On where our desire to manage time is coming from:
Given that the average lifespan consists of only about 4,000 weeks, a certain amount of anxiety about using them well is presumably inevitable: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans, yet almost no time at all to put them into practice.
On Keynesian economics:
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes famously predicted that within a century, economic growth would mean that we would be working no more than 15 hours per week – whereupon humanity would face its greatest challenge: that of figuring out how to use all those empty hours. Economists still argue about exactly why things turned out so differently, but the simplest answer is “capitalism”. Keynes seems to have assumed that we would naturally throttle down on work once our essential needs, plus a few extra desires, were satisfied. Instead, we just keep finding new things to need. Depending on your rung of the economic ladder, it’s either impossible, or at least usually feels impossible, to cut down on work in exchange for more time.
Time management gurus rarely stop to ask whether the task of merely staying afloat in the modern economy – holding down a job, paying the mortgage, being a good-enough parent – really ought to require rendering ourselves inhumanly efficient in the first place.
On housework and social norms:
There is a historical parallel for all this: it’s exactly what happened when the spread of “labour-saving” devices transformed the lives of housewives and domestic servants across Europe and north America from the end of the 19th century. Technology now meant that washing clothes no longer entailed a day bent over a mangle; a vacuum-cleaner could render a carpet spotless in minutes. Yet as the historian Ruth Cowan demonstrates in her 1983 book More Work for Mother, the result, for much of the 20th century, was not an increase in leisure time among those charged with doing the housework. Instead, as the efficiency of housework increased, so did the standards of cleanliness and domestic order that society came to expect. Now that the living-room carpet could be kept perfectly clean, it had to be; now that clothes never needed to be grubby, grubbiness was all the more taboo.
On using our leisure time:
One of the sneakier pitfalls of an efficiency-based attitude to time is that we start to feel pressured to use our leisure time “productively”, too – an attitude which implies that enjoying leisure for its own sake, which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure, is somehow not quite enough. And so we find ourselves, for example, travelling to unfamiliar places not for the sheer experience of travel, but in order to add to our mental storehouse of experiences, or to our Instagram feeds. We go walking or running to improve our health, not for the pleasure of movement; we approach the tasks of parenthood with a fixation on the successful future adults we hope to create.