Running to go backwards: The problem with productivity apps
Our obsession with managing our time might be doing more harm than good
Kieran Conboy at NUI Galway. Photograph: Aengus McMahon
Faster, faster, faster. There is a rarely questioned assumption that our world is aggressively faster, more evanescent, than ever before. Healthcare staff face well-documented time pressures to reduce waiting lists; high-tech and manufacturing industries have seen the rise of “high-speed” flow and agile methods; and entrepreneurs are facing pressures of the “fail fast” lean start-up movement.
These approaches are laced with speed-oriented metrics, such as velocity, acceleration rate and cost of delay. While the labels in our respective roles may vary, most of us are increasingly judged by the speed of our work.
High-speed work is often rewarded, either financially or through social currency and esteem. There is a concerning rise in “performative workaholism”, typified by 100-hour work weeks and the hashtag #ThankGodIt’sMonday!
Away from work, books topping the bestseller lists such as Pressed for Time, The High Speed Company and It’s Not the Big that Eat the Small … It’s the Fast that Eat the Slow, tell us we need to be faster if we want to succeed.
To survive in such aggressive environments, many people are downloading productivity apps so much so that they are the fastest-growing category in app stores. And there are many different types. Simple to-do lists and prioritisation tools, include Pomodoro and Getting Things Done. Analytics apps help track, evaluate and optimise your work patterns. Concepts such as Inbox Zero provide a process for managing incoming work.
Many niche apps range from the light-hearted that mimic the sound of cafes and ambient work-friendly environments, to the sadistic – apps that will start deleting what you have written if you pause or procrastinate for five seconds.
Such apps are not just aimed at improving the productivity of individuals, but also that of teams and organisations.
They don’t work
The uncomfortable truth is that these time-management techniques do not work. Lero research shows time-management technologies often damage productivity and increase the stresses and anxieties they were designed to allay.
A Lero research team at NUI Galway studied the use of 22 different technologies by 520 workers in start-ups, SMEs and large multinationals. While the evidence suggests time-management techniques affect behaviour – that is, staff behave the way they “should” – they often have no impact on actual outcomes (timely project completion, sales, errors) and in many cases lower job performance and increase anxiety.
One of the key problems this research identified was the unsustainability of a faster pace. When you entrain to a fast rhythm dictated by a technology, there is often an initial high from having a sense of greater achievement, and a structure to hold on to. But like fad diets or exercise regimes, they are difficult to sustain, and you feel exhausted and spent.
People often adopt a self-defeating strategy where a day’s productivity performance is judged on outperforming yesterday’s effort. When this inevitably does not happen, most abandon the approach and are left anxious and guilty – the exact opposite of what time management is designed to achieve.
The research also shows that time-management technologies typically impose a one-size-fits-all pulse or rhythm that fails to recognise our individual temporal personalities.
Some of us are productive in the morning while others are night owls: some are motivated by deadlines whereas a ticking clock raises anxiety levels in others. Our research showed that a mismatch between the rhythm of app and that of the user tended to have a detrimental impact on productivity.
Think of your favourite song: moving one beat a little out of sync does not make listening to it 5 per cent less enjoyable but makes it utterly unbearable.
In addition to our own idiosyncrasies, we are all embedded in intricate webs of social relationships and constraints, all with their own rhythms. The routines of our family, friends and work colleagues, or the rhythms of bus, train and traffic flows are simple examples.
We might like the idea of compartmentalising or disentangling them, but in reality we can’t. It is clear that time-management techniques can’t either.
Big leap forward
Cal Newport’s bestselling book Deep Work suggests that people can only solve complex and cognitively demanding problems by concentrating intensely on one for a significant period of time. However, our research shows that time-management technologies typically prioritise activities that can be completed in short, bite-sized pieces, ignoring tasks that are bigger or more difficult to deconstruct.
As a result, we unconsciously select and complete many small tasks on auto-pilot without thinking about the bigger picture. This limits the chance of truly innovative and transformative ideas and Promethean “leaps”.
As the old adage goes, electricity did not come about through the continuous improvement of candles.
In summary, time management is not solved by a technology. We need to think about the personal and social aspects of how we manage our time, and above all, we need to question whether such speed is a good thing, even when it can be attained.
Prof Kieran Conboy is a professor in business information systems in the School of Business & Economics, NUI Galway, and is a co-principal investigator in Lero, the Irish Centre for Software Research.