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In 1930, famed economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century nobody would work more than 15 hours a week…
Yeah, I’m giggling too. He didn’t take into account that human desires just never level off. There’s always a shiny new thing to buy and always new Joneses to keep up with, so there’s always more to get done. To-do lists expand and emails keep coming.
And, frankly, we haven’t gotten a lot of good advice on how to cope. The time management industry should be brought before the Hague. Lifehacks are often just a comb-over for our productivity woes, offering Coyote vs. Roadrunner solutions that never truly deliver.
But we still need an answer. We still need to learn how to manage our time because, in the end, time management is all life is.
Luckily, there are answers – and realistic ones that work. We’re going to get them thanks to an excellent new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by the indomitable word sorcerer Oliver Burkeman.
Oliver realized that productivity is a trap. That nobody ever truly achieves work-life balance. That our only hope is to admit defeat… But that once we do, we can, ironically, accomplish more than we ever thought possible — and be happier.
Sound crazy? It’s not. We’re going to get to the bottom of this. (And if you’re someone who thinks you don’t have time to read this blog post, well, you probably need to more than anyone.)
Let’s get to it…
Kill some items on your to-do list and they respawn like enemies in “Call of Duty.” Get better at managing email and you get more email. It’s Sisyphus’s inbox.
We’re in denial. The game is rigged. And the worst part is, all this joyless urgency often leads to us postponing things that are truly meaningful. So what do we do?
Well, pretend for a second that you’re a rational person. What would you do if you knew for a fact your standards were unreachable? You’d accept limitations.
The problem isn’t life; it’s our unreasonable ideas about productivity. We’re in denial about what we can realistically achieve, and in our efforts to avoid the constraints of reality we drive ourselves crazy today, tell ourselves tomorrow will be different – and then repeat. We seem to believe through some primal-mysterious Blakean alchemy we can add three more hours to the day. It’s the Theranos of productivity systems.
From Four Thousand Weeks:
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.
Economists love talking about trade-offs, but the idea of life as a series of trade-offs makes most people uncomfortable. Sadly, even if you choose to ignore reality, reality won’t ignore you. I’m sympathetic but unblinking. The real world means trade-offs. The undodgeable dodgeball in life is that you’re going to have to choose, to give up on some things in order to achieve others.
Did you become a lawyer? Then you’re not a doctor. Did you become a doctor? Then you’re not an astronaut. There is always a trade-off, always a sacrifice, but the real sin is not acknowledging that fact. Some loss is a given and FOMO is inevitable. Yes, I know, being this brass-tacks about things is not everyone’s cup of arsenic. They don’t tell you this on Instagram carousels. But once we accept it, we can finally get started with something that’s less like a reality show and more like reality.
Most productivity advice tells you the impossible is possible. Errr, no. As Oliver says, the real value of any time management technique is if it helps you neglect the right things at the right time.
This is only disappointing if you’re still in denial about how many hours there are in a day. Life will never be perfect. You will never get it all done. But once you give up on doing everything, you can actually complete something that matters. Give up on unrealistic standards and you can finish meaningful stuff, feel proud and fulfilled, motivated and empowered instead of disappointed and harried.
This is the “paradox of limitation.” The more you try to control time, the more stressed you feel. Accept limitations, realize you will not have time for it all, and focus on what matters. Only then can you feel relaxed.
PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: If all of the above is giving you a truth seizure, breathe deeply and think of puppy yawns.
(To learn more about how you can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, I’m done lobbing rhetorical Molotov cocktails. How the heck do we get started?
We usually start down the road to productivity by asking what is important. Problem is, you can easily have 25 hours a day of “important” stuff. So that doesn’t work. It’s vital to consider what things are important — which you’re going to ignore anyway.
From Four Thousand Weeks:
…as the writer 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.”
As Merlin Mann said: “Priorities are like arms. If you have more than two, you are crazy, or you’re lying.” Unimportant stuff can certainly get in the way but the truly insidious threat is taking important things that aren’t at the top of your list and letting them crowd out the #1 and #2 priorities that will really make or break your life.
So what should you do? Nominate categories in advance where you will do the absolute minimum. Take those “important” things that aren’t #1 or #2 and engage in “strategic underachievement.” There’s a lot less shame in not cleaning the kitchen if you’ve decided ahead of time that this is something you’re allowed to fail at in service of accomplishing something greater.
Procrastination isn’t bad as long as you do it the right way. Are you procrastinating on little stuff to focus on big stuff? That’s good. Don’t pay the bill on time and accept the penalty but finish the work assignment that gets you promoted. This is “positive procrastination.”
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
So you’re letting some balls drop — but succeeding at the stuff that matters. This is a powerful, realistic strategy. But how do we create a system for this?
Set predetermined time boundaries for work. Knowing you want to be done by 6PM lets you be realistic about how much time you really have and what can actually get done before close of business.
From Four Thousand Weeks:
…decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work—you might resolve to start by 8:30 a.m., and finish no later than 5:30 p.m., say—then make all other time-related decisions in light of those predetermined limits…But if your primary goal is to do what’s required in order to be finished by 5:30, you’ll be aware of the constraints on your time, and more motivated to use it wisely.
