Too Many Electronic Organizers Create Disorganization

Almost 10 years ago, I worked at a company that bought planners for its employees. The company had recently been struggling, so we didn’t have too many perks. But to me, a free planner was worth any number of company lunches or all-you-can-drink river cruises. I am addicted to being organized. I get a jolt of accomplishment from writing down an appointment, a high from crossing out a completed task. As with most addictions, this one stems from weakness: I cannot remember anything.

Little did I realize I would become an electronic organizer junkie, not merely reassured by lists to jog my memory but dependent on the latest planning gadget just to be able to function. Eventually, I traded up my planner for a PDA so that it would be even easier to keep track of every waking moment. But writing all that down has the curious psychological effect of committing you to it all. The result is a vicious cycle of too many obligations that require you to keep up with evermore sophisticated gadgets.

From Paper to PDA

The planner sucked me in quickly. I loved having such a handy package for my calendar, address book, lists of upcoming deadlines and ideas for birthday gifts. But then I got a backache from carrying the dang thing around. It got heavier and heavier, crammed with directions to friends’ houses, notes about what I’d plant in the garden, e-mails I’d printed out with meeting agendas. And as those pages piled up, it started taking longer to remember where everything was. After a while, I began using my planner less.

Then two years ago, my life got complicated. First, I had a child. Then, I got this job, and with it, a daily commute and a more structured workday. Initially, I went back to the planner, but it was too hefty to schlepp around every day. Plus I was spending too much time copying entries from the monthly calendar in the planner to the daily calendar in the planner. So I left it at home and started using the desktop organizer on my computer at work. That was fine for a few months, until a scheduling snafu left me without a baby-sitter the morning I had an early meeting. (I had repeatedly forgotten to note on my office calendar that my husband also had an appointment at the crack of dawn.) A colleague bailed me out, but I realized I was fighting a new battle of organization with weapons from the last war. I needed both to travel light and keep more details of my life with me.

So I bought a PDA.

Power Tool

The PDA is one of the most useful purchases I ever made. The calendar features alone make it worth the couple hundred bucks I spent on it. I have one place to write down every appointment?my own and my family’s. And I can copy the recurring appointments with a few keystrokes. Instead of keeping track of dozens of pieces of paper with meeting notes or questions that I want to ask the guy who’s painting my house, I can record them on my PDA, linked to the meeting in question. And I can see my to-do list on the screen every time I look at the current date. No more copying and recopying lists as priorities change and tasks are completed.

I’m also a fan of the address book. I have space to record friends’ birthdays, and I can categorize my sources according to what I talk to them about. I use the e-mail function often, plowing through my inbox while sitting in my favorite chair.

Coming up with new ways to use my PDA has become something of a hobby. I signed up for a service that lets me download news from the Web, so I no longer have to carry around newspapers with me everywhere. I even have my eye on a recipe and meal planning module that generates grocery lists.

Yet there is part of me that is wistful for the days when I didn’t need expensive electronics to manage my life. Last spring, my PDA broke, and it cost me almost $100 to replace it. I shelled out the money with a twinge of resentment. When I used the paper planner, I’m sure I spent almost as much every year on formatted pages, but not all at once, so I never noticed the cost.

And paper doesn’t have incompatibility problems. When I got the replacement, it took several days working with the IS department to get all the data reloaded. It turns out the new device wouldn’t work with my software to sync it with my desktop. I briefly longed for the days when I could contain my life in one of those thin, red school-year calendars with the faux-leather covers. I only needed a few lines to write down homework assignments, and I knew most of my friends’ phone numbers by heart. But that was then, and now I’m a reasonably responsible grown-up, with a family, a career, a 71-year-old house with leaky faucets and three phone numbers for each of my six closest relatives.

We are reminded almost daily about the ways technology stresses us out. Raise your hand if you’ve been cut off on the highway by some big shot doing a deal on his cell phone. In a study published in May by the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit group in New York City that researches ways to balance work and family life, 41 percent of workers surveyed said they often use computers, cell phones or other high-tech devices for work during nonwork hours, and 38 percent felt very overworked because of it. I can relate. Before I had a PDA, I managed to handle my e-mail in the office. Then again, I had less of it. As soon as I had such a convenient way to take this part of my job home with me, I signed up for more e-mail newsletters.

Only Ourselves to Blame

For all the talk about the havoc technology is wreaking on our well-being, you’d expect more griping. The study didn’t probe why more people weren’t stressed, but I think one explanation is that our frenetic pace is at least part of our own choosing. The Puritan belief that hard work as proof of piety and material success as evidence that one was destined for heaven permeates our culture. My mother taught me "good enough" never is. We work through lunch and extra hours because we want to get ahead. We’re equally ambitious with our free time, cramming as many activities as we can into evenings and weekends. All those gadgets make it easier for us to do what we want, where we want.

In one of my alternative life scenarios, I’d take my car and run over the gadgets on my way to live in the mountains and spend my days hiking in the woods and writing novels on the back porch. But if I really had that life, I’d probably go nuts in less than a month. Given the choice of doing more or cutting back, I usually gravitate toward frenzy, even at home. The days when I spent Saturday afternoons sitting in a sunny window with a book and a cup of tea have given way to days when I forget to sit down at all because the to-do list beckons. It’s getting hard to tell whether my PDA is a tool to help me manage my life or a taskmaster, prodding me to live up to self-inflicted notions of accomplishment.

But I’m not complaining. I could stop if I wanted to. Still, when the next great time-management gadget comes along, I’ll be needing that too.

Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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