Geetanjali Mukherjee

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Are We Wasting Time On Pointless Busywork?

I have been reading Laura Vanderkam's latest book I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time, and it is making me think about how I use time, and how efficient I am. I know Vanderkam's position on certain things like not spending too much time on wrestling your inbox down to zero (or some suitably low number), or doing laundry or cleaning obsessively. Basically don’t do anything that doesn’t really add value to your career or your life in some real way, don’t do things just because you read somewhere that it is something to strive for, decide for yourself whether it really is worth the time.

In some cases, whether or not we should do something, may seem obvious. But as I read the book, and since it is the beginning of another year, I am examining my life and work schedules anyway, I can see many uses of time as either sub-optimal or something to question. For instance, last year I set up systems for dealing with my housework and was frankly quite proud of doing that. I used to be one of the messiest housekeepers possible, happy to just ignore dust and dirt and mess, and just walk around it. I finally decided to change that (for the sake of the other people around me) and decided to organize my home and cleaning systems, to make it more efficient. I thought it was saving me time.

But reading Vanderkam's description of similar stories from working women who were actually spending more time on housework as a result of too-good home management systems, I started to recognize myself in those stories. At some point, the goal became not to have a reasonable clean home and then get on with things, but to impress some invisible person or committee with how much housework I was doing / how well I was doing. I felt guilty everything I saw a full clothes hamper, or looked at the kitchen stove and realized it needed cleaning. Here's the thing with housework – there is always more to be done. And in a futile attempt to get it done before I got down to my other work (I work from home, and this is a possibility), I invariably let the housework take more time than it should, than I allotted for it, eating into my writing and work time. Even my leisure time. I started to feel accomplishments from getting the laundry and ironing done, and then complain to myself that I didn’t have enough time to pull off the marketing work I needed to. I didn’t put the two together however, till recently.

Although there are other instances when I don’t know what is pointless busywork and what is useful and needed administrative work. The other day I actually spent a chunk of time getting my inbox of email down to almost a 100 emails. This is actually a huge accomplishment, because I routinely have 1000's of emails in my inbox, but somehow manage to keep on top of everything, although just barely. And I keep feeling stressed about the things lurking in my inbox that I have forgotten about, and have many times failed to respond promptly to less critical matters, just because they got lost somewhere in the pile. Over the course of a few months, I have been ruthlessly whittling down my inbox (working in fits and starts), and thus the jubilation when it was finally down to about 150 messages. And then I asked myself – was it worth it? Should I be wasting my time doing this? I have read strategies such as deleting everything and starting over from people, while others maintain you should forget about managing it, just use gmail's advanced search features. I couldn’t delete the emails, as many of them are personal correspondence that I would like to hold on to, and generally I like to keep far more than I should probably. And while the search is great, having that big morass of emails was stressful. But I am not sure whether reducing it has reduced my stress. So I am back to the same question – is the time invested in sorting my notes in my Evernote folders, dealing with my email, putting my mess of papers in my filing cabinet in order – worth it? I could use this time to write another book. Or to do something else, like learn a language. Vanderkam would say it is a waste of time.

On the other hand, I read somewhere (Jack Canfield I think), that completing things helps to remove them from our minds, and frees the attention for more important things. This is the David Allen approach – clear your mind of clutter, have neat systems set up for everything, and you will be much more productive. I see the merit of this idea, and it has helped me, when I follow it, to feel more in control. But it does take time, and provides a great tool to procrastinate on difficult things like going after new business, or spending time on marketing and promotions, or making art – instead you get the illusion of progress and hard work, without having to do the things you are truly avoiding.

I don’t have a solution – all I know is that it feels nice to know that I can get my inbox down to a manageable amount, that I can have a clean kitchen on occasion or organize my paperwork, as long as I don’t do any of them obsessively, or to the exclusion of more important and nurturing activities.
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