Many of us feel like time management is getting tougher. But why? Is it because we now work more than ever, or maybe because life in general has sped up so much?
It’s unlikely. Overall, people work less today than they did 100 years ago. And there is no clear evidence that the pace of life has accelerated.
So if it’s not more hours or faster pace, what’s changed? The answer is that the institutions that used to regulate our time have all but vanished.
Think about it. In the 1950s, what did the average American or Canadian do on Sunday morning? They didn’t spend much time wondering whether they should watch Netflix in bed or go to brunch. The only option for many was to go to church.
And of course, Netflix didn’t exist. People had to plan when they were going to watch their favourite shows, meaning television networks provided us with the impetus to manage our time. You couldn’t just watch whatever you wanted whenever you felt like it.
The same goes for dinner: you had to be at the dinner table on time, or else there would be consequences. Today, family dinners have all but disappeared.
While you may sometimes worry about when’s the best time to do your laundry, a few decades ago the answer was clear: Monday was laundry day. That was the norm back then. And you could only do your shopping during business hours whereas today, thanks to Amazon and other online retailers, you can buy anything you want around the clock, year-round.
Free to manage our own time
You get the picture — people’s time used to be regulated by society, the government, religion, family and many other institutions.
And not just institutions, but biology as well: condoms and other contraceptives have existed for a long time, but they haven’t been widely used until recently. If you’re not sure how contraceptives affect our time management, I highly recommend you watch the MTV show 16 and Pregnant. It shows how parenthood can increase our sense of time pressure and reduce autonomy, especially for mothers; unplanned parenthood can drastically compound that feeling.
Today, we have more freedom than ever to manage our time in ways that best suit us. For that, you can thank technological advances and an unprecedented loosening of social norms. What a time to be alive!
But freedom also means responsibility: we’re now responsible for managing our own time instead of following rules set by institutions like family or religion that tell us how to spend our days. This is one reason why most people now have calendars, to-do lists and other personal time management tools. In the 1920s, personal time management tools were much rarer.
Time management was easier decades ago: people’s time was, in a very real sense, managed for them by outside forces. They didn’t have to constantly consider what they should do next, or how to prioritize their tasks. Today, these decisions rest squarely on our shoulders.
Still a great time to be alive
But don’t be discouraged. With all this freedom, you get the chance to do things your way and live your life exactly as you see fit, at least to a greater extent than your grandparents, who didn’t have the time freedom we take for granted.
So while time management may be harder, your opportunities are greater than ever. (Assuming, of course, that you’re lucky enough to live in a country with public policies that guarantee everyone quality time.)
After all, this is the ultimate goal of time management. It’s not efficiency, productivity or getting things done. It’s the ability to make our schedule a reflection of our values, beliefs and philosophy. Time management allows us to structure our lives the way we want to.
The implication is clear: while time management may be more challenging than before, it’s also more rewarding. What we lose in ease and routine, we make up for with the ability to create our lives on our own terms. And that’s a trade-off that’s worth making.
By Brad Aeon
Assistant professor and time management researcher, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Brad Aeon receives funding from federal and provincial research grants (SSHRC and FRQSC).