In 1986, the New York Mets won the World Series, Tom Cruise had a need for speed and Lee Iacocca released his autobiography. I was 10. And as much as I’d like to say learning about the automotive industry was on the top of my list, I was more concerned with Madonna’s new album, a pair of British Knights sneakers and whether I should get a perm.
But my dad, who still owned my life, made me to read it. And I reluctantly agreed.
Surprisingly, Iacocca’s account of the inner workings of the car industry was even more exciting than an episode of “Saved by the Bell.” And the way he described his method to plan for the week ahead really drew me in. On Sunday evenings, for example, he would jot down goals, before structuring the upcoming week around them. “If you want to make good use of your time,” he wrote. “You’ve got to know what’s most important and then give it all you’ve got.”
Wait, what — you can shape and structure time? And how you approach it affects whether you succeed? That epiphany blew my mind. And little did I know Iacocca would be my first exposure to an ongoing fascination with time management.
Since then, I’ve tried different methods to boost productivity — schedules, to-do lists, personal management tools, I’ve tried them all — but I’m also aware of how efficiency evolves with technology. Now, don’t get me wrong, the pen and paper will always be a staple, but as we lean on PDAs and now smartphones, the way we manage time changes in subtle and not so subtle ways.
Technology and productivity are intimately intertwined, and we’re being taken into faster, more frantic directions. But is it for the best? We often look to the future for answers, but in this case, it helps to glance back from a historical view.
Early Productivity Gurus
Iacocca is one of the most prominent, successful CEOs in business history, but few know that Founding Father Ben Franklin is credited as the first productivity guru in the U.S. In 1791, the inventor, politician and talented polymath posthumously published his autobiography, rife with productivity tips to achieve general “self-improvement.” The list, which he called “13 virtues,” in his autobiography, contained character traits he hoped to cultivate, like frugality, sincerity and justice, among others. Today, we might call them goals, but for each trait, he would set a series of tasks to complete along the way. For temperance, he tried to avoid “eating to dullness” and “drinking to elevation.” In layman’s terms that means to stay on task.
He’d also set strict schedules. From 5 to 8 a.m., he’d “rise, wash and contrive the day’s business” and by the end of the day, “supper, music or diversion or conversation” was followed by “examination of the day” to reflect on the day’s activities. But he ran into a few problems.
For one, life was unpredictable. As a printer, his clients often made unexpected demands. He also realized that his priorities often competed with one another. He’d try to be frugal and mend his own clothes, for example, but that took time from his inventions, and — oh yes — editing that Declaration of Independence.
So to track his progress, he drew up charts in a small book, plotting tasks for the week. Then he’d check off each virtue he achieved at the end of the day. It was a crude method, to say the least, but it worked.
Then, in 1812, English stationer John Letts created the first commercial diary. After succeeding in selling stationery, cards and calendars at the royal arcades of London, his customers clamored for a way to track stock and inventory schedules. Poof! That’s how the Letts diary was born. Initially designed for merchants, by the 1820s, it became a staple in daily work and life. To this day, the company sells more than 20 million diaries and planners each year — all to increase personal productivity.
But captains of industry weren’t the only ones trying to increase efficiency. In 1841, Catharine Beecher — sister of famous abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe and herself a fiery advocate for women’s education — published a book called, “A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School.” Shedding light on the importance of women and their contributions to the workforce, economy and society, she set forth a regimen of self-improvement. With good habits, like physical exercise and proper reading, she wrote that girls could sharpen their minds, work ethic and use of time. In the male-dominated era, her book became an early guide to time management and a best-seller among both sexes.
Franklin, Letts and Beecher lived during the Industrial Revolution, when huge swaths of technology transformed manufacturing, boosting the productivity and prosperity of an entire nation. Advances rapidly changed not just the way people worked and lived, but created a paradigm that equated progress with efficiency and speed. So naturally, people started to measure themselves with that same lens.
If we can make machines faster and more efficient, why can’t we do the same to ourselves?
That fundamental question, derived from machines and applied humans, underlies our drive to maximize time and action with management methods. And that very question still endures today.
Viva La Revolution
We’ve been through several technological revolutions — a Second Industrial Revolution, the Atomic Age, the Space Age, the Digital Revolution, the Information Age — each characterized by a rapid acceleration and shift in technological might. And whether it was nuclear power, electricity or the World Wide Web, productivity benefitted from increasing sophistication. We refined our schedules — and by extension, ourselves.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, for example, created a productivity system based on the idea that a task’s urgency doesn’t actually show its importance. “The more important an item, the less likely it is urgent,” he once observed, according to Inc. Magazine. “And the more urgent an item, the less likely it is important.”
