All the notes were taken directly from the source mentioned.
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We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.
A fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
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. These things matter to some extent, no doubt. But they’re hardly all that matters.
We’re obsessed with our overfilled inboxes and lengthening to-do lists, haunted by the guilty feeling that we ought to be getting more done, or different things done, or both.
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.
The pressure to fit ever-increasing quantities of activity into a stubbornly non-increasing quantity of daily time.
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.
In a world with dishwashers, microwaves, and jet engines, time ought to feel more expansive and abundant, thanks to all the hours freed up. But this is nobody’s actual experience. Instead, life accelerates, and everyone grows more impatient.
In 1930, in a speech titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the economist John 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. The challenge would be how to fill all our newfound leisure time without going crazy. “For the first time since his creation,” Keynes told his audience, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares.”
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;
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,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.” The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.
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.
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.
How you’re using time: 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.
Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.”
“Deep time,” that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.
The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.
Common Illusion: if I could only find the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline, I might actually be able to win the struggle with time, once and for all.
Most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up. We don’t want to risk getting hurt in relationships or failing professionally; we don’t want to accept that we might never succeed in pleasing our parents or in changing certain things we don’t like about ourselves—and we certainly don’t want to get sick and die.
“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.”
Our culture’s ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want—because it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.
It can’t ever bring the sense that you’re doing enough—that you are enough—because it defines “enough” as a kind of limitless control that no human can attain. The more you believe you might succeed in “fitting everything in,” the more commitments you naturally take on, and the less you feel the need to ask whether each new commitment is truly worth a portion of your time—and so your days inevitably fill with more activities you don’t especially value. The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks (or toddlers) that won’t be hurried; the more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty. And the more individual sovereignty you achieve over your time, the lonelier you get.
Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default.
Come to realize that missing out on something—indeed, on almost everything—is basically guaranteed.
Freedom, sometimes, is to be found not in achieving greater sovereignty over your own schedule but in allowing yourself to be constrained by the rhythms of community—participating in forms of social life where you don’t get to decide exactly what you do or when you do it.
Let 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.
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.
The problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will. The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel “on top of things,” or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.
For a start, what “matters” is subjective, so you’ve no grounds for assuming that there will be time for everything that you, or your employer, or your culture happens to deem important.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law.
So getting better at processing your email is like getting faster and faster at climbing up an infinitely tall ladder: you’ll feel more rushed, but no matter how quickly you go, you’ll never reach the top. It’s not simply that you never get through your email; it’s that the process of “getting through your email” actually generates more email. By implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits.
It becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you’re no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands.
“Existential overwhelm”: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing
So the retiree ticking exotic destinations off a bucket list and the hedonist stuffing her weekends full of fun are arguably just as overwhelmed as the exhausted social worker or corporate lawyer.
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 very tool you’re using to get the most out of life makes you feel as though you’re missing out on even more of it.
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.
Whenever you encounter some potential new item for your to-do list or your social calendar, you’ll be strongly biased in favor of accepting it, because you’ll assume you needn’t sacrifice any other tasks or opportunities in order to make space for it. Yet because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice—the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time.
The more efficient you get, the more you become “a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations,”
I’d put my energy into clearing the decks, cranking through the smaller stuff to get it out of the way—only to discover that doing so took the whole day, that the decks filled up again overnight anyway,
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, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.
The same goes for existential overwhelm: 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.
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.
A decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths. As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I’m building a life—but at one and the same time, I’m closing off the possibility of countless others, forever. Any finite life—even the best one you could possibly imagine—is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.
Heidegger calls “Being-towards-death,” aware that this is it, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that every choice requires myriad sacrifices, and that time is always already running out—indeed, that it may run out today, tomorrow, or next month.
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.
We embark on the futile attempt to “get everything done,” which is really another way of trying to evade the responsibility of deciding what to do with your finite time.
How remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place.
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. Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given—as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to speak not of having to make such choices, but of getting to make them? Each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with. In this situation, making a choice—picking one item from the menu—far from representing some kind of defeat, becomes an affirmation. It’s a positive commitment to spend a given portion of time doing this instead of that—actually, instead of an infinite number of other “thats”—because this, you’ve decided, is what counts the most right now.
It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything.
How to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it. The real problem of time management today, 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.
3 Principles of Time Management
Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.
If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed.
The trouble is that we’re terrible at long-range planning: if something feels like a priority now, it’s virtually impossible to coolly assess whether it will still feel that way in a week or a month.
“If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,” as she puts it, “there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.” Jessica Abel, Creativity coach.
Abel saw that her only viable option was to claim time instead—to just start drawing, for an hour or two, every day, and to accept the consequences, even if those included neglecting other activities she sincerely valued.
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. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.
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.
