24 August 2021
Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals – Oliver Burkeman
Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead
“This space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live,” lamented Seneca, the Roman philosopher, in a letter known today under the title On the Shortness of Life. (...) That alarming phenomenon, familiar to anyone older than about thirty, whereby time seems to speed up as you age — steadily accelerating until, to judge from the reports of people in their seventies and eighties, months begin to flash by in what feels like minutes. It’s hard to imagine a crueler arrangement: not only are our four thousand weeks constantly running out, but the fewer of them we have left, the faster we seem to lose them.
The American anthropologist Edward T. Hall once pointed out, time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new tasks as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming “more productive” just seems to cause the belt to speed up. Or else, eventually, to break down.
Maynard Keynes made a famous prediction: Within a century, thanks to the growth of wealth and the advance of technology, no one would have to work more than about fifteen hours a week. (...) But Keynes was wrong. It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to.
We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, even if we can’t say exactly what they are — yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead.
The environmentalist and spiritual writer Charles Eisenstein recalls first sensing this basic “wrongness” in our use of time as a child, growing up amid material comfort in 1970s America: “Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.”
Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance”.
Part I: Choosing to Choose
1. The Limit-Embracing Life
You can be a small-scale farmer, relying on the seasons for your schedule, but you can’t be much other than a small-scale farmer (or a baby). As soon as you want to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, you need a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time. This is widely held to be how the first mechanical clocks came to be invented, by medieval monks, who had to begin their morning prayers while it was still dark, and needed some way of ensuring that the whole monastery woke up at the required point.
The Industrial Revolution is usually attributed to the invention of the steam engine; but as Mumford shows in his 1934 magnum opus, Technics and Civilization, it also probably couldn’t have happened without the clock.
From thinking about time in the abstract, it’s natural to start treating it as a resource, something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible, like coal or iron or any other raw material. (...) Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. (...) It stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed.
The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough.
It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.
“We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
A limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do — and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously.
It also means resisting the seductive temptation to “keep your options open” — which is really just another way of trying to feel in control — in favor of deliberately making big, daunting, irreversible commitments, which you can’t know in advance will turn out for the best, but which reliably prove more fulfilling in the end. And it means standing firm in the face of FOMO, the “fear of missing out.”
Richard Bach: “You teach best what you most need to learn.”
Once you deeply grasp that they are impossible, you’ll be newly empowered to resist them, and to focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you’re in.
2. The Efficiency Trap
It's irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations. We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at. Maybe you can’t keep your current job while also seeing enough of your children; maybe making sufficient time in the week for your creative calling means you’ll never have an especially tidy home, or get quite as much exercise as you should, and so on. Instead, in an attempt to avoid these unpleasant truths, we deploy the strategy that dominates most conventional advice on how to deal with busyness: we tell ourselves we’ll just have to find a way to do more — to try to address our busyness, you could say, by making ourselves busier still.
For a start, what “matters” is subjective.
If you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it.
(...) and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate? Get around to launching the side business you’ve dreamed of for years, and if it succeeds, it won’t be long before you’re no longer satisfied with keeping it small.
It’s the definition of “what needs doing” that expands to fill the time available. This whole painful irony is especially striking in the case of email. (...) every time you reply to an email, there’s a good chance of provoking a reply to that email, which itself may require another reply, and so on and so on. (...) By contrast, negligent emailers frequently find that forgetting to reply ends up saving them time.
Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones.
Secular modernity changes all that. When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress — in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future — they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future. And so they try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience.
The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.
The technologies we use to try to “get on top of everything” always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the “everything” of which we’re trying to get on top.
If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else. Commonly, these will be things that other people want you to do, to make their lives easier, and which you didn’t think to try to resist. The more efficient you get, the more you become “a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations,” in the words of the management expert Jim Benson.
Despite my thinking of myself as the kind of person who got things done, it grew painfully clear that the things I got done most diligently were the unimportant ones, while the important ones got postponed — either forever or until an imminent deadline forced me to complete them, to a mediocre standard and in a stressful rush.
(...) willingness to resist such urges — to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.
Focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further.
Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for — and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.
Convenience, in other words, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.
Purchasing a [birthday] card in a shop, writing on it by hand, and then walking to a mailbox to mail it, because contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort — which is to say, the inconvenience.
Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.
