What you will learn from reading Four Thousand Weeks:
– How seeking efficiency and productivity ultimately harms us.
– Why the way we think about time causes more damage then good.
– Why removing goals and spending time aimless can actually be our most useful time.
Four Thousand Weeks Book Summary:
Four thousand weeks is an eye-opening book. I’ve read a fair amount of productivity books and done a fair amount of courses on productivity too. This book takes the opposite approach to getting more done by doing less of what’s meaningful. It challenges you to re-think your relationship with time.
A must read for people looking for a new perspective on life and for people who always feel like they need to do things.
Time management, broadly defined, should be everyone’s chief concern. Arguably, time management is all life is.
Yet the modern discipline known as time management – like its hipper cousin, productivity – is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.
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, productivity and Hustle Culture:
Recently, as the gig economy has grown, busyness has been rebranded as ‘hustle’ – relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media. In reality, though, it’s the same old problem, pushed to an extreme: the pressure to fit ever-increasing quantities of activity into a stubbornly non-increasing quantity of daily time.
Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work–life balance’, whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7 a.m’.
The problem isn’t exactly that productivity techniques and products don’t work. It’s that they do work – in the sense that you’ll get more done, race to more meetings, ferry your kids to more after-school activities, generate more profit for your employer – and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result.
Doing what matters:
Let’s get to the heart of things, to a feeling that goes deeper, and that’s harder to put into words: the sense that despite all this activity, even the relatively privileged among us rarely get round to doing the right things. We sense that there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, even if we can’t say exactly what they are – yet we systematically spend our days doing other things instead.
Our days are spent trying to ‘get through’ tasks, in order to get them ‘out of the way’, with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get round to what really matters – and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.
The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem 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.
Time as a container:
We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, ‘an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences’,
Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for ‘staying on top of things’ and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them. If we use containers labelled ‘work time’ for the purposes of leisure, our employer may grow irritated.
Time as a resource to be used:
From thinking about time in the abstract, it’s natural to start treating it as a resource, something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible, like coal or iron or any other raw material. Previously, labourers had been paid for a vaguely defined ‘day’s work’, or on a piecework basis, receiving a given sum per bale of hay or per slaughtered pig. But gradually it became more common to be paid by the hour – and the factory owner who used his workers’ hours efficiently, squeezing as much labour as possible from each employee, stood to make a bigger profit than one who didn’t.
Before, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of. Afterwards, once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used – and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today.
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.
The fundamental problem is that this attitude towards time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough. 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’.
How measuring time helps us:
There’s one huge drawback in giving so little thought to the abstract idea of time, though, which is that it severely limits what you can accomplish.
As soon as you want to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, you need a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time.
Making time standardised and visible in this fashion inevitably encourages people to think of it as an abstract thing with an independent existence, distinct from the specific activities on which one might spend it; ‘time’ is what ticks away as the hands move round the clock face.
Embracing the reality of not having enough time for everything:
Most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance. After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.
Denying reality never works, though. It may provide some immediate relief, because it allows you to go on thinking that at some point in the future you might, at last, feel totally in control. But 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 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.
In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organising your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do – and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing.
‘Missing out’ is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place. Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t – and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.
Let time happen to you:
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 place and your moment in history.
A never ending to-do list:
Technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken.
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.
When you begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.
Burkeman thinks it’s the single best antidote to the feeling of time pressure, a splendidly liberating first step on the path of embracing your limits: 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.
Why doing more isn’t goal:
But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it.
‘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. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of ‘what needs doing’ that expands to fill the time available.
Rendering yourself more efficient – either 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. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.
The unlimited possibilities of modern life:
There’s a deeper sense in which merely to be alive on the planet today is to be haunted by the feeling of having ‘too much to do’, whether or not you lead a busy life in any conventional sense. Think of it as ‘existential overwhelm’: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you actually can do.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the internet makes this all much more agonising, because it promises to help you make better use of your time, while simultaneously exposing you to vastly more potential uses for your time – so that 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 technologies we use to try to ‘get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.
The worst aspect of the trap, though, is that it’s also a matter of quality. The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things. Adopt an ultra-ambitious time management system that promises to take care of your entire to-do list, and you probably won’t even get round to the most important items on that list.
The effect of convenience:
Convenience, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.
Frequently, the effect of convenience isn’t just that a given activity starts to feel less valuable, but that we stop engaging in certain valuable activities altogether, in favour of more convenient ones.
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.
We are a limited amount of time:
We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.
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. (The original Latin word for ‘decide’, decidere, means ‘to cut off’, as in slicing away alternatives; it’s a close cousin of words like ‘homicide’ and ‘suicide’.) Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.
The only real question about all this finitude is whether we’re willing to confront it or not. And this, for Heidegger, is the central challenge of human existence: since finitude defines our lives, he argues that living a truly authentic life – becoming fully human – means facing up to that fact.
It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives.
