Counterproductive Thinking

Scott McLemee reviews Melissa Gregg's Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy.

May 3, 2019

"Make your system the guardian of the necessary, the grave of the needless," the enlightened master intones. "Train your system to remember all that it should not forget -- to forget all that it should not remember."

Quickly as you can, snatch the pebble from my hand.

But no, the wisdom quoted here only sounds like something from the early 1970s show Kung Fu. It is, in fact, taken from How to Systematize the Day's Work: 87 Plans and Shortcuts Used and Proved at the Desks of 43 Executives, ninth edition, issued in 1911 by the System Company. As far as I can tell, the company specialized in business textbooks reflecting then-new ideas about scientific management. None of them had the lasting impact of Frederick Winslow Taylor's The Principles of Scientific Management, also published in 1911, which sought to boost manufacturing productivity by determining the "one best way" for workers to perform each step of the process. But the System Company played its own pioneering role by flipping Taylor's script: it proposed that those running a company should expect the same efficiency from themselves that they did from their employees.

How to Systematize the Day's Work provided a diagram of how the executive's desk should be organized, for example. It gives instructions on how to retrieve a file from a desk drawer. (The exact number of movements involved, in case you are wondering, is three.) But these are just details, for the reader is actually being inducted into a higher level of professional competence and security. Once established, "your system" will subdue and transcend the strains of work life: "File therein the little cares that wear and tear -- the important details that annoy."

Melissa Gregg rescues the manual from oblivion in her book Counterproductive: Time Management in the Knowledge Economy (Duke University Press), finding in it a prototype of the white-collar self-help/self-motivation handbook familiar to anyone who has browsed the selection of paperbacks on sale in an airport terminal. Gregg is principal engineer and research director for the Intel corporation's Client Computing Group and has read more than her share of management-consultant gurus such as David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (2001). But she also coedited The Affect Theory Reader (another Duke title) and places the genre in a rich social and historical context.

Time-management books respond to the professional-managerial class's endless struggle to take control over the scarcest of its resources. The advice itself consists of "a fairly unchanging cluster of tried-and-true methods," Gregg notes, including "ranked and refined to-do lists; daily affirmations; time logs; single handling [i.e., the opposite of multitasking]; delegation; embracing seclusion … Analyzing a number of manuals in succession quickly reveals the false premise of any professed novelty on behalf of authors." A platitude, recited, will always be repeated.

But the cultural history reconstructed by Gregg consists of more than a continuous recycling of truisms. The literature of domestic science (a.k.a. home economics) took up the subject of time management even before Taylor's study of workplace efficiency. It addressed an audience of middle- and upper-class women, encouraging them to think of maintaining the household as a profession. Work in the domestic sphere (what Marxist-feminist scholars now identify as the labor of social reproduction) "is not commonly considered in the history of management theory," Gregg writes. But the need for time management was an inescapable problem facing the housewife of the late 19th and early 20th centuries even when she was in a position to hire help -- perhaps especially then, since her responsibilities included organizing and disciplining the work of others.

One widely read Progressive-era author encouraged women to conduct their own domestic time-and-motion studies: "No one factor makes a piece of work more interesting than that of timing it, and if possible, lessening this time in future work." The same manual recommends establishing a schedule of housekeeping activity and periodically assessing it to increase its effectiveness. Cultivating efficiency in their work demanded a spirit of self-competitiveness as well as "a process of training oneself to identify typical causes for interruptions," Gregg says, "and a system to take care of such issues without encroaching on a prioritized schedule."

The flow of household engineering (as another expression for this work had it) demanded much more flexibility than any system of time management modeled on the assembly line. The work was endless and not always predictable in what it required or when it had to be done. And in all these respects, today's "service and knowledge professions involving endless iteration and circulation of intangible goods" resemble the demands of the domestic work of a century ago more than they do one of Henry Ford's factories. The market for time management advice is insatiable, and the advice itself is repetitive, because no system is sure to master the challenges of finding, in the author's words, "a rational response to the paralyzing experience of digitally mediated information overload." Besides the self-help books, you also have the option of experimenting with time-management apps, which is as good a way to procrastinate as any.


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