In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest 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. The point isn’t to force yourself to finish absolutely everything you start, but rather to banish the bad habit of keeping an ever-proliferating number of half-finished projects on the back burner.)
The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities.
The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, 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.
Elizabeth Gilbert points out, it’s all too easy to assume that this merely entails finding the courage to decline various tedious things you never wanted to do in the first place. In fact, she explains, “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.”
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.”
It’s easy for me to fantasize about, say, a life spent achieving stellar professional success, while also excelling as a parent and partner, while also dedicating myself to training for marathons or lengthy meditation retreats or volunteering in my community—because so long as I’m only fantasizing, I get to imagine all of them unfolding simultaneously and flawlessly. As soon as I start trying to live any of those lives, though, I’ll be forced to make trade-offs—to put less time than I’d like into one of those domains, so as to make space for another—and to accept that nothing I do will go perfectly anyway, with the result that my actual life will inevitably prove disappointing by comparison with the fantasy.
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.
Goodin observes, “You must settle, in a relatively enduring way, upon something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,”
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.
“Joy of missing out”: the recognition that the renunciation of alternatives is what makes their choice a meaningful one in the first place.
What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.
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.
Can you have an experience you don’t experience?
“Attention is the beginning of devotion,” writes the poet Mary Oliver, pointing to the fact that distraction and care are incompatible with each other: you can’t truly love a partner or a child, dedicate yourself to a career or to a cause—or just savor the pleasure of a stroll in the park—except to the extent that you can hold your attention on the object of your devotion to begin with.
We give in to distraction willingly. Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else—to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most.
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?
Listening takes effort and patience and a spirit of surrender, and because what you hear might upset you, so checking your phone is naturally more pleasant.
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.
Zen Buddhists hold that the entirety of human suffering can be boiled down to this effort to resist paying full attention to the way things are going, because we wish they were going differently.
The trouble with being so emotionally invested in planning for the future, though, is that while it may occasionally prevent a catastrophe, the rest of the time it tends to exacerbate the very anxiety it was supposed to allay.
Likewise, and despite everything I’ve been saying, nobody ever really gets four thousand weeks in which to live—not only because you might end up with fewer than that, but because in reality 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.
My point, to be clear, isn’t that it’s a bad idea to make plans, or save money for retirement, or remember to vote, so as to increase the chances that the future will turn out the way you’d like. 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.
Spiritual traditions seem to converge on the same advice: that we should aspire to confine our attentions to the only portion of time that really is any of our business—this one, here in the present.
“Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place,” cautions one of the founding texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching.
Geshe Shawopa, who gruffly commanded his students, “Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities.”
“I don’t mind what happens.” Perhaps these words need a little unpacking; I don’t think Krishnamurti means to say that we shouldn’t feel sorrow, compassion, or anger when bad things happen to ourselves or others, nor that we should give up on our efforts to prevent bad things from happening in the future. Rather, 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.
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.
Yet it turns out to be perilously easy to over-invest 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.
We treat everything we’re doing—life itself, in other words—as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.
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.
[People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.
“Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,” Herzen says. “But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”
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. Rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness.
The old parable about a vacationing New York: Hence 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.”
Kaveny writes, “Lawyers imbued with the ethos of the billable hour have difficulty grasping a non-commodified understanding of the meaning of time that would allow them to appreciate the true value of such participation.”
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. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now.
Jay Jennifer Matthews puts it in her excellently titled short book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are, “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.”
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.
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.
The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore
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.
And yet there remains, in our discomfort with anything that feels too much like wasting time, a yearning for something not all that dissimilar from eternal salvation. As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection, a heavenly realm in which everything runs smoothly, your limited time causes you no pain, and you’re free of the guilty sense that there’s more you need to be doing in order to justify your existence.
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.
If we’re going to show up for, and thus find some enjoyment in, our brief time on the planet, we better show up for it now.
In his book Sabbath as Resistance, the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the sabbath as an invitation to spend one day per week “in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”
Personal or household rules, such as the increasingly popular idea of a self-imposed “digital sabbath,” can fill the vacuum to some extent. But they lack the social reinforcement that comes when everyone else is following the rule too, so they’re inevitably harder to abide by—and because they’re reliant on willpower, they’re prone to all the hazards involved in trying to force yourself to be more “present in the moment,”
For one thing, unlike almost everything else I do with my life, it’s not relevant to ask whether I’m any good at it: all I’m doing is walking, a skill at which I haven’t appreciably improved since around the age of four. Moreover, a country walk doesn’t have a purpose, in the sense of an outcome you’re trying to achieve or somewhere you’re trying to get.
Setiya explains. They have “no outcome whose achievement exhausts them and therefore brings them to an end.” And so the only reason to do them is for themselves alone: “There is no more to going for a walk than what you are doing right now.”
