Illustration: FLORIAN NALENNE
This article originally appeared on VICE France.
When I arrive for my meeting with Sara Whitestone, a 28-year-old neuroscientist based in Bordeaux, I’m sweaty and five minutes late. Whitestone is already putting my delay to good use by calling her mother in the U.S. Immediately, I realise that she and I aren’t cut from the same cloth. In life, you have two types of people: Those who organise their time, and those who run around chasing it like headless chickens.
Whitestone works for an international group based in Switzerland: It’s a time-consuming career with weekly travel obligations. One of her favourite project management tools is Jira, basically “a to-do list, but on steroids,” as she describes it. “I live and breathe my to-do list at work,” she says. “I’m juggling so many projects and have so many things I need to remember.” Her favourite apps are synchronised to her personal calendar, too – which she shares with her boyfriend.
“And now, the crazy part,” Whitestone continues. She says her management tools have also become fundamental in keeping track of other parts of her life – from dates to couple trips, from exercise classes to endometriosis symptoms, and even random thoughts. When she shows me her apps, I feel as if I’ve been granted access to her entire private life. “I don’t have to remember if my phone tells me,” she explains when I ask why these apps are so useful to her.
Though they’re almost everywhere in our personal lives, organisational tools like Trello, Notion or Todoist originated in the world of corporate management. A lot of them are based on the Gantt chart, designed between 1910 and 1915 by mechanical engineer and management consultant Henry Gantt, to increase productivity and optimise industrial workflow. Another popular model is the Kanban method, first introduced as part of Toyota’s production system in the 1950s.
Paris-based Edouard Polese, 34, heads a startup focused on teaching people how to drive. He, too, is hooked on project management tools – so much so he’s even created his own app. “I use the same tools for business strategy management and for picking out Christmas presents,” he says.
Sure, it’s easy to be horrified by this, but Polese thinks it helps him a lot with his mental health. “The goal is to lighten the mental load, to calm down,” he says. “We’re kind of forced to mix our professional and personal lives nowadays – our brains don’t automatically forget what’s going on at work just because it’s 9PM and we’re home.”
“When we ask people what they like and what the main benefit is they get from Todoist, it’s that it reduces stress and anxiety,” says Amir Salihefendic, CEO of Todoist. “Most people don’t have assistants. Most people just keep everything inside their heads and I think that creates a lot more stress than if they had an assistant app to update and use.” Salihefendic, who says he has a “very bad memory,” created his app back in 2007, when he was a 22-year-old computer science student. Today, Todoist has 20million users.
For Whitestone, management tools are equally as crucial for her mental and physical health, since she has an autoimmune disorder and needs to block out time to rest. “Many people who have limited energy levels or chronic pain end up over doing it,” she says. As an undergrad, Whitestone would often ignore signs of exhaustion and end up burnt out or sick. “I’m the kind of person who just works until I drop,” she says. “I learned years ago I need to schedule recovery time.”
For many users, these tools are crucial to reclaim control of the soul-crushing demands of big city life, too. “In Paris, I got really overwhelmed by the rhythm of everyday life,” says Mathis Samba, 29, who works in finance at a consulting firm. He was suffering – and so was his relationship with his girlfriend. It got to a point where they barely saw each other on weeknights. “It was really awful, just too much,” Samba says.
Despite being taunted by friends and loved ones, Samba eventually decided to block time off for dates on Family Wall, an app specialised in organising domestic life. “We have to make sure to take time for ourselves, just as we do for our friends and colleagues,” Samba says. “Since we live together, we’re always going to see each other, but there’s seeing each other and there’s spending quality time together.”
As you’ve probably noticed, the type of people who tend to use these apps have something in common: They’re often in high-level jobs, live in cities and have busy social lives. According to Marc Bessin, research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and sociologist at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS), that’s not a coincidence.
“If you’re interested in this kind of app, you’re someone with the means to organise your time,” he says. That’s not necessarily the case for all very busy people, like for instance, a single mother working a low-paid full-time job with multiple kids to take care of. “Being able to master your schedule is something that sets you apart in today’s world,” Bassin continues. “These apps are designed for a population that increasingly want to take control of their lives.”
In reality, these apps are not for everybody – they mostly appeal to a very specific type of person, someone who typically works in a performance-based job. Omer Perchik, CEO of Any.do, estimated that his company and its main competitors combined have less than 5 percent market penetration – meaning the vast majority of potential customers aren’t using these tools. “The category has a relatively high churn rate, not because the products are not good, but because people are, at large, procrastinating,” he says.
Salihefendic agrees. “Most people are actually really bad at planning and executing stuff,” he says. “If you look at our data, there’s this snowball effect where people keep adding tasks for today, don’t complete them and move them to tomorrow, then they have a thousand tasks for a single day.”
Indeed, not everyone has the type of mentality that is conducive to organisation, but our society’s obsession with productivity and optimisation can make us feel inferior to people who naturally have these skills. That’s the case for freelance graphic designer Patrick Pabeun, a friend of mine who’s “more of a dreamer type”, in his words.
“I have a twin sister who functions very differently from me – she has a job managing a big team and a personal life, too, somehow. She does yoga classes and hosts at least two dinners a week.” Patrick hopes that the apps will help him achieve a similar level of ease when busy. “In an ideal world, it’d all just coexist in harmony,” he says.
This begs the question – is there still a place for dreamers in this world? Sociologist Marc Bessin believes that a mass adoption of these apps shouldn’t really be seen as a sign of progress. “Society pushes us to keep track of our activities to get instant results,” he says. For this reason, we tend to abandon a more long-term vision of our lives and lose track of what balance actually looks like on the whole.
“You don’t always have to focus on organising your daily life,” Bessin concludes. “You need meaningful activities that make you present in the world, too.”
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