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The End of Time Management – Love Your Work, Episode 226

April 16 2020 – 07:30am

end time management

As the nineteenth century was turning to the twentieth century, Frederick Taylor grabbed a stopwatch. He stood next to a worker, and instructed that worker on exactly how to pick up a chunk of iron.

Over and over, Taylor tweaked the prescribed movements. Grip the chunk of iron in this way, turn in this way, bend in this way.

Once Taylor found the optimal combination of movements, he taught the process to other workers. Their productivity skyrocketed.

“Taylorism,” as it came to be called, brought us leaps and bounds forward in productivity. Today, the remnants of Taylorism are ruining productivity.

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After Taylor’s intervention, the workers who were moving only twelve tons of iron a day were now moving forty-eight tons of iron a day. They quadrupled their productivity.

Only a few decades before Taylorism, most people’s concept of time was more closely linked to the movement of the sun than it was to the stopwatch hand. The availability of daylight, the height of a stalk of corn, or the day of first frost that signaled the coming of winter, ruled the work of farmhands.

Many of Taylor’s workers objected to having their movement so closely watched and timed, down to the second. Actually, more accurately than that — Taylor’s stopwatch timed according to the hundredth-of-a-minute.

But, “scientific management”, as it was called, swept through the industrial world. Companies couldn’t stay in business without adopting it.

The goal of Taylorism was to produce the most work possible in the minimum amount of time. As Taylor watched the movements of the workers, he was trying to reduce waste. He wanted each motion to be as quick and efficient as possible. He wanted each hundredth of a minute to bring the job closer to being done.

But, Taylor discovered there was a limit.

Logically, there’s no point in a worker sitting idle. Logically, if the worker keeps moving iron, he’ll move more iron than the worker who stops for a smoke break.

Intuitively, if you want to get the highest output possible out of the minimum amount of time, take your efficient movements, and fill all of the time with those movements.

But, Taylor discovered, it didn’t work that way.

The point of diminishing returns

There’s a concept in economics called the point of diminishing returns. We can see the point of diminishing returns in action if we imagine Frederick Taylor filling the yard of Bethlehem Steel with workers.

Imagine Frederick Taylor has one worker moving iron in the yard of Bethlehem Steel. Thanks to following Taylor’s prescribed movements, that worker is moving forty-eight tons of iron a day.

Then, Taylor adds another worker. Now, the workers are moving ninety-six tons of iron a day. Taylor can keep adding workers, and the productivity in the yard will keep going up by forty-eight tons for each worker Taylor adds.


Until they start to run out of space. There’s just not as much room in the yard for the workers to pick up the iron, and move it from one place to another. They get in each other’s way, they run into each other, or one worker will have to wait for another worker to finish his job before that first worker can finish his job.

At first, it’s not a huge problem. Taylor has merely reached the point of diminishing returns. The point of diminishing returns is the point at which each additional production unit — in this case, the production unit is workers — each worker doesn’t return as much benefit as the previous production units did. The return is diminishing.

At some point, Taylor adds a worker, and doesn’t get an additional forty-eight tons of production. He gets only forty. Like I say, it’s not a huge deal. They’re still moving more iron than they were before they added that worker. Their margins are high enough on the labor costs that they’re still making more profit.

Now, let’s apply this concept to a single worker. Only now the production unit isn’t the workers themselves. The production unit is time. As Taylor filled the available time with motion, the output of a worker rose.

But at some point, Taylor hit the point of diminishing returns. As he filled the available time with efficient, optimized motion, at some point, the additional time filled didn’t bring the returns that the previous units of time did. Maybe he tried instructing the worker to move three chunks of iron in ten minutes, then had no problem adding a fourth chunk of iron within that ten minutes. He could string together these ten-minute units, one after another. He could fill up a day with those units, and get the output he expected.

But then, at some point, moving an additional chunk of iron in that same unit of time didn’t bring Taylor the returns he expected. In this case, let’s say that number was five chunks of iron within ten minutes. Maybe the worker could keep it up for an hour, but soon the worker would get tired. Eventually, the worker couldn’t move that fifth chunk of iron within a ten-minute unit. The worker got too fatigued. Taylor had reached the point of diminishing returns.

The point of negative returns

Let’s go back to the steelyard, where Taylor is adding workers. At some point after the point of diminishing returns, Taylor isn’t getting forty-eight tons of output per additional worker, nor is he getting forty tons of output per additional worker.

At one point, workers were waiting for one another or getting in each other’s way once in awhile. But now the yard of Bethlehem Steel is nearly gridlocked. The workers are constantly in each other’s way. They’re getting fatigued holding the chunks of iron. Injuries are skyrocketing. Productivity in the steel yard collapses.

Taylor is way beyond the point of diminishing returns. Not only is he not getting the output he expected from adding an additional worker. That would be the point of diminishing returns.

Taylor has now hit the point of negative returns. He’s now getting less output overall per additional worker. For each worker Taylor adds, he’ll get less output than he would have if that worker had just stayed home.