3. Facing Finitude
Rather than taking ownership of our lives, we seek out distractions, or lose ourselves in busyness and the daily grind, so as to try to forget our real predicament. Or we try to avoid the intimidating responsibility of having to decide what to do with our finite time by telling ourselves that we don’t get to choose at all.
it isn’t that a diagnosis of terminal illness, or a bereavement, or any other encounter with death is somehow good, or desirable, or “worth it.” But such experiences, however wholly unwelcome, often appear to leave those who undergo them in a new and more honest relationship with time. The question is whether we might attain at least a little of that same outlook in the absence of the experience of agonizing loss.
You can adopt the outlook we’re exploring here even just a little — if you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get — you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.
This kind of perspective shift, I’ve found, has an especially striking effect on the experience of everyday annoyances — on my response to traffic jams and airport security lines, babies who won’t sleep past 5:00 a.m. (...) what an outsize negative effect such minor frustrations have had on my happiness over the years. Fairly often, they still do; but the effect was worst at the height of my productivity geekhood, because when you’re trying to Master Your Time, few things are more infuriating than a task or delay that’s foisted upon you against your will. (...) But when you turn your attention instead to the fact that you’re in a position to have an irritating experience in the first place, matters are liable to look very different indeed. All at once, it can seem amazing to be there at all, having any experience, in a way that’s overwhelmingly more important than the fact that the experience happens to be an annoying one.
The exhilaration that sometimes arises when you grasp this truth about finitude has been called the “joy of missing out,” by way of a deliberate contrast with the idea of the “fear of missing out.”
4. Becoming a Better Procrastinator
Most productivity experts act merely as enablers of our time troubles, by offering ways to keep on believing it might be possible to get everything done. Perhaps you’re familiar with the extraordinarily irritating parable of the rocks in the jar, which was first inflicted upon the world in Stephen Covey’s 1994 book, First Things First, and which has been repeated ad nauseam in productivity circles ever since.
He has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar. The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks — and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar. The critical question isn’t how to differentiate between activities that matter and those that don’t, but what to do when far too many things feel at least somewhat important.
Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.
So if a certain activity really matters to you — a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause — the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention.
This is the same insight embodied in two venerable pieces of time management advice: to work on your most important project for the first hour of each day, and to protect your time by scheduling “meetings” with yourself, marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude.
The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts — because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. (...) The alternative approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. (...) no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot. (It’s also permissible to free up a slot by abandoning a project altogether if it isn’t working out. (...) Another happy consequence was that I found myself effortlessly breaking down my projects into manageable chunks, a strategy I’d long agreed with in theory but never properly implemented.
The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. (...) make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. (...) the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs — because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most. You needn’t embrace the specific practice of listing out your goals (I don’t, personally) to appreciate the underlying point, which is that in a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones — the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship — on which a finite life can come to grief.
Most of us need to get better at learning to say no. (...) “it’s much harder than that. You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”
We invariably prefer indecision over committing ourselves to a single path, Bergson wrote, because “the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible.” (...) “The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,” Bergson wrote, “and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.” Once again, the seemingly dispiriting message here is actually a liberating one. Since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses. Loss is a given.
There's no possibility of a romantic relationship being truly fulfilling unless you’re willing, at least for a while, to settle for that specific relationship, with all its imperfections — which means spurning the seductive lure of an infinite number of superior imaginary alternatives. Of course, we rarely approach relationships with such wisdom. (...) in a pattern that every experienced psychotherapist has encountered a hundred times, we do commit — but then, after three or four years, start thinking about breaking things off, convinced that our partner’s psychological issues are making things impossible, or that we’re not as compatible as we’d believed. Either of these might conceivably be true in certain cases; people are sometimes guilty of spectacularly bad choices in love, and in other domains as well. But more often, the real problem is just that the other person is one other person. In other words, the cause of your difficulties isn’t that your partner is especially flawed, or that the two of you are especially incompatible, but that you’re finally noticing all the ways in which your partner is (inevitably) finite, and thus deeply disappointing by comparison with the world of your fantasy, where the limiting rules of reality don’t apply.
When people finally do choose, in a relatively irreversible way, they’re usually much happier as a result. We’ll do almost anything to avoid burning our bridges, to keep alive the fantasy of a future unconstrained by limitation, yet having burned them, we’re generally pleased that we did so.
When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.
5. The Watermelon Problem
What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.
Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.
So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life.
The job itself could be a distraction — that is, an investment of a portion of your attention, and therefore of your life, in something less meaningful than other options that might have been available to you. This was why Seneca, in On the Shortness of Life, came down so hard on his fellow Romans for pursuing political careers they didn’t really care about, holding elaborate banquets they didn’t especially enjoy, or just “baking their bodies in the sun”.
Achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible. In any case, it would be highly undesirable to be able to do exactly as you wished with your attention. (...) The same phenomenon is what allows your attention to be seized by a beautiful sunset, or your eye to be caught by a stranger’s across a room. But it’s the obvious survival advantages of this kind of distractibility that explain why we evolved that way.
Neuroscientists call this “bottom-up” or involuntary attention, and we’d struggle to stay alive without it. Yet the capacity to exert some influence over the other part of your attention — the “top-down” or voluntary kind — can make the whole difference between a well-lived life and a hellish one.
A friendship to which you never actually give a moment’s thought is a friendship in name only.
All this is delivered by means of “persuasive design” — an umbrella term for an armory of psychological techniques borrowed directly from the designers of casino slot machines, for the express purpose of encouraging compulsive behavior. One example among hundreds is the ubiquitous drag-down-to-refresh gesture, which keeps people scrolling by exploiting a phenomenon known as “variable rewards”: when you can’t predict whether or not refreshing the screen will bring new posts to read, the uncertainty makes you more likely to keep trying, again and again and again, just as you would on a slot machine.
It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things — and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. (...) It’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining “important matters” in the first place. (...) Yet Twitter’s dominion over my attention extended a great deal further than that. Long after I’d closed the app, I’d be panting on the treadmill at the gym, or chopping carrots for dinner, only to find myself mentally prosecuting a devastating argument against some idiotic holder of Wrong Opinions. (...) Or my newborn son would do something adorable, and I’d catch myself speculating about how I might describe it in a tweet, as if what mattered wasn’t the experience.
If you’re convinced that none of this is a problem for you — that social media hasn’t turned you into an angrier, less empathetic, more anxious, or more numbed-out version of yourself — that might be because it has. Your finite time has been appropriated, without your realizing anything’s amiss.
6. The Intimate Interrupter
When it’s so unpleasant to stay focused on present experience, common sense would seem to suggest that mentally absenting yourself from the situation would moderate the pain.
[He] began to understand that this was precisely the wrong strategy. In fact, the more he concentrated on the sensations of intense cold, giving his attention over to them as completely as he could, the less agonizing he found them — whereas once his “attention wandered, the suffering became unbearable.”
The more intensely he could hold his attention on the experience of whatever he was doing, the clearer it became to him that the real problem had been not the activity itself but his internal resistance to experiencing it. When he stopped trying to block out those sensations and attended to them instead, the discomfort would evaporate.
In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief.
Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter — the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives — that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want to be doing with our lives?
When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much.
Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or — the preferred option of the productivity geek — redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.
What we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.
Even if you place your phone out of reach, therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself seeking some other way to avoid paying attention. In the case of conversation, this generally takes the form of mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, as soon as the other person has finished making sounds with their mouth.
Stop expecting things to be otherwise — to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.
The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.
Part II: Beyond Control
7. We Never Really Have Time
The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter is famous, among other reasons, for coining “Hofstadter’s law,” which states that any task you’re planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect, “even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.” In other words, even if you know that a given project is likely to overrun, and you adjust your schedule accordingly, it’ll just overrun your new estimated finishing time, too.
It’s as if our efforts to be good planners don’t merely fail but cause things to take longer still.
The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future — but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future. After all, you can never be absolutely certain that something won’t make you late for the airport, no matter how many spare hours you build in.
The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine.
But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitations when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win. You can never be truly certain about the future.
You only ever get to feel certain about the future once it’s already turned into the past. Likewise, and despite everything I’ve been saying, nobody ever really gets four thousand weeks in which to live (...) you never even get a single week, in the sense of being able to guarantee that it will arrive, or that you’ll be in a position to use it precisely as you wish. Instead, you just find yourself in each moment as it comes.
Our efforts to influence the future aren’t the problem. The problem — the source of all the anxiety — is the need that we feel, from our vantage point here in the present moment, to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.
So a surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied — no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport.
“I don’t mind what happens.” (...) a life spent “not minding what happens” is one lived without the inner demand to know that the future will conform to your desires for it — and thus without having to be constantly on edge as you wait to discover whether or not things will unfold as expected.
All a plan is — all it could ever possibly be — is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.
8. You Are Here
The more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calmer, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives.
It turns out to be perilously easy to overinvest in this instrumental relationship to time — to focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are — with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the “real” value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached, and never will. In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum in London who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the ancient Egyptian artifact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later, by recording images and videos of it on their phones. So intently were they focused on using their time for a future benefit — for the ability to revisit or share the experience later on — that they were barely experiencing the exhibition itself at all. (And who ever watches most of those videos anyway?)
