More than ever, many of us are plagued by our own wasted time. In this fast-paced, technological society, to stay in place is to fall behind. Many of us feel we cannot move fast enough or do enough to keep up, to reach that eternally elusive state of true productivity— what we might consider a modern enlightenment. The shimmering web-scapes of Netflix and Facebook, of YouTube and Tik Tok reel us in again and again into their vast oases only to dump us out hours, sometimes days later, with a mind full of guilt and little to show.
Some believe our attention spans are shrinking as a consequence, but this is a myth. Given the drive we can easily commit ourselves to an activity for many hours—so why is that so many people report having difficulty sitting down to read a book or even just an article? Why does any period of work, whether that be studying for an upcoming exam, replying to emails, researching for a report or writing up an essay, nevertheless require a truckload of snack breaks, bathroom breaks, scrolling-through-your-phone-and-looking-at-nothing breaks? And why do we find those periods of proper productivity growing shorter and shorter?
The answer lies in the wealth of information and opportunity we have access to now. The problem isn't that our attention spans are decaying; it's that what can theoretically devote our attention to, is growing — exponentially.
It's a well-documented psychological phenomenon known as "overchoice" or "choice overload", demonstrated by Prof. Sheena Iyengar and Prof. Mark Lepper in a 2000 study involving jam. In the experiment, Iyengar offered jam to people on the street. On one occasion she had a selection of twenty-four jams, while on another she offered only six. What she found was that people were more likely to buy a jar when presented with six jams, rather than twenty-four.
This explains why you might spend an hour scrolling through Netflix for something to watch, or flip through YouTube videos, never to settle, or hum and haw when shopping, sometimes to walk (or scroll) away without buying anything at all.
The consequences of overchoice are three-fold: we procrastinate more; we make worse choices; and we are less satisfied with the choices we make, even if they were objectively better options. In the end, no matter what we do, we feel like we're missing out, or wasting time, or sometimes both. Society has told us that we must be productive, always, and we've made striving for it as if it were a religion, one where our desk is our Bodhi Tree, working on a task is our meditation, and people like Bill Gates are Buddha.
But the definition of "productivity" is hard to pin down. After all, what is the most beneficial use of your time? Staying healthy? Expanding the mind? Earning more money? Cultivating close relationships? With all this ambiguity, it's easy to understand why we might have trouble identifying it in our own lives.
At the end of the day, there is no true form of productivity. Pick one task and another will go untouched. So how do we decide which to tackle first?
The Eisenhower Matrix
One helpful decision-making tool is the Eisenhower Matrix, created by American President Dwight Eisenhower, and brought to popular attention by Stephen Covey in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Using the scalars of urgency and importance, any action item can be sorted into one of four categories: things to do, things to schedule, things to delegate, and things to eliminate.
Of course, what you deem urgent and important will depend on your values and long-term goals. If you value health and fitness, and in the long term you want to be a personal trainer, your "do today" items might consist of going to the gym, perfecting your protein smoothie recipe, and studying for your fitness course. A gamer who dreams of designing the perfect virtual reality game might spend their days learning programming and playing similar games. There is no task which is universally both urgent and important.
It comes down to you: what do you want out of your time, and out of your life? We must all cultivate our own personal definitions of productivity. These definitions will not match. All definitions will inevitably be criticised by those with differing or opposing values, but this does not make them wrong (unless you plan to become a serial killer, in which case, your definition or productivity will most definitely require a rethink). Choose tasks that align with your definition, and keep choosing them every day, every week, every month.
In order to effectively prioritise these items, we can turn to the range of scheduling software and productivity apps at our disposal. Platforms like Monday.com and Trello.com are excellent for organising your action items, planning projects and tracking their status, as well as collaborating with a team.
Notion.so provides the ultimate "all-in-one workspace", where you can not only organise and keep tabs on all your tasks, but also create sleek, user-friendly databases for anything your heart might desire: class notes, essays and assignments, to-do lists, films, books, cute puppy videos (or cute cat videos, if you're that way inclined—I'm not judging), and all in a customisable and visually pleasing digital environment. It's available for web and smartphone, and as an added bonus, it automatically syncs across the two.
Notion, Monday and Trello are only three examples of a wealth of productivity software. For your time management to be effective, you'll need to find tools that enable you to organise your life, without spending your entire life actually just organising—a trap many of us have fallen into. Everyone is different, so it's a good idea to test out a few programs until you find the right fit.
If you find that even organised, you cannot bring yourself to complete the tasks on your to-do list, a good trick is to make them the easier option. For instance, if you struggle to get out bed in the morning, you could set your alarm across the room or leave the blinds open so that you're woken by the natural light. If you can't get your assignment done because you're constantly on your phone, you could put your phone somewhere inconvenient: on a shelf you can't reach, or in the boot of your car.
This isn't to say you won't succumb to procrastination every now and then, and it certainly isn't to say that's a bad thing. The glowing landscapes of social media and online streaming are designed to ensnare you, and won't hesitate to remind you of their existence. Sometimes it is even healthy to seek them out. But armed with the right software, a prioritised set of tasks, and a clear definition of personal productivity, you'll be better equipped to create a good balance between leisure and work.