Freya Wasteneys // Managing Editor
Cynthia Tran Vo // Illustrator
As I sit down to write this article in the small hours of the morning, I hear emails ping in my inbox —responses to my hasty, unedited plea via Facebook post: “LOOKING FOR: people with experience using productivity apps for an article about time management!!!”
The irony doesn’t escape me. Not even a little. In fact, the maniacal cackle-cry is bubbling somewhere in the cauldron of my stomach. My eyes skim the 20+ tabs open on my computer screen while my Pomodoro timer ticks down the minutes. A deadline is a deadline after all.
Like many students and professionals these days, my work is not limited to your typical 9-5. My life—at times—subscribes to the sales pitch promised by time management and productivity tools like Trello and Pomodoro. Other times, time management and productivity feel like an oxymoron—the more I finish, the more I take on.
“People have always sought to maximize their 24 hours,” writes Leah Messinger in an article in The Guardian exploring the effectiveness of time management apps. “Now, where analog to-do-lists once sufficed, the toolbox for increasing efficiency has greatly expanded.”
This toolbox has given us the capacity to produce more than ever. In that way, the workload and time management has shifted to the individual—and the more productive you are, the more employable you are. Melissa Gregg, a primary engineer at Intel, explores these issues in her book Counterproductive, questioning our faith in productivity as the “ultimate measure of success.”
Opening email after email from students and professionals, I see my own conflicted stance set in black type against the glare of my computer screen.
“I’m certainly conflicted about this issue,” writes Stephen McLeod, an MFA candidate in Studio Art at Concordia University and web developer for Reddin Global. “On the one hand, my life as a remote freelance programmer wouldn’t be possible without all the collaboration and task scheduling tools. But I think the obsession with productivity is unhealthy and can really lead to burnout.”
Right. Burnout. As common as the common cold these days. “Every few weeks I have to remind myself that life isn’t a to-do list,” he continues.
McLeod, who works remotely as web developer, software consultant, and artist finds that he heavily relies on “a constantly mutating cloud of apps” to synchronize his schedule, set goals, and make a solid attempt at work-life balance. Like most remote workers however, this can pose a challenge.
While these apps give McLeod a lot of freedom in terms of where he lives and the hours he keeps, constant access can make it challenging to relax. “I always feel like I’m ‘on the clock’ and it can be quite difficult to relax when my office is always at my fingertips.”
But it turns out there’s another app for that: “One thing that has helped keep some separation between the two is that I use different task management and scheduling tools for work and for my personal life,” says McLeod. For instance, he uses apps such as Things and Whatsapp for his personal life, and tools like Jira and Slack for work. “In the same way that it’s important to have a designated area in my apartment that is only for work, the switch in user interface helps me switch gears,” he says. “It’s still a struggle though!”
Amid the myriad of time management app options, there are, of course, positives and negatives in each. In fact, you could waste a lot of time looking for the perfect one. “An effective business app also needs to separate personal from professional tasks and let an employee choose to report only work-related data to avoid potential violations of privacy or other legal grey areas,” Messinger writes. “A product that works well for some employees and managers may also be less effective for others, depending on the variety of work styles and culture within an organization.”
In the past couple years, Rosemary Langford, a student at SFU and a contractor, has tried a fair few of these tools. In her working life, she uses apps like Toggl to help set limits and normalize working from home. Rather than creating a feeling of isolation however, as Gregg hypothesizes in Counterproductive, Langford finds that using certain apps can in fact make her feel less isolated in her experience, and more validated in her choice to work (although you could argue that is another issue). She explains: “I can have the sense of—okay, I’m working right now.”
For school, Langford uses something different however. She finds time tracking apps, like TomatoTimer (which uses the Pomodoro technique) effective, though she tends to delete the apps once exams are over. “I have found these helpful especially for certain types of school work where I have to memorize things or where I’m not as interested in the subject,” she says. Of course, there is only so much tracking and productivity one person can handle, and Langford dislikes the sounds and visuals of apps like TomatoTimer—“it makes me feel like I’m at a basketball game,” she says. “If I don’t sink the shot as the buzzer goes off, it’s like I’ve let my fans down.”
Many of us tend to feel guilty when we aren’t constantly producing, and it can be hard to remember that even if we don’t manage to check something off a list, it doesn’t mean we weren’t productive. “Productivity and focus don’t always look high intensity, hunched over a piece of paper, writing madly,” Langford points out.
Reading this last insight, I arch my back in a stretch of defiance. Breaks are good. Five cups of coffee? Maybe not, but I boil some water anyways.
My own flirtations with productivity and tracking are fraught. In recent years I’ve noticed a trend—it seems every time I make a commitment to following a religious schedule, I end up sick or injured, despite the illusion of productivity at the beginning. I realize that while there may be a societal push to produce, our relationship with these apps is often heavily dependant on our existing relationship with work. These are not problems created by apps, but perhaps exacerbated by them, especially without proper boundaries, and with an inability to say no.
As much as we complain about work, it can also inform a sense of identity. Some people thrive off of the pressure. While many of us complain about the tasks on our to-do lists, sacrificing something seems out of the question. We have an obsession with being busy, even when our bodies and minds ache with the consequences (just the way my own body will ache when I, ahem, hopefully, finish my first 50 mile trail running race tomorrow. I tell myself it’s just therapeutic to run for that long).
“It’s important to waste time, to be bored and to get lost,” insights McLeod, and he’s right. While checking off the never ending to-do list is necessary, sometimes such perpetual business does not always lend itself well to creative pursuits or innovation. “Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets,” writes essayist Tim Kreider in The New York Times. “The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
As I finish this article, my automated playlist gives me the final push I need to finally check this off my list. Alanis Morisettte croons in the background: “Isn’t it ironic?”