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The Tyranny of Time Management

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A fairly ridiculous study has found that “sporting the latest tech toy can make you seem more like a leader.” For a paper entitled “Looking Innovative: Exploring the Role of Impression Management in High-Tech Product Adoption and Use” (#innovative), which was published in the Journal of Product Innovation Management (#innovation), two marketing professors asked study participants what they thought about actors on screen who were taking notes on regular paper calendars, and then others who were taking notes on “electronic calendars.”

According to a press release by Vanderbilt University, the researchers found that test subjects “overwhelmingly viewed the actors using the electronic calendars as being more authoritative.” Additionally, one of the authors said that “actually being able to operate the devices really isn’t all that important, provided you know enough to look reasonably competent. ‘Just possession is 90 percent of the game,’ he said. ‘And there are maybe 10 percent of situations where you have to display the ability to use it.’”

We here at the Baffler don’t know what “electronic calendars” the actors were shown using, or which actors were employed for this task (we’re hoping Michael Douglas, or maybe Steve Guttenberg), or why this press release feels like it’s about thirty years old.

But we do know that it reminds us of a very sharp piece from our archives, published in Issue 8, back in 1996, about the tyranny of the Franklin Planner. Remember those? They were an expensive, complicated status symbol that required their users to learn a whole new lexicon of corporate-aspirational gibberish—many present-day analogues come to mind. Jennifer Brostrom called the Franklin system “something quintessentially American—simultaneously wholesome and insane.”

Here’s an excerpt of her salvo, “The Time Management Gospel,” online now for the first time:

The tape-recorded voice of Franklin CEO and Chairman Hyrum Smith surges and wanes like a televised sermon throughout his seminar on “How to Use the Franklin Planner.” The rhetoric of power and control dominate the seminar: “[With the Franklin method] you’ll not only scare yourself, you’ll intimidate everyone on your block!” He chides an employee who earns $600,000 with the comment, “Well, if you ever got organized, you’d really be dangerous.” While clichéd appeals to aggression flood the business world, Smith’s power rhetoric is remarkable in its pettiness. “[What] gives you power,” he drones, is “knowing where the information is [in your Planner].” Forget charisma and daring; the Franklin system extols the robotic—mindless efficiency, synchronization, and precision.

In one example of what he apparently considers to be an impressive managerial show of force, Smith suggests that a supervisor could “stun” an employee by successfully following through on a promise to call him in ten days at exactly 8:43. “Will you be thinking about that call for the next ten days? No way. It’ll resurface in the Planner,” he says. Smith takes a slightly sadistic pleasure in the ability to annoy people with perfection. “Actually, you’ll start to drive people crazy,” he says cheerfully. “You won’t forget anything.”

Not one to risk being accused of neurosis or compulsion, Smith reluctantly admits that sometimes “we need to vegetate for an hour or two,” although he blithely assumes that “we’re constantly fighting the emotion of guilt all the time we’re doing it.” Fortunately, the Franklin Planner also provides absolution for time management transgressions. Witness the case of the executive who arrives home after a long day at work only to discover a family crisis that demands his undivided attention. What a dilemma! He had several tasks already planned for that evening! What to do? Not to worry, says Smith. “The first thing you do is go to the planner and move the tasks [to another day] . . . . You’re still in control.” By forwarding tasks to another day in the Planner, he claims, “the guilt goes away.”

The tools may have changed since 1996, but the business world’s absurd ideal of micromanaging one’s every waking moment and motivation certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. Read Brostrom’s whole hilarious, and in many ways timeless, piece online here.