Looking for precious time
I’ve been trying hard not to complain about lacking time. I won’t say that I have no time because that’s not something anyone can have in the first place. When it comes to time, it would probably make more sense to use the verb be than the verb have. But whatever verb you use, you may find that time (or lack thereof) is a critical preoccupation for you.
As author Oliver Burkeman wrote in a fantastic book called Four Thousand Weeks (the title refers to the average 4,000 weeks a human gets to live), managing limited time is THE main theme of our lives. Alas productivity has turned this most existential subject into the narrowest of affairs: how to fit as many tasks as possible into your week. You'd think there would be at least a handful of productivity books that would take this harsh reality of life's brevity into account, instead of pretending we can just ignore the subject. But not many of these books do.
I do try to take this harsh reality into account in my own new book, En finir avec la productivité.
👉 To find out more about my book, you can also read a previous newsletter I dedicated to it: Adios productivity. Laetitia@Work #46
In this week’s newsletter I’ll share the rough translation of a few pages of my book that deal with time.👇💡
The more I optimise my time, the more time-strapped I become
We are constantly fed productivity tips to better optimise our lives. I’ve personally always faced a cruel paradox: the more I try to optimise my time, the more time-strapped I become and the more dissatisfied I feel. The more I try to control my time, to make it fit into my schedule, the more it escapes me. It's a bit like dieting: the more I try to lose weight, the more I end up gaining weight and hating myself. It's a downward spiral. (At least now I no longer ever try to lose weight. I have learned a few lessons in 43 years of life).
Burkeman quotes American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, who says that time is like a conveyor belt on an assembly line: new tasks come in as soon as you get rid of the old ones. Becoming more productive is like speeding up the assembly line. The mailbox is a case in point: the more you try to empty it, the faster new emails will arrive. The more messages you write, the more replies you will receive. With emails, your productivity tends to increase your workload, which will make you less productive.
“Productivity is a trap," Burkeman explains. Becoming more efficient will always make you busier because you will be doing more. The day when you finally have everything under control will never come. Moreover, this mindset tends to make you live in the future. The feeling of being overwhelmed is thus exacerbated by every attempt you make to get things under control. Mentally, you tend to live in a fictitious future where you can finally feel free when every item on your to-do list has been crossed.
Living in the future
This pathological relationship with time that translates to always living in the future is illustrated by this fable of the Mexican fisherman and the American billionaire that I have been told several times. An American billionaire with a strong business record visits a small village on the Mexican coast. While eating a fish, he talks to a fisherman who tells him that he only fishes a few hours a week, because he spends most of his time playing with his grandchildren, sunbathing and napping. The billionaire is surprised: "But you could fish longer, catch more fish, then buy more boats to catch more fish, build a fine business... and in twenty years you could be rich!” the billionaire says. The fisherman asks, “what good would it do me?” And the billionaire replies, "Then you could retire, play with your grandchildren, sunbathe and take a nap."
When you find yourself always living mentally in the future, you tend to locate the value of your life at a moment in time that has not yet been reached (and will never be reached because it is constantly being pushed back). The present exists only as a means to a higher future state. It cannot stand on its own. Burkeman used to be a productivity expert but he had a moment of revelation when he became a father. Fully immersed in the present moment of living with his child, he began to see that productivity advice, like parenting advice, looks to the future and ignores the present. For example, parenting advice is often about doing activities with a child not for the sake of a happy present moment but to prepare them for the next step of their lives. But if every moment in life is justified by a future goal, then we have a telic view of time, i.e. time is instrumental and the present moment loses its meaning.
So we spend our time pursuing the various goals we want to achieve, which condemns us to permanent dissatisfaction, because there are only two possible scenarios: either the goal is not yet achieved, and we are frustrated and dissatisfied as a result, or it is finally achieved, and we are even more dissatisfied because then we no longer have that goal to justify our actions. When the goal is reached, the baby blues hits. All for that? No time to savour the moment: quickly, we’ll have to find a new objective to replace it so as to continue to live in the future.
The gender time gap
Productivity makes us see time as a resource that can be used. There’s a lot of pressure to use it well and not "waste" it. This logic is taken to extremes in professions where clients are charged for a certain amount of time. For lawyers, the hours billed are the most critical productive hours. For freelancers and consultants, budgets are measured in days. Some of these professionals become unable to rest and do anything other than work because every unbilled moment becomes a loss.
This "telic” relationship to time affects both men and women and is transforming all our lives: as the categories of work and leisure become blurred, every dimension of life is infected by productivity. However, women are the first victims, for at least two reasons. The first is that self-esteem is completely linked to the productive way in which we use our time. Women "waste" more time not getting paid. It should be a strength to be able to extract oneself more from the reign of the market and not submit to its productivist diktats. Alas since the distribution of wealth, power, recognition and our own self-esteem depend on paid time, women lose out.
The second reason is that women's mental health is more affected. Numerous studies show that they suffer higher levels of stress, anxiety and even depression from the heavy combination of paid and unpaid work. According to data collected by British psychiatrist Judith Mohring, women aged 25 to 54 are significantly more stressed than their male counterparts, especially between the ages of 35 and 44. Their double work day (paid and unpaid), the constraints of lower incomes, caregiving, sexism in the workplace, and less valued jobs with more brutal management drain them. This stress has worsened since the beginning of the pandemic. Working from home, more women have suffered burnout.
