Something in the future defeats our imaginative ability. “The present fucks itself over the future self,” says Tim Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University who studies procrastination. He says that we see our future as a stranger, someone in whose lap we can throw tons of work. On some weird level, we don’t realize we’re going to do it.
One of Pychyl’s students recently tried a clever experimental trick to make people procrastinate less. The student guided undergraduate students through a guided meditation exercise in which they imagined themselves at the end of the semester – getting to know that future self. “Look,” says Pychyl, “these people have developed more empathy for their future selves, and that has been associated with reduced procrastination.” They realized that time is not infinite. Their future is no longer a stranger, but someone to be protected. It seems that in order to get off our butts, we have to grapple with the ultimate nature of our time on Earth.
This is the black metallic nature of task management: Every time you write a task for yourself, you decide how to spend a few crucial moments of the most non-renewable resource you possess: your life. Each list of obligations ultimately refers to death. (“Do you love life?”, Wrote Ben Franklin. “Then don’t waste time because these are the things that life is made of.”)
I began to suspect that this was indeed a deep, arterial source of some emotion around the to-do list. The people who make the apps for appointments agreed with me. “What should this class of software do?” rhetorically asks Patel, the creator of Workflow. You should answer the question ‘What should I do now to achieve all my life goals?’ The most scarce resources that many of us have is time. “
Ryder Carroll, the creator of the paper method based on the Bullet Journal, puts it in even sharper existential terms. “Every task is an experience waiting to be born,” he tells me. “When you look at the to-do list that way, it looks like this will become your future.” (Or if you want a European literary-philosophical position, here Umberto Eco: “We love lists because we don’t want to die.”)
No wonder we are so paralyzed! The stakes in PowerPoint really aren’t that high.
Given that life consists of time, an entire sector of the philosophical master’s degree in task management argues that mere censuses will always be essentially terrifying. Just as Pychyl has shown, we overload ourselves more than we can achieve and create Lists of Shame because we are terribly caught up in how much time we actually have. The only solution, according to this line of thinking, is to use an organizational system that is itself composed of time: a calendar.
Instead of putting tasks on a list, you do a “time blocker,” putting each task in your calendar as part of the job. That way you can immediately see when you bite off more than you can chew. Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University and guru of what he calls “deep work,” is arguably the longest-serving advocate of blocking time. “I think it’s pretty undeniable that a time block, well done, will throw the list method out of the water,” Newport tells me. He says that is why you are twice as productive as those suckers who rely on lists. Blocking time forces us to wrestle directly with the angel of death. It’s natural to fuck less then.
Several researchers studying the tasks told me that they generally agree that blocking avoids application and to-do list problems. The to-do app, Reclaim, actually has an AI that estimates how long each task will take and finds a place in your calendar. (The secret is to show you that there is not much room there.) “We will not only tell you when tasks are late, but we will tell you that tasks are goes be late, ”says Patrick Lightbody, co-founder of Reclaim.