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Why hyper-organisation can backfire

We all want to be more productive. But research shows that schedules don’t suit some tasks – and can even make us enjoy them less.
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Paul Scharf is a meticulous time tracker and scheduler. As a fully remote worker long before ‘work-from-home’ entered the common lexicon, Scharf has been tracking his workdays for the past seven years.

“Once I started [tracking], I just never stopped,” says Scharf. “Initially, it was just to see how many hours I was working, but then I started evaluating how I allocate time across different tasks, hobbies and passion projects. It became a way for me to prevent multi-tasking and be more honest with myself.”

Scharf, whose interest led him to a role as head of the engineering department at a time-tracking software company, regularly pores over his detailed time logs to optimise his workflow. “I always schedule at least a day in advance, right down to my breaks, half-hour daily walks, mealtimes – even what I’ll eat,” he says. Scharf believes that organising the micro-details of his day helps allay decision fatigue. “I don’t want to be sitting there at lunchtime thinking, do I want a sandwich or a salad?”

But even a hyper-organiser like Scharf is aware of the line between organising time to enhance productivity versus viewing it as an end goal, or a litmus test to define a life well spent. “When I’m with family or involved in a leisure activity, productivity isn’t the goal. I actually greatly value time away from schedules,” he concedes.

So where, exactly, is the line? For many people, time management is a huge priority. That means allocating windows to particular tasks, with a view to optimising days for maximum productivity. Yet some experts suggest that there are tasks that don’t fit well into a calendar grid, such as creative work or leisure activities. In fact, research shows that scheduling these activities could actually reduce our ability to perform them, as well as our enjoyment of them. There are also emotional impacts and consequences of hyper-organisation, particularly when something doesn’t go to plan.

Fortunately, there are alternative strategies to time management that can mitigate some of these downsides, helping us stay on course without feeling shackled to our calendars.

Why some tasks don’t suit scheduling

Our obsession with optimising time can be traced back to the 1700s, when the desire to afford exotic goods imported to Western Europe drove us to work more, and more efficiently, explains Brad Aeon, assistant professor at the School of Management Sciences at the University of Québec in Montréal. Aeon believes time management as a concept gained traction when we started equating time with money. “When you put a price tag or monetary value on your work, i.e. 200 dollars an hour, your time becomes commodified, and you want to make the best out of it,” he says.