In case this needs saying, it isn’t that a diagnosis of terminal illness, or a bereavement, or any other encounter with death is somehow good, or desirable, or ‘worth it’. But such experiences, however wholly unwelcome, often appear to leave those who undergo them in a new and more honest relationship with time.
Apart from anything else, they make it clear that the core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done – that’s never going to happen – but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.
Principles of a Healthy Relationship with Time:
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. So if a certain activity really matters to you – a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause – the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention.
‘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.’
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.
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.
The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities.
You needn’t embrace the specific practice of listing out your goals to appreciate the underlying point, which is that in a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones – the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship – on which a finite life can come to grief. It’s a self-help cliché that most of us need to get better at learning to say no.
Henri Bergson and the idea of the future:
Henri Bergson tunnelled to the heart of Kafka’s problem in his book Time and Free Will. We invariably prefer indecision over committing ourselves to a single path, Bergson wrote, because ‘the future, which we dispose of to our liking, appears to us at the same time under a multitude of forms, equally attractive and equally possible’.
In other words, it’s easy for me to fantasise 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 fantasising, 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.
The point that Bergson made about the future – that it’s more appealing than the present because you get to indulge in all your hopes for it, even if they contradict each other – is no less true of fantasy romantic partners, who can easily exhibit a range of characteristics that simply couldn’t coexist in one person in the real world.
Your attention is your life:
Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life.
Attempting to control our attention:
The proper response to this situation, we’re often told today, is to render ourselves indistractable in the face of interruptions: to learn the secrets of ‘relentless focus’ – usually involving meditation, web-blocking apps, expensive noise-cancelling headphones, and more meditation – so as to win the attentional struggle once and for all. But this is a trap.
When you aim for this degree of control over your attention, you’re making the mistake of addressing one truth about human limitation – your limited time, and the consequent need to use it well – by denying another truth about human limitation, which is that achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible.
If outside forces couldn’t commandeer at least some of it against your will, you’d be unable to step out of the path of oncoming buses, or hear that your baby was in distress. Nor are the benefits confined to emergencies; the same phenomenon is what allows your attention to be seized by a beautiful sunset, or your eye to be caught by a stranger’s across a room.
What’s far less widely appreciated than all that, though, is how deep the distraction goes, and how radically it undermines our efforts to spend our finite time as we’d like.
Because the attention economy is designed to prioritise whatever’s most compelling – instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful – it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times.
Why do we get distracted?
It’s worth pausing to notice how exceptionally strange this is. 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?
But the more common issue is one of boredom, which often arises without explanation. Suddenly, the thing you’d resolved to do, because it mattered to you to do it, feels so staggeringly tedious that you can’t bear to focus on it for one moment more.
The overarching point is that what we think of as ‘distractions’ aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.
The reason it’s hard to focus on a conversation with your spouse isn’t that you’re surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table. On the contrary, ‘surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table’ is what you do because it’s hard to focus on the conversation – because 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.
The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.
Planning and Worry:
Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster.
The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine: that your partner won’t leave you, that you will have sufficient money to retire, that a pandemic won’t claim the lives of anyone you love, that your favoured candidate will win the next election, that you can get through your to-do list by the end of Friday afternoon.
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. It’s fine, of course, to strongly prefer that your partner never leave you, and to treat him or her in ways that make that happy outcome more likely. But it’s a recipe for a life of unending stress to insist that you must be able to feel certain, now, that this is how your relationship is definitely going to unfold in the future.
Planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life, and for exercising our responsibilities towards other people. The real problem isn’t planning. It’s that we take our plans to be something they aren’t. What we forget, or can’t bear to confront, is that, in the words of the American meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, ‘a plan is just a thought’.
We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is – all it could ever possibly be – is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.
De Graaf had put his finger on one of the sneakier problems with treating time solely as something to be used as well as possible, which is that we start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively, too.
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 – in other words, like work in the worst sense of that word.
To the philosophers of the ancient world, leisure wasn’t the means to some other end; on the contrary, it was the end to which everything else worth doing was a means. The Latin word for business, negotium, translates literally as ‘not-leisure’, reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the highest human calling.
The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time ‘wastefully’, focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it – to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth.
Spend some time aimless:
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 towards 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. ‘We are the sum of all the moments of our lives,’ writes Thomas Wolfe, ‘all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.’ If we’re going to show up for, and thus find some enjoyment in, our brief time on the planet, we had better show up for it now.
Taking a walk in the countryside, like listening to a favourite song or meeting friends for an evening of conversation, is thus a good example of what the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls an ‘atelic activity’, meaning that its value isn’t derived from its telos, or ultimate aim. You shouldn’t be aiming to get a walk ‘done’; nor are you likely to reach a point in life when you’ve accomplished all the walking you were aiming to do. ‘You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them,’ 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.’