Now that you know how much time you really have, let’s get even more granular. The problem with to-do lists is they don’t take time into consideration. Putting two-days-worth of activities on a daily to-do list is a kamikaze mission.
Oliver recommends having both “open” and “closed” lists. Your open list has everything you’d like to get done with no regard for time — but the closed list only has three slots. And you don’t get to move something from the open list to the closed list until one of the three activities is finished or abandoned. Focusing on the closed list allows you to do what matters and prevents half-finished projects.
(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)
The above all makes perfect sense… in theory. But I know some people are saying that they absolutely, positively have more things they need to get done. Okay. The above still holds, but…
Work-life balance is often unrealistic. So we’re going to aim for deliberate and conscious imbalance.
The way to really get something done and done right is to focus on that to the exclusion of everything else until it’s finished… Of course, that sounds completely unrealistic.
But here’s the thing: you can rotate what is numero uno. Yes, you’re going to spend more time at work this week but next week you’ll be focused on family. The number one thing gets the lion’s share of your attention but the number one thing can change week to week or month to month.
Don’t say, “I can’t do that” because you already do this to some degree but you’re not deliberately deciding in advance and accepting the consequences, which is why you feel so stressed and guilty.
Going all-in on one thing for a stretch allows you to actually finish projects. There’s a powerful emotional component to this. Actually get something done and you feel competent and optimistic. This will carry over to the next activity. The anxiety of postponing something is tolerable if you see you’re capable of finishing things and know that the neglected task will get your full attention very soon.
From Four Thousand Weeks:
…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—and since you’ll be finishing more and more of them, you’ll have less to feel anxious about anyway.
(To learn how to stop checking your phone, click here.)
Being this realistic about time can be hard. But we know that denial doesn’t actually get things finished. So how do you deal with the pesky negative emotions that crop up with all this realism?
You want to have “open” and “closed” lists in order to maintain your productivity. But you also want to have a “done” list. This is to maintain your sanity.
Forever seeing a list with more to do is the path to Prozac. It’s like an open slice of howling fear.
But looking at all the stuff you’ve finished, to see your progress, is incredibly rewarding and fulfilling.
Appreciating your accomplishments gets ignored so much we should call it “terms and conditions.” Looking at your “done” list lets you know that all that harsh, practical realism about time is worth it.
Don’t just scratch off to-do’s; keep a list of the task-enemies you have vanquished and revel in your productivity power.
(To learn the best time to do anything, click here.)
Okay, we’ve completed a lot. Let’s round it all up and find out how accepting limitations and trade-offs can actually make life happier and more fulfilling…
These are the things the most organized people do every day:
This can be a hard pill to swallow. At this point you may be wishing for some kind of Reverse Patreon, where you pay me every month so you don’t have to listen to me anymore. But I’m trying to make up for all the human rights violations of the time management industry.
It can be difficult to give up productivity denial. To accept trade-offs. To surrender the illusion of getting it all done and make hard-hard-ever-so-hard choices. But there is also a lot of good in it too if you look a little deeper…
Choosing something is what makes it special. Granting something time is the biggest compliment we can give to any activity – or any person for that matter. What does choosing a marriage partner say about that person? As Oliver says, choosing is not loss, it’s an affirmation. It says, “This is what matters to me.”
To forgo other options and commit is what makes things meaningful. This is not “fear of missing out”, this is the “joy of missing out.” I’m as serious as a sideways suppository.
We are the sum of our choices. Of how we spend our time and attention. Your life is the sum of what you paid attention to during it. When you look back, all there will be is what you paid attention to, what you gave your time to.
So often we feel that the clock on life only starts once we’ve figured it all out. That this moment isn’t real. That life has not yet really begun. If “utopia” is “no place” then we’re believing in “uchronia” — a place outside external time. But just like utopia, uchronia does not exist.
We don’t control time, have time or make time: we are time. We must decide. We must act. Imperfect as our choices and actions may be, we must move forward or we miss the moment. And moments are all we have. The moments, right now, are our lives.
I know, I know, being this grounded sounds as wonderful as small arms fire does outside your bedroom window. But when you give up on doing everything, you can actually complete something. Let go of the fantasy and embrace the smaller amount that is truly possible.
From Four Thousand Weeks:
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… And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here. You get to have some real purchase on life. You get to spend your finite time focused on a few things that matter to you, in themselves, right now, in this moment… Because now is all you ever get.
Your choices and how you spend your time are what comes to define you. Who do you want to be? If your actions don’t reflect what is important to you, you’re looking for a gas leak with a lighted match. Every day becomes yesterday before we know it. But if we choose wisely, we will not be diminished by the brevity of our lives.
After 2020’s crash course in agoraphobia, we didn’t accomplish everything we wanted to do and now we have to worry about the Delta Variant (which sounds like the title of a Robert Ludlum novel). With the most collectively stressful year in modern history behind us, we’re eager to make up for lost time. But let’s do it right.
When we get buried in the hustle and bustle of running down to-do lists and lose track of what is meaningful, we don’t just forget who we are, we forget what we are.
We’re not “human doings.” We’re human beings. And that’s a much better way to live.
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