Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
To borrow a trope, Time Management isn't about time.
The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
It's about having the space to make better decisions. Given Burkeman's ellipticality, it's not clear that he fully groks this. eg. Inbox Zero has two big parts: 1) getting to zero is a simple concrete task, which enables 2) delegating and prioritizing. ie. it's less about email and more about thinking judiciously.
The same self-defeating pattern applies to many of our attempts to become more productive at work. A few years ago, drowning in email, I successfully implemented the system known as Inbox Zero, but I soon discovered that when you get tremendously efficient at answering email, all that happens is that you get much more email.
At the beginning of everyone's life, possibilities both abound and are heavily interdependent. So much so that it looks a lot less like a branching tree and much more like a thickety bramble.
As choices are made (or defaults taken), your tree begins to take shape. Before you go all Edward Scissorhands, you really want to understand the interdependencies and loops. The current best way to understand them is as a bunch of decision games.
While games are complex (multiplayer and iterated!), they all boil down to a range of outcomes and how likely each is to occur. As each game embodies many decisions, it's easier to think about life as choosing which games to play and when.
The Stoics took the first big step back from the messiness of life, which gave them the mental space to begin making better decisions and start cleaning up.1 Fast forward a couple thousand years and we now have a better analytical understanding of decision games, however all of this understanding is just not widely dispersed.
I mean, just look around you. How many people are ensnared in their thicket? And how many are quietly tinkering on their bonsai?
For years now, weve been deluged with advice on living the fully optimized life, in books with titles such as Extreme Productivity and The 4-Hour Workweek and Smarter Faster Better, plus websites full of life hacks for whittling seconds off everyday chores. (Note the curious suggestion, in the term life hack, that your life is best thought of as some kind of faulty contraption, in need of modification so as to stop it from performing suboptimally.) There are numerous apps and wearable devices for maximizing the payoffs from your workday, your workouts, and even your sleep, plus meal replacement drinks like Soylent to eliminate time wasted eating dinner. And the chief selling point of a thousand other products and services, from kitchen appliances to online banking, is that theyll help you achieve the widely championed goal of squeezing the most from your time.
This is the maddening truth about time, which most advice on managing it seems to miss. Its like an obstreperous toddler: the more you struggle to control it, to make it conform to your agenda, the further it slips from your control. Consider all the technology intended to help us gain the upper hand over time: by any sane logic, 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 nobodys actual experience. Instead, life accelerates, and everyone grows more impatient.
None of this is how the future was supposed to feel. 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. -- the default is to fill it with work
If that sounds confusing, its because our modern way of thinking about time is so deeply entrenched that we forget it even is a way of thinking; were like the proverbial fish who have no idea what water is, because it surrounds them completely. Get a little mental distance on it, though, and our perspective starts to look rather peculiar. We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences, in the words of the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford.
In those days before clocks, when you did need to explain how long something might take, your only option was to compare it with some other concrete activity. Medieval people might speak of a task lasting a Miserere whylethe approximate time it took to recite Psalm 50, known as the Miserere, from the Bibleor alternatively a pissing whyle, which should require no explanation.
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 couldnt have happened without the clock. By the late 1700s, rural peasants were streaming into English cities, taking jobs in mills and factories, each of which required the coordination of hundreds of people, working fixed hours, often six days a week, to keep the machines running.
My adventures with Inbox Zero were only the tip of the iceberg. Ive squandered countless hoursand a fair amount of money, spent mainly on fancy notebooks and felt-tip pensin service to the belief that 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. (I was enabled in this delusion by writing a weekly newspaper column on productivity, which gave me an excuse to experiment with new techniques on the grounds that I was doing so for work purposes; I was like an alcoholic conveniently employed as a wine expert.) On one occasion, I tried scheduling the whole of every day in fifteen-minute blocks; on another, I used a kitchen timer to work exclusively in periods of twenty-five minutes, interspersed with five-minute breaks. (This approach has an official name, the Pomodoro Technique, and a cult following online.) I divided my lists in! to A, B, and C priorities. (Guess how many B- and C-priority tasks I ever got around to completing?) I tried to align my daily actions with my goals, and my goals with my core values. Using these techniques often made me feel as if I were on the verge of ushering in a golden era of calm, undistracted productivity and meaningful activity. But it never arrived. Instead, I just got more stressed and unhappy. I remember sitting on a park bench near my home in Brooklyn one winter morning in 2014, feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work.
The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks (or toddlers) that wont 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. All of this illustrates what might be termed 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 con front the facts of finitude insteadand work with them, rather than against themthe more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. I dont think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; were even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But Im aware of no other time management technique thats half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.
This confrontation with limitation also reveals the truth that 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 communityparticipating in forms of social life where you dont get to decide exactly what you do or when you do it. 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. Perhaps most radically of all, seeing and accepting our limited powers over our time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. 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 p! lace and your moment in history. -- epictetus
In 1908, the English journalist Arnold Bennett published a short and grouchy book of advice, the title of which demonstrated that this anxious effort to fit more in was already afflicting his Edwardian world: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.
As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, Im building a lifebut at one and the same time, Im closing off the possibility of countless others, forever. (The original Latin word for decide, decidere, means to cut off, as in slicing away alternatives; its a close cousin of words like homicide and suicide.) Any finite lifeeven the best one you could possibly imagineis therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility
Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time. Im borrowing this phrasing from the graphic novelist and creativity coach Jessica Abel, who borrowed it in turn from the world of personal finance, where its long been an article of faith because it works. If you take a portion of your paycheck the day you receive it and squirrel it away into savings or investments, or use it for paying off debts, youll probably never feel the absence of that cash; youll go about your businessbuying your groceries, paying your billsprecisely as if youd never had that portion of money to begin with.