This future-focused attitude often takes the form of what I once heard described as the “‘when-I-finally’ mind,” as in: “When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.”
Even if she does get her workload under control, or meet her soulmate, she’ll just find some other reason to postpone her fulfillment until later on. Certainly, context matters; there are plenty of situations in which it’s understandable that people focus intently on the possibility of a better future. Nobody faults the low-paid cleaner of public restrooms for looking forward to the end of the day (...) But there’s something odder about the ambitious and well-paid architect, employed in the profession she always longed to join, who nonetheless finds herself treating every moment of her experience as worthwhile only in terms of bringing her closer to the completion of a project, so that she can move on to the next one, or move up the ranks, or move toward retirement. To live like this is arguably insane.
Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. (...) Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it.
To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.
The old parable about a vacationing New York businessman who gets talking to a Mexican fisherman, who tells him that he works only a few hours per day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled at the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him an unsolicited piece of advice: if the fisherman worked harder, he explains, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, then retire early. “And what would I do then?” the fisherman asks. “Ah, well, then,” the businessman replies, “you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.”
We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives.
In fact, the moment of truth is always now — that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order.
By trying too hard to make the most of his time, he misses his life. (...) The attempt to be here now feels not so much relaxing as rather strenuous — and it turns out that trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail.
9. Rediscovering Rest
Enjoying leisure for its own sake — which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure — comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough. It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off as an investment in your future. Sometimes this pressure takes the form of the explicit argument that you ought to think of your leisure hours as an opportunity to become a better worker (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” reads the headline on one hugely popular New York Times piece). But a more surreptitious form of the same attitude has also infected your friend who always seems to be training for a 10K, yet who’s apparently incapable of just going for a run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing to do only insofar as it might lead toward a future accomplishment.
This same essential idea remained intact across centuries of subsequent historical upheaval: that leisure was life’s center of gravity, the default state to which work was a sometimes inevitable interruption.
Industrialization, catalyzed by the spread of the clock-time mentality, swept all that away. Factories and mills required the coordinated labor of hundreds of people, paid by the hour, and the result was that leisure became sharply delineated from work. Implicitly, workers were offered a deal: you could do whatever you liked with your time off, so long as it didn’t damage — and preferably enhanced — your usefulness on the job.
In one narrow sense, this new situation left working people freer than before, since their leisure was more truly their own than when church and community had dictated almost everything they did with it. But at the same time, a new hierarchy had been established. Work, now, demanded to be seen as the real point of existence; leisure was merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment, for the purposes of further work. The problem was that for the average mill or factory worker, industrial work wasn’t sufficiently meaningful to be the point of existence: you did it for the money, not for its intrinsic satisfactions.
The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully,” focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it — to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. From this perspective, idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation.
Social psychologists call this inability to rest “idleness aversion,” which makes it sound like just another minor behavioral foible; but in his famous theory of the “Protestant work ethic,” the German sociologist Max Weber argued that it was one of the core ingredients of the modern soul.
Taking a walk in the countryside, like listening to a favorite song or meeting friends for an evening of conversation, is thus a good example of what the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls an “atelic activity,” meaning that its value isn’t derived from its telos, or ultimate aim. You shouldn’t be aiming to get a walk “done”; nor are you likely to reach a point in life when you’ve accomplished all the walking you were aiming to do. (...) And so the only reason to do them is for themselves alone.
As Setiya recalls in his book Midlife, he was heading toward the age of forty when he first began to feel a creeping sense of emptiness, which he would later come to understand as the result of living a project-driven life, crammed not with atelic activities but telic ones, the primary purpose of which was to have them done, and to have achieved certain outcomes.
When your relationship with time is almost entirely instrumental, the present moment starts to lose its meaning. And it makes sense that this feeling might strike in the form of a midlife crisis, because midlife is when many of us first become consciously aware that mortality is approaching — and mortality makes it impossible to ignore the absurdity of living solely for the future. Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any “later” left?
Many of us tend to feel that the person who’s deeply involved in their hobby of, say, painting miniature fantasy figurines, or tending to their collection of rare cacti, is guilty of not participating in real life as energetically as they otherwise might. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. (...) Some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit.
This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind. And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.
Hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them. (...) that might be part of why he enjoys it so much: to pursue an activity in which you have no hope of becoming exceptional is to put aside, for a while, the anxious need to “use time well”.