The endless pursuit is the human curse:
We spend our days pursuing various accomplishments that we desire to achieve; and yet for any given accomplishment – attaining a permanent post at your university, say – it’s always the case either that you haven’t achieved it yet (so you’re dissatisfied, because you don’t yet have what you desire) or that you’ve already attained it (so you’re dissatisfied, because you no longer have it as something to strive towards).
As Schopenhauer puts it in his masterwork, The World as Will and Idea, it’s therefore inherently painful for humans to have ‘objects of willing’ – things you want to do, or to have, in life – because not yet having them is bad, but getting them is arguably even worse: ‘If, on the other hand, [the human animal] lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom comes over it; in other words, its being and its existence become an intolerable burden for it.
The power in hobbies:
Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalisation, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no pay-offs in terms of productivity or profit.
And so in order to be a source of true fulfilment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.
There’s a second sense in which hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them.
Remember, results aren’t everything. Indeed, they’d better not be, because results always come later – and later is always too late.
Addiction to speed:
We tend to feel as though it’s our right to have things move at the speed we desire, and the result is that we make ourselves miserable – not just because we spend so much time feeling frustrated, but because chivvying the world to move faster is frequently counterproductive anyway.
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.
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’.
In all such cases, patience is a way of psychologically accommodating yourself to a lack of power, an attitude intended to help you to resign yourself to your lowly position, in theoretical hopes of better days to come. But as society accelerates, something shifts. In more and more contexts, patience becomes a form of power.
The value in taking the time:
Then one day he came upon a neighbour who was midway through fixing his lawnmower, and paid him a self-deprecating compliment: ‘Boy, I sure admire you. I’ve never been able to fix those kinds of things!’ ‘That’s because you don’t take the time,’ the neighbour replied – a comment that gnawed at Peck, troubling something in his soul, and that resurfaced a few weeks later
Peck’s insight here – that if you’re willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself – would be helpful enough if it were merely a piece of advice for fixing lawnmowers and cars. But his larger point is that it applies almost everywhere in life: to creative work and relationship troubles, politics and parenting.
Patience as a creative force:
In practical terms, three rules of thumb are especially useful for harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life.
The first is to develop a taste for having problems. 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
The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.
Having more freedom can cause relationship issues:
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.
Except that when you think about it, this makes perfect, non-supernatural sense. It’s much easier to nurture relationships with family and friends when they’re off work, too. Meanwhile, if you can be sure the whole office is deserted while you’re trying to relax, you’re spared the anxiety of thinking about all the undone tasks that might be accumulating, the emails filling up your inbox, or the scheming colleagues attempting to steal your job.
That finding echoed other research, which has demonstrated that people in long-term unemployment get a happiness boost when the weekend arrives, just like employed people relaxing after a busy workweek, though they don’t have a workweek in the first place. The reason is that part of what makes weekends fun is getting to spend time with others who are also off work – plus, for the unemployed, the weekend offers respite from feelings of shame that they ought to be working when they aren’t.
We can’t get the upper hand on time:
The deeper truth behind all this is to be found in Heidegger’s mysterious suggestion that we don’t get or have time at all – that instead we are time. We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments.
Insecurity and vulnerability are the default state – because in each of the moments that you inescapably are, anything could happen, from an urgent email that scuppers your plans for the morning to a bereavement that shakes your world to its foundations.
‘Entering space and time completely’ – or even partially, which may be as far as any of us ever get – means admitting defeat. 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.
But really, the ‘next and most necessary thing’ is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in any moment. And we must do it despite not having any objective way to be sure what the right course of action even is.
Fortunately, precisely because that’s all you can do, it’s also all that you ever have to do. If you can face the truth about time in this way – if you can step more fully into the condition of being a limited human – you will reach the greatest heights of productivity, accomplishment, service and fulfilment that were ever in the cards for you to begin with.
The human disease is often painful, but as the 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. Accept the inevitability of the affliction, and freedom ensues: you can get on with living at last.
Questions to consider your relationship with time:
Maria Rilke’s famous phrase, is to ‘live the questions’. Even to ask them with any sincerity is already to have begun to come to grips with the reality of your situation and to start to make the most of your finite time.
1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
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.
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?
This quest to justify your existence in the eyes of some outside authority can continue long into adulthood. But ‘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.8 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.’ The attempt to attain security by justifying your existence, it turns out, was both futile and unnecessary all along. Futile because life will always feel uncertain and out of your control. And unnecessary because, in consequence, there’s no point in waiting to live until you’ve achieved validation from someone or something else.
4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: 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?
A final common manifestation of the desire for time mastery arises from the unspoken assumption, the idea that the true value of how we spend our time is always and only to be judged by the results.
Practical Steps to Take:
Decide in advance what to fail at.
The great benefit of 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.
When you ‘decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb … you remove the sting of shame’. A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected ‘lawn care’ or ‘kitchen tidiness’ as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.
Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.
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!
Consolidate your caring.
Social media is a giant machine for getting you to spend your time caring about the wrong things, but for the same reason, it’s also a machine for getting you to care about too many things, even if they’re each indisputably worthwhile.
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.