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 youre 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 frontsbecause 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 third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities.There is a story attributed to Warren Buffettalthough probably only in the apocryphal way in which wise insights get attributed to Albert Einstein or the Buddha, regardless of their real sourcein which the famously shrewd investor is asked by his personal pilot about how to set priorities. Id be tempted to respond, Just focus on flying the plane! But apparently this didnt take place midflight, because Buffetts advice is different: he tells the man to 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. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, arent the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, theyre the ones he should actively avoid at all costsbecause theyre 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.
I want to stop watching so bad but Im already committed, read one typically rueful comment on Facebook. Ive been watching you guys put rubber bands around a watermelon for 40 minutes, wrote someone else. What am I doing with my life?
Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenters place, cautions one of the founding texts of Taoism, the Tao Te Ching, in a warning echoed several centuries later by the Buddhist scholar Geshe Shawopa, who gruffly commanded his students, Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities. Jesus says much the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount (though many of his later followers would interpret the Christian idea of eternal life as a reason to fixate on the future, not to ignore it). Take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself, he advises. Then he adds the celebrated phrase sufficient to the day is the evil thereof, a line Ive only ever been able to hear in a tone of wry amusement directed at his listeners: Do you first-century working-class Galileans really lead such problem-free lives, he seems to be teasing them, that it makes sense to invent ! additional problems by fretting about what might happen tomorrow?
Aristotle argued that true leisureby which he meant self-reflection and philosophical contemplationwas among the very highest of virtues because it was worth choosing for its own sake, whereas other virtues, like courage in war, or noble behavior in government, were virtuous only because they led to something else. The Latin word for business, negotium, translates literally as not-leisure, reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the highest human calling. In this understanding of the situation, work might be an unavoidable necessity for certain peopleabove all, for the slaves whose toil made possible the leisure of the citizens of Athens and Romebut it was fundamentally undignified, and certainly not the main point of being alive.
Danielle Steel, who in a 2019 interview with Glamour magazine revealed the secret of how shed managed to write 179 books by the time she turned seventy-two, releasing them at the rate of almost seven per year: by working almost literally all the time, in twenty-hour days, with a handful of twenty-four-hour writing periods per month, a single weeks holiday each year, and practically no sleep. (I dont get to bed until Im so tired I could sleep on the floor, she was quoted as saying. If I have four hours, its a really good night for me.) Steel drew widespread praise for her badass work habits. But its surely not unreasonable to perceive, in this sort of daily routine, the evidence of a serious problemof a deep-rooted inability to refrain from using time productively. In fact, Steel herself seems to concede that she uses productivity as a way to avoid confronting difficult emotions. Her personal ordeals have included the loss of an adult so! n to a drug overdose and no fewer than five divorcesand work, she told the magazine, is where I take refuge. Even when bad things have happened in my personal life, its a constant. Its something solid I can escape into.
The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatizes this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinkis main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each oneand for the first part of its journey, each bus leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Think of each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students. You pick an artistic directionperhaps you start working on platinum studies of nudesand you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But youre dismayed to be told that your pictures arent as original as you thought, because they look like knockoffs of the work of the! photographer Irving Penn; Penns bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody elses path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialize. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: youre informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own. Whats the solution? Its simple, Minkkinen says. Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus. A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinkis bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. Thats where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stagethe trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience.
A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule, advises the cartoonist turned self-help guru Scott Adams, summarizing the ethos of individual time sovereignty.
In 2013, a researcher from Uppsala in Sweden named Terry Hartig, along with several colleagues, elegantly proved the connection between synchronization and life satisfaction when he had the ingenious notion of comparing Swedes vacation patterns against statistics on the rate at which pharmacists dispensed antidepressants. One of his two central findings was unremarkable: when Swedes take time off work, theyre happier (as measured by their being less likely, on average, to need antidepressants). But the other was revelatory: antidepressant use fell by a greater degree, Hartig demonstrated, in proportion to how much of the population of Sweden was on vacation at any given time. Or to put things slightly differently, 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.
The experience stuck with McNeill, and after the war, when he became a professional historian, he returned to the idea in a monograph called Keeping Together in Time. In it, he argues that synchronized movement, along with synchronized singing, has been a vastly underappreciated force in world history, fostering cohesion among groups as diverse as the builders of the pyramids, the armies of the Ottoman Empire, and the Japanese office workers who rise from their desks to perform group calisthenics at the start of each workday. Roman generals were among the first to discover that soldiers marching in synchrony could be made to travel for far longer distances before they succumbed to fatigue.
A New York writer and director named Julio Vincent Gambuto captured this sense of what I found myself starting to think of as possibility shockthe startling understanding that things could be different, on a grand scale, if only we collectively wanted that enough. What the trauma has shown us, Gambuto wrote, cannot be unseen. A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies, as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge.
So long as you think you dont 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. A modified version of this insight, Do the next right thing, has since become a slogan favored among members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way to proceed sanely through moments of acute crisis. But really, the next and most necessary thing is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in any moment.
keep two to-do lists, one open and one closed. The open list is for everything thats on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, its not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed onethat is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you cant add a new task until ones completed.
Following the same logic, 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 whats next.
Youll inevitably end up underachieving at something, simply because your time and energy are finite. But the great benefit of strategic underachievementthat is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you wont expect excellence of yourselfis that you focus that time and energy more effectively.
As with serializing your projects, therell be plenty you cant choose to bomb if youre to earn a living, stay healthy, be a decent partner and parent, and so forth. But even in these essential domains, theres 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 youre underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.