My friends know that I’m a big nerd for productivity and time-management systems. So yeah, of course I was going to make a show eventually about the technology side of personal productivity.
How does that relate to the main theme here at Soonish, which is the future and how we think about it? Well, time management and task management are all about how we plan and use our personal, short-term futures.
That’s my excuse for this episode, anyway. In reality, I just wanted to have on-tape conversations with a few friends who are thoughtful on the subject of productivity tools, including Ellen Petry Leanse, Stever Robbins and Robin Seaman. And I wanted to check in with companies like Evernote and Droptask where designers and software engineers are still working hard to build better tools for managing our busy modern lives.
If you think about it, the future is the only malleable part of our personal timelines. After all, what happened in the past is over and can’t be changed. What’s happening now in the present is mostly determined by what just happened a minute ago. We can choose how we perceive or experience the present, but as individuals there isn’t much we can do to control it. The only kind of time we can truly hack is future time.
That’s why people like me and Robin Seaman and probably you have such a strong impulse to plan the future, to chop it up into little squares on a calendar, and fill up each square with tasks and events. But on top of our calendars, we’ve got a mish-mash of other ways to visualize and manage our personal futures, including to-do lists and email.
To use a physics metaphor, there’s no grand unified theory of time management.
Physicists figured out years ago that three of the four fundamental forces — electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force — are all aspects of the same force. But our explanation for the fourth force, gravity, doesn’t fit with the other three.
And it’s the same in personal productivity. Our basic trio of productivity tools — calendars, to-do lists and email — hasn’t changed much in 20 years, which is odd considering that they’re made of nothing more than software code. Plenty of software designers and entrepreneurs have had ideas about how to bring these three tools together, or about how to expand one in a way that subsumes the other two. But so far no one’s come up with a single solution that’s so great that it’s displaced the old triumverate.
I covered various attempts at this in a 2014 Xconomy feature called The Future of Work, Plus or Minus EMail. In a way, this episode represents a continuation of the quest I was pursuing in that article.
For this week’s show, I asked my sources what’s wrong with our current tools for managing our personal futures and why no one’s solved the grand unification problem. I talked with folks who are pursuing new techniques or new technologies for keeping our lives organized. I looked at the sometimes kludge-y solutions people have hacked together for themselves while they wait for a perfect new system to arrive. And I asked whether, in some way, we’re all missing the real point. Maybe in the rush to be “productive,” we’ve forgotten how to prioritize the things that truly make us happy.
*[This podcast was originally featured by Soonish.]
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