Productivity isn't about cranking through as many work tasks as possible. We will never have enough time. The more efficient we get, the more work we have to do. The more we plan and try to control the future, the more anxious we get. Instead, realize that our time is limited—four thousand weeks more or less, embrace that we won't get to do everything we want and will never have control over most things in our lives, and let time use us by responding to the needs of our places and moment in history.
Arguably, time management is all life is. Yet the modern discipline known as time management—like its hipper cousin, productivity—is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.
Recently, as the gig economy has grown, busyness has been rebranded as “hustle”—relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media.
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.
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
For almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.
Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.
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.
The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem—or so I hope to convince you—is that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse.
There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.
You know how some people are passionate about bodybuilding, or fashion, or rock climbing, or poetry? Productivity geeks are passionate about crossing items off their to-do lists. So it’s sort of the same, except infinitely sadder.
The more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty.
The paradox of limitation, which runs through everything that follows: the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.
In practical terms, 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.
“Missing out” is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t—and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.
There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.
If you’re working two minimum-wage jobs to put food in your children’s stomachs, there’s a good chance you’ll feel overstretched. But if you’re better off, you’ll find yourself feeling overstretched for reasons that seem, to you, no less compelling: because you have a nicer house with higher mortgage payments, or because the demands of your (interesting, well-paid) job conflict with your longing to spend time with your aging parents, or to be more involved in your children’s lives, or to dedicate your life to fighting climate change.
The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things.
The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.
What’s required is the will to resist the urge to consume more and more experiences, since that strategy can only lead to the feeling of having even more experiences left to consume. 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 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.
To be, for a human, is above all to exist temporally, in the stretch between birth and death, certain that the end will come, yet unable to know when. We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.
The core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.
The point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
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.
The limitations we’re trying to avoid when we engage in this self-defeating sort of procrastination frequently don’t have anything to do with how much we’ll be able to get done in the time available; usually, it’s a matter of worrying that we won’t have the talent to produce work of sufficient quality, or that others won’t respond to it as we’d like them to, or that in some other way things won’t turn out as we want.
You can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first “settling” on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them. Likewise, 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.
And not only should you settle; ideally, you should settle in a way that makes it harder to back out, such as moving in together, or getting married, or having a child. The great irony of all our efforts to avoid facing finitude—to carry on believing that it might be possible not to have to choose between mutually exclusive options—is that 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.
The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to 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 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.
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.
The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine.
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.
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.
One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit.
Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, 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.
We actually have more leisure time than we did in previous decades—an average of about five hours per day for men, and only slightly less for women. But perhaps one reason we don’t experience life that way is that leisure no longer feels very leisurely. Instead, it too often feels like another item on the to-do list.
To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake—entails first accepting the fact that this is it: that your days aren’t progressing toward a future state of perfectly invulnerable happiness, and that to approach them with such an assumption is systematically to drain our four thousand weeks of their value.
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.
As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness, or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed. 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.
In a world geared for hurry, the capacity to resist the urge to hurry—to allow things to take the time they take—is a way to gain purchase on the world, to do the work that counts, and to derive satisfaction from the doing itself, instead of deferring all your fulfillment to the future.
A life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless.
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. If you’ve decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it. Why? Because 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.
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. In fact, having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively isn’t just useless but actively unpleasant.
A final common manifestation of the desire for time mastery arises from the unspoken assumption: the idea that the true value of how we spend our time is always and only to be judged by the results.
Yet there is a sense in which all work—including the work of parenting, community-building, and everything else—has this quality of not being completable within our own lifetimes. All such activities always belong to a far bigger temporal context, with an ultimate value that will only be measurable long after we’re gone (or perhaps never, since time stretches on indefinitely). And so it’s worth asking: What actions—what acts of generosity or care for the world, what ambitious schemes or investments in the distant future—might it be meaningful to undertake today, if you could come to terms with never seeing the results?
Attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long.
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