10. The Impatience Spiral
Since the beginning of the modern era of acceleration, people have been responding not with satisfaction at all the time saved but with increasing agitation that they can’t make things move faster still. This is another mystery, though, that’s illuminated when you understand it as a form of resistance to our built-in human limitations. The reason that technological progress exacerbates our feelings of impatience is that each new advance seems to bring us closer to the point of transcending our limits.
And so every reminder that in fact we can’t achieve such a level of control starts to feel more unpleasant as a result.
We grow anxious about not keeping up — so to quell the anxiety, to try to achieve the feeling that our lives are under control, we move faster. But this only generates an addictive spiral. We push ourselves harder to get rid of anxiety, but the result is actually more anxiety, because the faster we go, the clearer it becomes that we’ll never succeed in getting ourselves or the rest of the world to move as fast as we feel is necessary. (Meanwhile, we suffer the other effects of moving too fast: poor work output, a worse diet, damaged relationships.)
This way of life isn’t wholly unpleasant: just as alcohol gives the alcoholic a buzz, there’s an intoxicating thrill to living at warp speed.
Speed addiction tends to be socially celebrated. Your friends are more likely to praise you for being “driven”.
When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety, and your anxiety is transformed. Digging in to a challenging work project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice; giving a difficult novel the time it demands becomes a source of relish.
11. Staying on the Bus
Certain art forms impose temporal restraints on their audience in a rather obvious way: when you watch, say, a live performance of The Marriage of Figaro or a screening of Lawrence of Arabia, you don’t have much choice but to let the work in question take its time. But other kinds, including painting, benefit from external restraints — because it’s all too easy to tell yourself that once you’ve taken a couple of seconds to look at a painting, you’ve thereby genuinely seen it.
Three rules of thumb are especially useful for harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life. The first is to develop a taste for having problems.
The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism. (...) They probably wouldn’t be producing very much on any individual day, with the result that they produced much more over the long term. They wrote in brief daily sessions — sometimes as short as ten minutes, and never longer than four hours — and they religiously took weekends off. (...) rushing headlong into stressful all-day writing binges, which led to procrastination later on, because it made them learn to hate the whole endeavor. One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done. (...) The urge to push onward beyond that point “includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time” for work. Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again, and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.
The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. (...) Muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage — the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience. (...) Yet if you always pursue the unconventional in this way, you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing those other, richer forms of uniqueness that are reserved for those with the patience to travel the well-trodden path first.
12. The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad
As with money, it’s good to have plenty of time, all else being equal. But having all the time in the world isn’t much use if you’re forced to experience it all on your own. To do countless important things with time — to socialize, go on dates, raise children, launch businesses, build political movements, make technological advances — it has to be synchronized with other people’s.
Digital nomads will admit that the chief problem with their lifestyle is the acute loneliness.
The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root. For the rest of us, likewise, more freedom to choose when and where you work makes it harder to forge connections through your job, as well as less likely you’ll be free to socialize when your friends are.
It’s much easier to nurture relationships with family and friends when they’re off work, too. Meanwhile, if you can be sure the whole office is deserted while you’re trying to relax, you’re spared the anxiety of thinking about all the undone tasks that might be accumulating, the emails filling up your inbox, or the scheming colleagues attempting to steal your job.
Even retired people, despite not having jobs from which to take a break, were happier when more of the Swedish workforce was on holiday. That finding echoed other research, which has demonstrated that people in long-term unemployment get a happiness boost when the weekend arrives, just like employed people relaxing after a busy workweek, though they don’t have a workweek in the first place. The reason is that part of what makes weekends fun is getting to spend time with others who are also off work — plus, for the unemployed, the weekend offers respite from feelings of shame that they ought to be working when they aren’t. Hartig did not flinch from the controversial implication of his results. They suggest, he observed, that what people need isn’t greater individual control over their schedules but rather what he calls “the social regulation of time”: greater outside pressure to use their time in particular ways. That means more willingness to fall in with the rhythms of community; more traditions like the sabbath of decades past, or the French phenomenon of the grandes vacances, where almost everything grinds to a halt for several weeks each summer. Perhaps it even means more laws to regulate when people can and can’t work, like limits on Sunday store openings or recent European legislation banning certain employers from sending work emails out of hours.
The question is, What kind of freedom do we really want when it comes to time? On the one hand, there’s the culturally celebrated goal of individual time sovereignty — the freedom to set your own schedule, to make your own choices, to be free from other people’s intrusions into your precious four thousand weeks. On the other hand, there’s the profound sense of meaning that comes from being willing to fall in with the rhythms of the rest of the word: to be free to engage in all the worthwhile collaborative endeavors that require at least some sacrifice of your sole control over what you do and when.
