Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don’t have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days
Then there’s the matter of self-consciousness: virtually every time management expert’s first piece of advice is to keep a detailed log of your time use, but doing so just heightens your awareness of the minutes ticking by, then lost for ever. As for focusing on your long-term goals: the more you do that, the more of your daily life you spend feeling vaguely despondent that you have not yet achieved them. Should you manage to achieve one, the satisfaction is strikingly brief – then it’s time to set a new long-term goal. The supposed cure just makes the problem worse.
As the doctrine of efficiency grew entrenched – as the ethos of the market spread to more and more aspects of society, and life became more individualistic – we internalised it. In Taylor’s day, efficiency had been primarily a way to persuade (or bully) other people to do more work in the same amount of time; now it is a regimen that we impose on ourselves.
The cult of productivity masks a more fundamental problem: that we are becoming more unwilling and more unable to ask hard questions about why we’re here, and what we’re going to do with the brief time allotted to us.