Greetings fellow travelers.
For all my working life I've been a proponent of productivity and efficiency. I tried and tested countless methods for improving my working habits. Consequently, I became a huge believer in the power of productivity, which can be unlocked with sometimes small changes.
Outside the work environment, modern life has itself been sprinkled with a string of time-saving devices. Let's think of the modern period as the decades following World War II where individuals benefitted from both rapidly advancing technology and broadly accessible consumer goods. Companies still regularly introduce new time-savers, although today they are more likely to come in the form of an app on our phones.
Some of the time-savers that had the greatest impact on prior generations' lives go unnoticed by modern citizens. For centuries most people spent most of their time in growing and preserving food to eat. When we developed large-scale farms with machine-supported food production, countless farm workers freed from the soil took up other pursuits. This coincided, ironically enough, with the broader industrial revolution. Many people who left farms ended up working even longer hours in wretched factories, but that's another story.
It took me a couple decades at work to uncover the great risk in prioritizing getting more things done, i.e. being more productive and efficient: your productivity says nothing about your effectiveness. Are you getting the right things done? Are you focusing on the most valuable priorities? If you are merely busy, you'll never make meaningful progress. Real progress requires quiet time for strategic thought to ensure you invest your efforts wisely.
Our relentless busyness makes us easy marks for every huckster's new time-saving device or app. While most of them do save us some time, the question we should be asking is "Are they doing us any good?" Let me give you some examples where we are making our lives worse by speeding them up:
- Riding in an elevator over taking the stairs. Unless you live or work in a skyscraper, your daily dose of stairs is a gift to your health and wellbeing that no elevator can match. Especially since we're too busy to go to the gym. Nature's gym is all around us. All we have to do is take the opportunities on offer.
- Escalators and moving walkways over, well, walking. Same reason. Unless you are infirm, walking under your own power is one of life's pleasures. Since when have you become so frail that you can't manage a few hundred meters unaided?
- Driving to get places over walking, since I might as well stick with the theme for a moment. Did you know that a person's mobility (or lack thereof) is strongly correlated to their overall risk of death? Plus, keeping mobile is a great contributor to higher quality of life as we age, because mobile individuals are more likely to be able to care for themselves and maintain independence. Sure, you might save 30 minutes driving to the store, but what is it costing you in terms of the length and quality of your life?
- On-line banking and shopping over going into a physical branch or store. I see most modern time-savers in this area. Truly we are giants of productivity thanks to our smart phones. I certainly would try to stop you from prying my phone from my hands. But for every transaction we accomplish from the comfort of our screens, we have missed a chance to interact with a fellow human being. Little wonder we're forgetting how to interact civilly with each other.
- Emails, chats, and messaging over writing and receiving letters. Faster, immediate, more of them. Yep, and superficial, fleeting, and overwhelming as a result. Do you remember what it was like to sit down and write a letter to a close friend you missed terribly? Then what it was like to receive a letter from that friend?
- Being available 24-7-365 over being unavailable evenings, weekends, and holidays. Some of you may recall a time when, after you left work, you were unavailable. As in, people didn't know how to reach you outside work, and it never would have occurred to them to try. Cell phones came along, with all their wizardry. And they're great, don't get me wrong. But at the cost of so much of our private time. For many years, I looked forward to the haven of long-haul plane travel. Eight or ten uninterruptable hours of time to read, think, relax. I tell you, whoever brought WiFi to airplanes did us no favors.
All this makes me wonder why we're in such a hurry? What do we think is going to happen if we don't finish all the work? In the years I became a productivity and efficiency guru, I learned another valuable lesson, this one a more well-kept secret: you add to your life in proportion to the things you let go.
Work on fewer things and you can do a better job on each of them. For every distraction you cut, your focus sharpens on what remains. With each time-saver whose value you question, you see that purposeful investment of your time is what defines your life and gives it meaning.
The next time you are contemplating saving some time, ask yourself what are you saving it for?