does not relate to us on the basis of our efficiency but on the largeness of his generosity, the gift of his Son, who “by his one oblation of himself once offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.”

Speaking of which, the Google alert that just went off means it’s time for our church staff meeting. Kind of a waste if you ask me… Good thing I’ll have my phone.

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9 responses to “Time Precious Time: On Unread Emails and Productivity Panics”

  1. JT says:

    This is SO good! And very applicable to the ‘work’ (ha!) I do in facilitating job-readiness for adults with significant life challenges. I am always trying to figure out how best to provide practical resources along with gospel-centered, grace-based, law/gospel distinct material so as to help my clients better prepare for employment without establishing their identity on their careers. Haven’t figured out how to perfect this yet…:)
    By the way, you have seen this short film that preceded the theatrical showing of Moana? Speaks to this aptly!


    BTW, I will be using this post along with yours and others’ posts on ‘cult of productivity’ in our curriculum!
    If you have any other suggestions, please send them my way.

  2. Cj says:

    great post dz!! loved the Luther quote. But…i swear the standing desk really does accelarate time management sanctification!

  3. Joshua Retterer says:

    This is excellent, DZ, thank you for writing this!

  4. David Zahl says:

    Thanks J&J&CJ. Forgot to add a dedication to Scott “Pittsburgh Ten but Inbox Zero” Jones.

  5. Mark Vruggink says:

    So excellent DZ!

  6. Marci McCoy says:

    So freaking good! Thank you x1000.

    To put it in Law/Gospel terminology, if what we produce with our time has traditionally been a means of appeasing judgment, today it is that and a way of fleeing from it simultaneously. A distraction from conscience, or loneliness, or grief, or simply vulnerability–a way of imposing order on the chaos of relating to another person or even oneself, to say nothing of God. Like the addicts we are, captivity to the illusion of control is not merely our dereliction but our predilection.

  7. Charlotte Getz says:

    Oh wow, DZ. This had me teary. What sweet relief.

  8. Lindsey says:

    Thanks so much for this, DZ! I had come across the Guardian article earlier this week, and when I read it, I immediately clicked over to Mockingbird, hoping you had at least mentioned it in a weekender post. You did not disappoint! So helpful to have your grace-centered wisdom around these ever-present issues.

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