Creative work is not industrial work

Scientific management is simple enough when you’re moving chunks of iron. Simply experiment with the amount of iron moved in a given amount of time. Eventually, you’ll find the right formula.

But creative work is different in a number of ways. There are three ways:

One: Some ideas are more valuable than others.

Two: It doesn’t take time to have an idea.

Three: In creativity, actions don’t link to results.

Some ideas are more valuable than others

First, some ideas are more valuable than others. Imagine you write two 50,000-word novels, in parallel. Let’s say you work equally as hard on the first novel as you do on the second novel. You spend just as much time typing the first novel as the second.

The first novel sells zero copies. The second one sells a million copies.

They’re both free of misspellings. They’re both quality writing. Why does one sell a million copies, while the other sells zero?

If the performance of the traditional publishing industry tells us anything, it’s that nobody has any idea why one novel falls flat and the other takes off.

But, you can know this: Not all ideas have equal market value. In fact, the difference in market value, for the same amount of work, can be infinite.

So, words typed, while a worthy unit of output to track if you’re trying to convince yourself you’re a writer, is not the only thing to optimize for. The quality of ideas matters.

Ideas don’t take time

The second thing that makes creative work different from moving chunks of iron is that moving chunks of iron takes time.

Yes, all of the things leading up to having an idea take time — we’ll talk about that next. But the act of having the idea takes no time at all.

Neuroscientists can look at people’s brains and give them a creative problem. The people can go from being nowhere near solving the problem, to solving the problem, in an instant.

Again, sitting yourself down and forcing yourself to come up with ideas is a worthy exercise. It will increase the output of ideas you have, it will build your skill in your craft, and it will increase the chances that one of those ideas is a hit.

But you may be just as likely to have that idea while not working at all. Remember Helmholtz’s speech from episode 218, about the Four Stages of creativity? He said his ideas didn’t tend to come to him “at the writing table.”

The moment of having an idea takes no time at all. Technically, you could have nearly unlimited ideas in a given “production unit” of time.

Actions aren’t linked to immediate results in creative work

Now, the third thing that makes creative work different from moving chunks of iron is that, in creative work, actions don’t link to results.

By that I mean that if you grip a chunk of iron and pick it up off the ground, you have done work. You have moved that chunk of iron a little closer to its destination.

Creative work doesn’t work that way.

Say you have an idea for that novel that sells a million copies. Where did it come from?

Think about Paul McCartney’s song, “Yesterday.” McCartney famously heard the melody for “Yesterday” in a dream. At first, he was convinced it was a melody he had heard before. He thought it was an old Jazz tune his father had played when he was a kid.

“Yesterday” has stood the test of time as an original song. But musicologists have found numerous similarities to other songs.

One such song is called “Answer Me, My Love.”

“Yesterday”’s lyrics are as such:

Yesterday, all my troubles seemed so far away,
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay,

“Answer Me, My Love”’s lyrics are as such:

She was mine yesterday,
I believed that love was here to stay.

McCartney didn’t steal from “Answer Me, My Love.” But it’s almost certain that he heard the song before. In 1953, when McCartney was eleven years old, a version of “Answer Me, My Love,” by David Whitfield was the number one song on the UK charts.

Then, it got knocked from the number-one spot — by another version of “Answer Me, My Love,” this time, by Frankie Lane. It was the first time in UK pop chart history that a song was replaced by another version of itself.

Was McCartney inspired by this song? It’s impossible to know for sure, but it’s certainly plausible.

So this idea you have for a novel that sells a million copies. Maybe you’re in the right state of mind to have this idea because you took a vacation last month. Maybe you’re more relaxed because you got a massage two days ago. Maybe you’re thinking more clearly because you went on a hike earlier that day. Yet it was the funny red hat worn by the woman who walked by the cafe that sparked the idea. Meanwhile, it could have been inspired by some book, buried deep in your unconscious, that your mom read to you when you were three.

We’re done with time management

Taylorism was the birth of “time management.” It was when we started to look at time as a “production unit.”

When we look at time as a production unit, we assume that each additional unit of time we spend doing something will get us the same gain in output as the previous unit of time.

But it doesn’t work that way. Even in work as simple as moving chunks of iron, Taylor learned that human energy doesn’t neatly pack together to fill all available time. We have our limits.

Today, we’re still treating time as a production unit. Our calendars are filled up with boxes, sometimes overlapping. Jason Fried calls it “calendar Tetris.” We live according to that calendar.

“There’s only twenty-four hours in a day,” you’ll hear people say. The conclusion we’re supposed to draw from that is that time is precious, so you better fill it all up.

Filling up that time was a big leap forward, but now we need to draw a different conclusion. If there’s only twenty-four hours in a day, that tells you there’s a limit. That tells you that eventually, “time management” is squeezing blood from a stone. When it comes to creative work, that stone is a very fragile stone, indeed.

Image: Dynamism of the Human Body, Umberto Boccioni

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Theme music: Dorena “At Sea”, from the album About Everything And More. By Arrangement with Deep Elm Records. Listen on Spotify »

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