Instead of a diary, he’d sort tasks into one of four categories, dubbed the “Eisenhower Method”: for urgent-important items, he’d personally and immediately handle; for urgent but unimportant items, he’d delegate; for important but not urgent items, he’d add to his schedule, assigning a date and time to complete it; and for unimportant non-urgent items, he’d just dump completely.
That idea of neglecting unimportant tasks — though commonplace today — was a radical concept back then and a game-changer that would fuel the next paradigms of productivity.
Peter Drucker, often quoted by business executives around the world, took Eisenhower’s idea to the next level. In 1966, his management tome, “The Effective Executive,” argued that choosing what not to do was just as important as what to do. That was the principle behind delegation. And if you hear middle-managers talk about it, Drucker is the reason.
But then, in 1989, something unexpected happened. Tim Berners-Lee created a network of computers that would become the World Wide Web. The Internet opened the floodgates of information and the limits of productivity, forcing us to wrestle with a firehouse of distractions that often drain energy and attention. Luckily though, at the same time, a new bible would emerge to manage that deluge. And the preacher’s name was Stephen Covey.
Using brass-tack strategies to get more done in less time, his runaway best-seller, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” was built on the urgency vs. importance ideas of Eisenhower and Drucker. But more importantly, Covey emphasized a need to tie work to a deeper calling and higher purpose — or risk the threat of burnout. Millions followed his thoughtful, purpose-driven approach and added periods of rest and self-renewal, forcing us to reconsider central assumptions of time management.
Day-Timers, Google Calendars and Apps Galore
For the most part, to-do lists and schedules are variations of the first Letts diary, which reached their apotheosis with the release of the Day-Timer in the 1960s. Dorsey Printing, which initially designed the planners for lawyers, soon created similar products for accountants, engineers and eventually everyone.
But with the dawn of the Digital Age, those organizers began to evolve beyond their paper origins. In 1993, Apple, then under the stewardship of John Sculley, unveiled the Newton, simultaneously coining the term “personal device assistant,” or PDA for short. After investing upwards of $100 million, the device flopped, and in 1998, the company exited the sector it helped to spearhead.
By then, of course, rivals like Palm had taken over the market. Launched in 1996, the company promised to organize contacts, schedules and to-do lists into one convenient handheld. By harnessing the power of computing, they turbo-charge your efficiency and get more done.
PDAs connected to computers, so the desk was still the nexus of work life. But as mobile phones gained importance, devices like the Treo, introduced in 2005, untethered the office. Soon productivity tools went all-digital, and in 2006, Google released cloud-based Google Apps — first with Gmail, then Calendar, Talk and Docs, giving you instant access to productivity tools that worked across all Internet-connected devices.
Of course, technology is revolutionizing life in ways we’re still unraveling. Stand in line at the post office or go out to dinner and you’ll be surrounded by people huddled over their phones. Chances are many are working: checking e-mail, taking calls or reading news and documents. And a host of apps cater to those looking to “hack” their lives with the utmost efficiency.
It’s a seductive idea: small changes that can yield big results. With 24 fixed hours in a day, we constantly try to squeeze more productivity out of every minute. Today, you can go anywhere and work on any device. And with the Internet, you can always be productive.
We’re far removed from the Industrial Revolution, but the concept of speed and efficiency is still here, within our reach thanks to our ultra-connected, uber-fast devices. Iacocca would be jealous. The time is right to become an ultimate productivity machine. Or is it?
Mo’ Power, Mo’ Problems
There’s just one problem: the steady flow of tasks, communications and requests are beginning to pick up steam. It’s turning into an avalanche of information. Moore’s law states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every two years — or that computers will get twice as fast at a steady rate — but our brains simply can’t scale as effectively.
We get overloaded and as processors get faster, the torrents of data that pile up are reshaping our assumptions: we expect faster responses and demand instant gratification, creating ever tighter feedback loops.
Digital Age gurus, like David Allen, recognized the problems we’ve wrought, and his book, “Getting Things Done,” promises to help tame the chaos surrounding the avalanche of information. The solution? To move tasks out of the mind and inbox, and into the right to-do lists — to break chores down into concrete, contextual items that you can act upon right away.