They have so much more to gain from being "masters" of their time so they willingly fall prey to the fallacy that time can be controlled. In their case, the illusion is strong because they are more likely to work in jobs where time and place are constrained (for example, nurses can’t work from anywhere). When they do work from home behind computers, more of them are watched closely and subject to forms of remote presenteeism because they are more likely to be in jobs at the bottom of the ladder. Indeed flexible work does not always come with more autonomy: remote surveillance and continuous monitoring software make some jobs more alienating. When you have less power, flexible does not mean free. The lack of time is felt more keenly.
Don’t believe you can control your productive time
Women's time is often fragmented and violated at least as much as their bodies are. In fact, the two are linked. The pressure to control their bodies and their image makes them apply the logic of productivity to all the activities that aim to “improve” their physical appearance: they count the calories ingested and spent just as they count the minutes consumed or saved. The constraints of family life (childcare) add to the constraints of work. Their time is split into 10,000 small pieces, making continuous, creative and rewarding work much more difficult for them.
Women are often thought to be capable of multitasking: they are thought to be better equipped cognitively to juggle multiple tasks at once. A 2015 international study revealed just how entrenched this belief in so-called female superiority in this area is:
“Findings were consistent across the different countries, thus supporting the existence of a widespread gender stereotype that women are better at multitasking than men. Further questionnaire results provided information about the participants’ self-rated own multitasking abilities, and how they conceived multitasking activities such as childcare, phoning while driving, and office work.”
It’s a stereotype that has no scientific basis. Women's cognitive abilities are in no way superhuman. On the contrary, their ability to concentrate and be creative is impaired by the need to manage so many things at once (at home and at work). Another, more recent study shows that no one is good at multitasking. Women's brains are no more efficient than men's at handling two or more activities at once.
David Allen, one of the world's most famous productivity gurus, dealt with that subject in his bestseller Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity: you are most effective when you focus on just one activity at a time, he explains. As you become more productive, you are also more relaxed, which creates a virtuous circle. Allen refers to the ideas or things to do that occupy our minds as “open loops”. These loops consume energy and attention. So to be able to concentrate all your energy on one action at a time without being disturbed by the other loops, you have to write down all the tasks that occupy your mind in order to free yourself from them. Thus you can reach the state of mind of a martial arts master whose mind is "like water". Although I do not agree with the purpose of the famous Getting Things Done method (to do more and be more productive), I can only agree with the observation that many women suffer from cognitive overload.
The best way to reclaim time is not to be more productive and to keep doing more, but to aim for less: fewer commitments, projects and expectations. It means reducing the disproportionate place that work has taken and not letting productivity take over every dimension of our lives. It means going more slowly and learning patience. Cal Newport, in a beautiful eulogy of "slow productivity" published in The New Yorker, calls for a reorganisation of work around the principle of slowness: the movement he calls “slow productivity” aims to keep the amount of work at a sustainable level.
📚 My new book En finir avec la productivité was released on April 13! 🍾 Several articles have already been published about it in French media 🇫🇷 including Voici comment la productivité au travail accroît les inégalités femmes-hommes (Marie Claire), Laetitia Vitaud : “La quête forcenée de productivité crée un rapport maladif au temps” (Collective.work)…
👩💻 Check out the new Welcome to the Jungle pieces on my profile: in 🇬🇧 Busting 6 myths about workplace productivity and in 🇫🇷 Autorité : pourquoi les femmes sont moins prises au sérieux que les hommes ?, Ce que l’Italie a à nous apprendre sur la nouvelle géographie du travail, Plus de managers issus de "minorités", est-ce forcément plus d'inclusion ?, Pourquoi l'objectif “Inbox Zero” est une arnaque…
📺 My next “Café Freelance” event (with Freelance.com) is about freelancers & work-life balance. Some freelancers maintain strict boundaries so as to separate work & life whereas others prefer to integrate, i.e. mix the 2 until it’s unclear which is which. Which team do you belong to? 🇫🇷 Quand on est freelance, est-ce qu'on sépare forcément vie perso & vie pro ? My panel features Blandine Tracol & Brice Schwartz. Future of work buddy Samuel Durand will be there too. Join us May 13 at 9:30 CET!
⏰ Working 9 to 2, and Again After Dinner, Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, April 2022: “For many remote workers, 9 to 5 has changed to something more fragmented. A typical schedule might look more like 9 to 2, and then 7 to 10. Then sometimes another five minutes, wherever you can squeeze them in.”
👾 A barrage of assault, racism and rape jokes: my nightmare trip into the metaverse, Yinka Bokinni, The Guardian, April 2022: “within the first 10 minutes of putting on a VR headset and entering a chat room (…) I experienced sexual harassment, racism and rape jokes. At one point, I heard someone say “I like little girls from the age of nine to 12: that’s just my thing.””
⚙️ Introducing The Work Project: Reimagining Work and Life, Hilary Cottam, Medium, May 2022: “Our survival depends on recognising that the context in which we work has fundamentally changed. We need to find new ways to live and work. And it is increasingly clear that none of us can do this alone.”
Until next time, drop your to-do list, live in the present and read my book 🤗