When you come back to school, or to work, one of the most disconcerting things is the change of pace that has to happen to get back up to speed for the busy lives we all lead in term time. I read an article last week about the theory (and myth) of time management. The conclusion of the article was not quite what I expected.
It began with details of a talk that was given to the employees of Google in 2007. The company recognised that email had become their biggest professional problem, as their employees were feeling the pressure common to many organisations, even Blundell’s: spending so much time replying to emails that they could never actually get on with any work, or have a proper out of work life.
Google brought in as they called it, a ‘rising star’ of the personal productivity movement, Merlin Mann, to introduce their workforce to his concept ‘Inbox Zero’. This concept was straightforward; that they should stop the bad habits of checking emails all through the day, feel relatively stressed but don’t necessarily take action and then carry the stress around with them which stops them focusing on other things or people. He suggested that you should set a specific time aside for emails, and then process your inbox properly, down to zero, so that all the emails were either filed or replied to or deleted, leaving you with no lingering worry. Whilst his idea and consequent app, articles and a book deal were not unique, hundreds of thousands of people watched his talk online, and Inbox Zero became a movement all of its own.
The article sums up the problem of email very well: your email account is an infinite ‘to do list’ to which anyone on the planet can add anything for you to do at any time. It would seem crazy and unimaginable to allow yourself to accept that, if it weren’t actually true. And, as many of us know, it comes to dominate our lives in our compulsive race to respond or to react or just to keep that uncontrollable inbox in single figures.
So did Inbox Zero change the lives of Google’s workforce for the better? You will not be surprised to hear that it didn’t. They found, as I have often done too, that the more emails you ‘process’, the more you get back. People there became obsessed about the need to keep the inbox at zero and that was probably more stressful than answering the messages they got. And what of Merlin Mann? Well, he never completed his book and he has concluded recently that he feels “email isn’t the problem. People are the problem and you can’t fix people”.
In fact, the idea of an effective one size fits all time management system continues to be the most widely discussed, but equally insoluble problem across the globe. Our average lifespan is approximately 4000 weeks and we should, therefore be careful how we use them.
Way back in the 1st century AD, the Roman philosopher, Seneca, wrote “This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily, and so swiftly that all, save but a very few, find life at an end just when they are just getting ready to live”.
To my mind it is just about setting more time aside NOT to look at email. Rather than focusing my mind on my Inbox Zero, I think it’s more important to ensure that I don’t end up with Life Zero instead. I think spending time away from the keyboard or phone and enjoying time with friends and family, outside in the fresh air, doing something you have never tried, is the solution to that ‘infinite to do’ list.