The idea is to spend more time working and less time sorting and processing, so as tasks like e-mails, requests and ideas come in, you slot them into lists as complex or simple as your life and profession demands. Earlier gurus like Covey emphasized purpose in choosing to-do items, but Allen went the other way: tame the mess and ease your mind by looking at the big picture.
Processing vs. Productivity
Millions, including celebrities like Drew Carey and Howard Stern, follow Allen’s message with a cult-like fervor. But like all popular methods, GTD has plenty of critics as well. Written in 2002, just as Internet was starting to saturate our lives, the system doesn’t account for the impact of constant Wi-Fi, online tools and social media.
Detractors often say GTD wastes time, forcing you to tweak systems rather than actually do work. But the bigger problem? It doesn’t stem the constant flow of information that surrounds us today. And as we pay the price in distraction, burnout and insomnia, technology seems to run our lives, and not the other way around.
With demands on our time, energy and attention, it’s no wonder Tim Ferriss became a hit. Beyond his premise of working less to do more, his book, “The 4-Hour Workweek,” radically stripped down schedules and to-do lists.
Drucker said to commit to tasks that you can’t delegate, but Ferriss preaches to completely outsource unpleasant or unimportant tasks. In a sense, that resonates with readers because he accepts the reality of our lives: we’re drowning in information and it’s important to beef up skills of discernment. We need to get in touch with what’s really important — how we actually want to live our lives. Productivity isn’t checking e-mail or replying to tweets — it’s writing that book, running that marathon or spending that time with loved ones.
A New Flock
Ferriss’ success heralded a counter-movement to the relentless, always-forward approach to productivity. The Industrial Revolution started the idea of maximum speed and efficiency — embodied by Franklin’s earnest self-improvement — but that concept was tempered with the realization that our brains can’t function like machines. There’s also a difference between being busy and working, and a set of gurus are emerging to help connect productivity to a larger purpose.
Leo Babauta, for example, turned his contrarian “Zen to Done” approach into one of the top blogs of the Internet. As a minimalist-oriented hack on GTD, he advises to strip down what goes on our agendas. “Take as much stuff off your plate as possible, so you can focus on doing what’s important, and do it well,” Babauta wrote on his blog. Under Zen to Done, you limit your daily to-do list to three to five tasks.
But Babauta threw that idea out the window. Instead he now tells readers to simplify their lives and not hack their schedules and lists. “Simplifying means making important choices about what’s important, rather than ignoring that question and just trying to cram everything into your day [and space] in a logical way,” he added.
Meanwhile, Danielle Laporte, Canadian-based author of business bestseller, “The Fire Starter Sessions,” works under the idea that anything we do in life is designed to create feelings — and those “core desired feelings” should serve as the compass to direct how we spend our time and energy. After all, that corner office, that book, that relationship — we set those goals to feel good about ourselves.
So why not design our agendas around how we want to feel?
The concept is unique, and she created an online program, called “The Desire Map,” to help winnow down feelings and shape your life around them. It’s not an approach to productivity in the conventional sense, but it can help you decide what’s important and make choices that lead to a more meaningful life.
In the end, productivity is really about having a richer, more rewarding experience in this world. It’s how we choose to fill the 24-hours we’re given each day, and how we use our energy and attention to find meaning and fulfillment in life. But to do that, we have to look at ourselves and discern what works best for our unique situations.
With that in mind, I dusted off and re-read my copy of Iacocca’s autobiography. Twenty years after my dad first set it on my desk, it’s still fast-paced and juicy. But what strikes me most this time wasn’t his approach to time management and productivity; it was the importance he placed on rest and relaxation. It was the weekends and evenings he gave to family.
“Hard work is essential,” he wrote. “But there’s also a time for rest and relaxation, for going to see your kid in the school play or at a swim meet. And if you don’t do those things while the kids are young, there’s no way to make it up later on.”
This October, Iacocca turns 89. I’ve never met him, but I feel like I know him. That’s the beauty about autobiographies. You can look back on his achievements, in his own words, and see how they’ve changed not just business, but entire industries. And through his lens, you get a deeper sense of him as a family man. I suppose, most of us want to reach the pinnacles of success, but what I love most is that combination of self-knowledge, a sturdy sense of values and, yes, some semblance of a system to get there. ♦
Categories: Beyond Technology