Burkeman: Why time management is ruining our lives

Over the past semester I’ve been trying to convince one graduate student and one professor in my department to use Inbox Zero to get a better handle on their e-mail inboxes. The goal is not to be more productive. The two of them get far more academic work done than I do. However, both of them are far more stressed than I am. And in the case of the graduate student, I have to add items to my own to-do list to chase up e-mails that I’ve sent him, which only spreads this stress and tension around.

The graduate student sent me this essay by Oliver Burkeman about how these techniques can backfire, creating more stress, tension and anxiety. It seems to me that this happens when we think of these techniques as having anything to do with productivity. Often people will say “use this technique and you’ll be less stressed, more productive, and even more productive because you’re less stressed.” Why not just say “use this technique and you’ll be less anxious and stressed”? This is a refusal to treat lower anxiety as merely a means to some further end. People can autonomously set their own ends, and they’ll probably do a better job of this when they’re less anxious. Someone offering a technique to help with their sense of being overwhelmed need not tell them what to do with their new calm.

It might be argued that this response to Burkeman fails to address the huge sense of obligation that an e-mail inbox can generate. Perhaps the only sane response to this infinite to-do list is to let it pile up. If we follow a technique like Inbox Zero, don’t we invest our inbox with more importance than it has? Like a lot of areas of life, the issue is that the e-mails that will advance truly valuable projects and relationships, projects of both ourselves and of others, are mixed in with reams of stuff that doesn’t matter. We face this situation whenever we go into a supermarket, or wonder what to do during an upcoming vacation. In all these situations, we have a responsibility to learn how to filter the important stuff out, just as we have a responsibility to avoid reading celebrity gossip columns when we are scanning through a newspaper. Inbox Zero is a technique to do that filtering in the case of e-mail. Just letting our inbox pile up is an abdication of responsibility, rather than an intelligent response to a piece of technology that most of the world abuses.