Time Management for Mortals
By Oliver Burkeman
Find it on Bookshop
Life is short. We all know that. But how short is it really?
A day is always the same length of time, but depending on the events of the day, can feel much too short or neverending.
The truth is we all have a maximum of a very similar length of time to live our lives: assuming you live to be eighty, you have about four thousand weeks. (Wait But Why went with ninety, which is closer to five thousand). And depending on what you believe, you may only get one shot at them. What should you do with that time? How do you even figure that out?
Philosophers from ancient Greece to the present day have taken the brevity of life to be the defining problem of human existence: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.
It was really hard for me to narrow down quotes and topics for this book note. I highlighted so much of the book. The first draft of this piece was about 5000 words of quotes. There is so much solid advice in here that it really is worth reading the whole book.
Distraction is a Time Suck
Our modern lives have become dominated by social media. Many people, myself included, get sucked into scrolling for hours, mindlessly consuming content. Social media companies have spent a lot of time and effort designing their products to maximize attention grabbing and retention. You can’t fault yourself for not being able to resist it, because it was designed not to let you.
The multitude of psychological techniques that drive the unresistability of social media are referred to as “persuasive design”. These are the same strategies used in casino slot machines, and they encourage compulsive behavior.
The appeal of TikTok— the reason you spend hours swiping through video after video— is the phenomenon known as “variable rewards”. The next video may be a dud, or it may make you giggle and want to send it to all your friends. The uncertainty makes you keep going, looking for the next hit video, just like pulling the lever on a slot machine.
Burkeman attributes the appeal of social media to our desire to forget about our limited time. We are in denial that we will die someday. We fall prey to distraction because it’s easier than paying attention to what is really important. Focusing on the important task is uncomfortable, precisely because you value it so much.
You probably hate the fact that you spend so much time scrolling on your phone. But you can’t help it. To stop the scroll, to live an authentic life, means facing up to the fact that you have limited time.
So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.
The Trap of Productivity Culture
There is a whole culture around productivity on the internet. There are people who make a good living spewing tips for how to get more done. Since you’re here reading this, you may be dabbling in it yourself. The truth is, though, productivity is a trap.
There will always be too much to do. Honing your task-completion efficiency is like bailing the water out of a boat with a hole in the bottom.
Behind our urge to race through every obstacle or challenge, in an effort to get it “dealt with,” there’s usually the unspoken fantasy that you might one day finally reach the state of having no problems whatsoever. As a result, most of us treat the problems we encounter as doubly problematic: first because of whatever specific problem we’re facing; and second because we seem to believe, if only subconsciously, that we shouldn’t have problems at all. Yet the state of having no problems is obviously never going to arrive. And more to the point, you wouldn’t want it to, because a life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless.
You will never have everything under control. Emails will keep coming, to-do lists will keep getting longer, and you will always disappoint someone by dropping the ball. But this news isn’t depressing, it’s freeing.
Especially since the pandemic, the boundaries between work and life have become blurry. If you’re not careful, work can invade your life until you’re never free from it. Reducing the expectations on yourself opens up your life for more of what you really value.
The reasoning behind our obsession with productivity is similar to why social media is so distracting: we are trying to avoid the constraints of reality. Productivity strategies are really just avoidance strategies. Prioritizing a small number of tasks means confronting the fact that you don’t have the time to do everything you have dreamed of doing.
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.
Instead of increasing your output, you need to learn to reduce your input. Rather than getting better at getting more things done, you need to acknowledge the limitless nature of tasks, and focus on doing a smaller number of things, and doing them well.
We need to ignore society’s expectations for endless output. No one can tell us how to use our limited time.
Seeing Time as Meaning
During COVID-19 pandemic, the disruption of normal routines gives people the feeling that time disintegrated. Days somehow sped by and yet still lasted forever. (I’ve written about this before.)
Part of the time disruption is because there was less meaning in our lives. We weren’t able to travel to new places, or revisit familiar ones, or spend time with our families and friends. These types of experiences are what makes our time have value. Without them, time means nothing and simply melts away.
You can give meaning to even mundane experiences, just by fully immersing yourself in them. Doing the dishes can be a reflective activity that betters your mind and your home.
Looking for ways to make tasks go faster is not the solution. Making a process more convenient strips all meaning from it. Instead of doing more tasks faster, we need to pick fewer tasks and take the time they need to complete them. Choosing a task means it’s important to us, and taking that time makes it meaningful.
And it leads to the insight that meaningful productivity often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take, surrendering to what in German has been called Eigenzeit, or the time inherent to a process itself.
How Mindfulness Can Help
Acknowledging your limited time takes practice. A good way to do this purposefully is through mindfulness.
Training yourself to “do nothing” really means training yourself to resist the urge to manipulate your experience or the people and things in the world around you—to let things be as they are.
A lot of people try to add value to their lives by cramming them with new experiences. It does work, but it can also be overwhelming. It can make the problem of lacking meaning even worse. And for many people, exotic travel may be difficult to fit into a life with a job or children. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make meaning.
Instead, you can pay attention to the mundane. You can dive 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.
Writing has really helped me with purposeful attention. It takes a long time to write something worth reading. There is a lot of input for a short output. Forcing myself to slow down and improve my craft is a good exercise in giving meaning to the act of writing.
Meditation is great, but so are activities. Go on an unplanned walk to see where you end up. Take a different route to work. Take up photography, birdwatching, or journaling. Choose an activity that draws your attention into the present.
How To Decide What to Do With Your Life
You just can’t do it all. Sorry.
No one really cares what you’re doing with your life. By trying to please others, you’re living other people’s lives. You may have been trying to justify your existence by the opinion of an imaginary outside entity. Once you realize you’ve been living according to imaginary standards, you can drop them and live your life the way you want.
There is a pervasive need in American culture, especially the tech world, to “change the world”. Realistically, your life’s work will never been seen by or make a difference to most people. Expecting your influence to become pervasive is setting a bar for yourself that you will never achieve. But that doesn’t mean your life is meaningless.
So when you decide to stop doing things for others and focus on yourself, how do you decide what you want to do?
There are so many problems in the world. Hunger, disease, war, environmental degradation, poverty, injustice. But you can’t do it all. You are just a single human. Focus on what you can do to help.
Pick one thing and keep doing it. It may look boring and unimaginative at first, but as long as you keep going, you will find a way to make it your own. You have to have the patience to start by copying others. Be a student, accumulating experience, until you can put your own spin on it.
Burkeman calls this the “next and most necessary thing”. It’s all we can ever aspire to do. But fortunately, that also means it’s all we ever have to do.
If you can face being a limited human, you will become the best human you can be.
And the life you will see incrementally taking shape, in the rearview mirror, will be one that meets the only definitive measure of what it means to have used your weeks well: not how many people you helped, or how much you got done; but that working within the limits of your moment in history, and your finite time and talents, you actually got around to doing—and made life more luminous for the rest of us by doing—whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was that you came here for.
Even if you’re not trying to save the world, just trying to make it through your days in an office, this advice applies to you too. Focus on one big project at a time. Finish it out before moving on. It is tempting to try to start on many ambitions at once, but you won’t make progress that way. Accept that some ambitions will just have to wait.
Doing this means you will have to underachieve at something. Maybe you won’t learn Spanish for another year because right now you’re taking a class in economics so you can better understand how the world works. And that’s okay. When you’re strategic about where you expect excellence, you can focus your time and energy on that one thing. And because you focused, it will be excellent.
Once you grasp the mechanisms operating here, it becomes easier to consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry—not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.
There is so much more I wanted to say that I cut out to make this more digestible. If you liked this post, I definitely recommend reading the whole book— buy it on Bookshop so I can keep writing these book notes.
To recap my top points:
- Don’t fall prey to distraction— it’s a meaningless time suck.
- Productivity culture is a trap.
- Spending time on something gives it value and meaning.
- Mindfulness is a great way to add value to your life just the way it is.
- Live your life in steps, focusing on the “next and most necessary thing”.
The world is already broken. And what’s true of the state of civilization is equally true of your life: it was always already the case that you would never experience a life of perfect accomplishment or security. And your four thousand weeks have always been running out. It’s a revelation, though: when you begin to internalize all this even just a bit, the result is not despair, but an energizing surge of motivation.
Want to read more? Find Four Thousand Weeks here: Bookshop
The quotes above were gathered using Readwise. It’s a truly amazing app to help you remember what you read. If you want to try it out, use my link and we both get a free month 🙂
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The Courage to Be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga
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