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.
The hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit.
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,”
The Tao Te Ching is full of images of suppleness and yielding: the wise man (the reader is constantly being informed) is like a tree that bends instead of breaking in the wind, or water that flows around obstacles in its path. Things just are the way they are, such metaphors suggest, no matter how vigorously you might wish they weren’t—and your only hope of exercising any real influence over the world is to work with that fact, instead of against it.
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; it seems to promise that this time, finally, we might be able to make things go fast enough for us to feel completely in control of our unfolding time. And so every reminder that in fact we can’t achieve such a level of control starts to feel more unpleasant as a result.
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.
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.)
Societal impatience—that is, from the wider culture’s rising expectations about how quickly things ought to happen.
At first this strategy seems to work, because drinking does temporarily numb unpleasant emotions. In the longer run, though, it backfires disastrously. Despite all your efforts to escape your experience, the truth is that you’re still where you are—stuck in your dysfunctional family or your abusive relationship, suffering from depression, or not confronting the aftermath of childhood trauma—and so the feelings soon return, requiring stronger drinks in order to numb them.
And whereas if you find yourself sliding into alcoholism, compassionate friends may try to intervene, to help steer you in the direction of a healthier life, speed addiction tends to be socially celebrated. Your friends are more likely to praise you for being “driven.”
Psychotherapists call it a “second-order change,” meaning that it’s not an incremental improvement but a change in perspective that reframes everything. 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.
In more and more contexts, patience becomes a form of power. 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.
Peck’s felt she would be failing in her duties if she didn’t also attempt to influence the tempo at which her students worked, helping them slow down to the speed that art demands. “They needed someone to give them permission to spend this kind of time on anything,” she said. “Somebody had to give them a different set of rules and constraints than the ones that were dominating their lives.”
Her insight—that if you’re willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself.
Three Principles of Patience
The first is to develop a taste for having problems.
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.
Once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires—that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.
The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism.
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.
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 as Boice explained, 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.
Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own. What’s the solution? “It’s simple,” Minkkinen says. “Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience. 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.
Synchronization with Others
The problem, I think, is that his lifestyle is predicated on a misunderstanding about the value of time. To borrow from the language of economics, Salcedo sees time as a regular kind of “good”—a resource that’s more valuable to you the more of it you command. (Money is the classic example: it’s better to control more of it than less.) Yet the truth is that time is also a “network good,” one that derives its value from how many other people have access to it, too, and how well their portion is coordinated with yours. Telephone networks are the obvious example here: telephones are valuable to the extent that others also have them.
The point, to be clear, isn’t that freelancing or long-term travel—let alone family-friendly workplace policies—are intrinsically bad things. It’s that they come with an unavoidable flip side: every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s.
The more Swedes who were off work simultaneously, the happier people got. They derived psychological benefits not merely from vacation time, but from having the same vacation time as other people.
From the point of view of military commanders, after all, the chief benefit of synchrony among soldiers isn’t that they’ll march for longer distances. It’s that once they feel they belong to something greater than themselves, they’ll be more willing to lay down their life for their unit.
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 world: 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.
For one thing, 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. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week.
Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
The hazard in any such discussion of “what matters most” in life, though, is that it tends to give rise to a kind of paralyzing grandiosity. It starts to feel as though it’s your duty to find something truly consequential to do with your time—to quit your office job to become an aid worker or start a space flight company—or else, if you’re in no position to make such a grand gesture, to conclude that a deeply meaningful life isn’t an option for you.
Among New Age types, this same grandiosity takes the form of the belief that each of us has some cosmically significant Life Purpose, which the universe is longing for us to uncover and then to fulfill.
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.
British philosopher Bryan Magee liked to make the following arresting point. Human civilization is about six thousand years old, and we’re in the habit of thinking of this as a staggeringly long time: a vast duration across which empires rose and fell, and historical periods to which we give labels such as “classical antiquity” or “the Middle Ages” succeeded each other in “only-just-moving time—time moving in the sort of way a glacier moves.” But now consider the matter a different way. In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough. Now for the arresting part: by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.”
This sense of relief is worth examining a little more closely, though, because it draws attention to the fact that the rest of the time, most of us do go around thinking of ourselves as fairly central to the unfolding of the universe.
You might imagine, moreover, that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful, by investing your every action with a feeling of cosmic significance, however unwarranted. But what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well. It sets the bar much too high. It suggests that in order to count as having been “well spent,” your life needs to involve deeply impressive accomplishments, or that it should have a lasting impact on future generations—or at the very least that it must, in the words of the philosopher Ido Landau, “transcend the common and the mundane.”