Free to pursue our own entirely personal schedules, yet still yoked to our jobs, we’ve constructed lives that can’t be made to mesh.
You can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations.
You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating.
13. Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
What you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much — and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.
The anxieties that clutter the average life — relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries — shrink instantly down to irrelevance.
It’s the understandable tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy, so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history, to which all prior time was always leading up. These self-centered judgments are part of what psychologists call the “egocentricity bias,” and they make good sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If you had a more realistic sense of your own sheer irrelevance, considered on the timescale of the universe, you’d probably be less motivated to struggle to survive, and thereby to propagate your genes.
Once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a “life well spent,” you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time.
From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards; or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy. Or that virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.
14. The Human Disease
The reason time feels like such a struggle is that we’re constantly attempting to master it — to lever ourselves into a position of dominance and control over our unfolding lives so that we might finally feel safe and secure, and no longer so vulnerable to events. For some of us, the struggle manifests as the attempt to become so productive and efficient that we never again have to experience the guilt of disappointing others, or worry about being fired for underperforming; or so that we might avoid facing the prospect of dying without having fulfilled our greatest ambitions. Other people hold off entirely from starting on important projects or embarking on intimate relationships in the first place because they can’t bear the anxiety of having committed themselves to something that might or might not work out happily in practice. We waste our lives railing against traffic jams and toddlers for having the temerity to take the time they take, because they’re blunt reminders of how little control we truly have over our schedules. And we chase the ultimate fantasy of time mastery — the desire, by the time we die, to have truly mattered in the cosmic scheme of things.
Because your quantity of time is so limited, you’ll never reach the commanding position of being able to handle every demand that might be thrown at you or pursue every ambition that feels important; you’ll be obliged to make tough choices instead. And because you can’t dictate, or even accurately predict, so much of what happens with the finite portion of time you do get, you’ll never feel that you’re securely in charge of events, immune from suffering.
But the deeper truth behind all this is to be found in Heidegger’s mysterious suggestion that we don’t get or have time at all — that instead we are time. We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments.
1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort? Pursuing the life projects that matter to you the most will almost always entail not feeling fully in control of your time, immune to the painful assaults of reality, or confident about the future. It means embarking on ventures that might fail.
2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be? (...) Once you’ve earned your right to exist, you tell yourself, life will stop feeling so uncertain and out of control. (...) “at a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”
4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing? (...) there is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn’t just winging it, all the time. (...) if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all — to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.
5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
Appendix: Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude
1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity. (...) Begin from the assumption that tough choices are inevitable and to focus on making them consciously and well. (...) Keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. (...) Feed tasks from the open list to the closed one — that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.) (...) Establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work (e.g. 9am-5pm).
2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. (...) Focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one nonwork project) and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next.
3. Decide in advance what to fail at. (...) Nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself. (...) Even in these essential domains, there’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children.
4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete. (...) Keep a “done list,” which starts empty first thing in the morning, and which you then gradually fill with whatever you accomplish through the day. (...) There’s good evidence for the motivating power of “small wins”.
5. Consolidate your caring. (...) Consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics.
6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology. (...) Digital distractions are so seductive because they seem to offer the chance of escape to a realm where painful human limitations don’t apply. (...) Making your devices as boring as possible — first by removing social media apps, even email if you dare, and then by switching the screen from color to grayscale. (...) Choose devices with only one purpose, such as the Kindle ereader, on which it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read.
7. Seek out novelty in the mundane. (...) Time seems to speed up as we age. (...) The likeliest explanation for this phenomenon is that our brains encode the passage of years on the basis of how much information we process in any given interval. Childhood involves plentiful novel experiences, so we remember it as having lasted forever; but as we get older, life gets routinized — we stick to the same few places of residence, the same few relationships and jobs — and the novelty tapers off. (...) The standard advice for counteracting this is to cram your life with novel experiences, and this does work. But it’s liable to worsen another problem, “existential overwhelm”. (...) Much of life will necessarily be somewhat routine, and opportunities for exotic travel may be limited. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane (...) by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. (...) Meditation helps here. But so does going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or journaling.
8. Be a “researcher” in relationships. (...) When presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.”
9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity. (...) Whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind — to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work — act on the impulse right away.
10. Practice doing nothing. (...) If you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting.