There are experts for every aspect of our lives, ready to dispense their special (or not so special) advice. No matter whether you're vaguely dissatisfied or deeply unhappy with a situation, there is a ready-made list of "shoulds," backed up by quotes, charts, and convincing arguments. Not all of this know-how necessarily leads to better living. (I might mention the nameless experts who convinced my family to replace butter with low-calorie margarine for the better part of a decade. Did they ever TRY the stuff?). Experts caution and admonish: "Focus on fewer things!" "Set up a morning routine!" "Exercise for an hour every day!" "Meditate!" In many cases, their well-intended ideas, ranging from practical to far-fetched, create more guilt than motivation. Do we really need a lifetime of "shoulds"? Here are some thoughts about being your own expert:
When is change "good"?
An idea that worked for one person isn't automatically a great fit for everybody else. A constructive, healthy change expressly does not mean adopting the habits of a different person or trying to be someone else. Practical rules for organizing the workday are a great idea, but they have to match your circumstances to be useful. Here is an example from the world of email and inbox management: Depending on the various authors, we "should"...
So, which is it? Perhaps it is safer to check your email every 30 seconds, sort of what you've been doing all along? What about running a small business, or working with people in different time zones? Ultimately, e-mail rules, or any other productivity rules for that matter, must match your own work reality to be useful.
Changes that are motivated by guilt or self-punishment don't last. Although radical transformation has a certain romantic appeal ("I'll run for an hour every morning!"), small, doable modifications have a much greater chance of long-term success. In addition, the most productive changes are in line with existing routines and circumstances.
What does your gut say?
An expert suggestion ("Schedule only 3 things every day") may sound convincing, but how does it feel? Don't dismiss your own "visceral" or "intuitive" reaction to someone else's ideas about things you "should" or "shouldn't" do. For example, will that new gym membership create even more guilt when you stop working out regularly? Before consulting expert advice, give credit to your own intuitions.
What's the end game?
The abundance of productivity and time management advice is of course rooted in the distractions of modern living. Few people feel they have enough time to live their intended life. However, the hype and noise about "best practices" and "optimal efficiency" overlooks an important point: the most valuable moments in life have no metrics. We only need to notice them when they happen.