“We do not disapprove of a chair because it cannot be used to boil water for a nice cup of tea,” Landau points out: a chair just isn’t the kind of thing that ought to have the capacity to boil water, so it isn’t a problem that it doesn’t. And it is likewise “implausible, for almost all people, to demand of themselves that they be a Michelangelo, a Mozart, or an Einstein…There have only been a few dozen such people in the entire history of humanity.”
No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet.
You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed—and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren’t “significant” enough.
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and overdemanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is.
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.
We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments.
Illusion: once you’ve cleared the decks, you tell yourself; or once you’ve implemented a better system of personal organization, or got your degree, or invested a sufficient number of years in honing your craft; or once you’ve found your soulmate or had kids, or once the kids have left home, or once the revolution comes and social justice is established—that’s when you’ll feel in control at last, you’ll be able to relax a bit, and true meaningfulness will be found.
Marie-Louise von Franz, the Swiss psychologist and scholar of fairy tales, captured the otherworldly atmosphere of such an existence: There is a strange attitude and feeling that one is not yet in real life. For the time being one is doing this or that, but whether it is [a relationship with] a woman or a job, it is not yet what is really wanted, and there is always the fantasy that sometime in the future the real thing will come about…The one thing dreaded throughout by such a type of man is to be bound to anything whatever. There is a terrific fear of being pinned down, of entering space and time completely, and of being the unique human that one is.
It means letting your illusions die. You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway. And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here.
The peace of mind on offer here is of a higher order: it lies in the recognition that being unable to escape from the problems of finitude is not, in itself, a problem. Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure.
1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
We naturally tend to make decisions about our daily use of time that prioritize anxiety-avoidance instead. Procrastination, distraction, commitment-phobia, clearing the decks, and taking on too many projects at once are all ways of trying to maintain the illusion that you’re in charge of things.
James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” The question circumvents the urge to make decisions in the service of alleviating anxiety and instead helps you make contact with your deeper intentions for your time.
If you’re trying to decide whether to leave a given job or relationship, say, or to redouble your commitment to it, asking what would make you happiest is likely to lure you toward the most comfortable option, or else leave you paralyzed by indecision. But you usually know, intuitively, whether remaining in a relationship or job would present the kind of challenges that will help you grow as a person (enlargement) or the kind that will cause your soul to shrivel with every passing week (diminishment).
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?
“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?
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.
5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
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?
“Dear Frau V.,” Jung began, “Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way…If that’s what you want, you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what.” By contrast, the individual path “is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other.” His sole advice for walking such a path was to “quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”
“Many people say they hope the dominant culture stops destroying the world,” as Jensen puts it, but by saying that, “they’ve assumed the destruction will continue, at least in the short term, and they’ve stepped away from their own ability to participate in stopping it.”
You could think of this book as an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope. Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it—that this is just a dress rehearsal, and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.
You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.
10 techniques for implementing this limit-embracing philosophy in daily life.
1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.
It’s better to 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. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, 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.)
A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work.
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.
Train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing. Soon, the satisfaction of completing important projects will make the anxiety seem worthwhile.
3. Decide in advance what to fail at.
Strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself—is that you focus that time and energy more effectively.
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, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.
4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.
It’s easy to grow despondent and self-reproachful: you can’t feel good about yourself until it’s all finished—but it’s never finished, so you never get to feel good about yourself.
Part of the problem here is an unhelpful assumption that you begin each morning in a sort of “productivity debt,” which you must struggle to pay off through hard work, in the hope that you might reach a zero balance by the evening. As a counterstrategy, 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. Each entry is another cheering reminder that you could, after all, have spent the day doing nothing remotely constructive—and look what you did instead!
5. Consolidate your caring.
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.
6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.
You can combat this problem by 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. (At the time of writing, on the iPhone, this option can be found under Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters.)
“After going to grayscale, I’m not a different person all of a sudden, but I feel more in control of my phone, which now looks like a tool rather than a toy,” The technology journalist Nellie Bowles writes in The New York Times.
Meanwhile, as far as possible, choose devices with only one purpose, such as the Kindle ereader, on which it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read. If streaming music and social media lurk only a click or swipe away, they’ll prove impossible to resist when the first twinge of boredom or difficulty arises in the activity on which you’re attempting to focus.
7. Seek out novelty in the mundane.
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”.
An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more 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. 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, playing “I Spy” with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you’re doing in the present.
8. Be a “researcher” in relationships.
Education expert Tom Hobson, though, as he points out, its value is hardly limited to interactions with small children: 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.”
Choosing curiosity (wondering what might happen next) over worry (hoping that a certain specific thing will happen next, and fearing it might not) whenever you can.
9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
The meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: 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.
When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable, because 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—choices such as stressfully trying to hurry activities that won’t be rushed or feeling you ought to spend every moment being productive in the service of future goals, thereby postponing fulfillment to a time that never arrives.
So 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.
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