A new book by writer Oliver Burkeman suggests that the relentless pursuit of ‘busyness’ is making us more anxious and less content
Do you ever get tired of trying to squeeze every last drop of productivity from each day? Does the ability to multi-task feel more like a curse than a superpower? Do we need to change our entire attitude towards time and how we manage it, when really it is time which manages us?
From our very first day at school, we are taught that the pursuit of productivity and achievement, and later money and material things, is to be our principal focus. And while we all need to eat, this pursuit has escalated to the point that we live in an ongoing state of what essayist Marilynne Robinson calls “joyless urgency”.
We use words like ‘lazy’ and ‘lacking ambition’ to describe those who do not get on board with the relentless pursuit of more; we have normalised the sacrifice of time in our pursuit of stuff. We have forgotten, or choose to ignore, that it is time, not money, which is finite. It is time which we will always run out of.
Then the pandemic happened. Many stopped rushing around — apart from all those undervalued key workers who kept everyone’s show on the road. And now it seems we are not that keen to start rushing again, perhaps because during lockdown we became what Financial Times columnist Nilanjana Roy calls “time millionaires”. Suddenly, we were rich in hours, rich enough to stare into space, to think about stuff rather than doing it. Again, this may not have been the case if you had small kids or worked in a hospital, but for millions of us, we became overnight time millionaires. We paused and smelled the flowers. And we liked it.
Oliver Burkeman, who writes books about “building a meaningful life in an age of bewilderment”, has just published Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How To Use It. This is our average life span, at around 77 years; if you live to 90, you’ll get almost 4,700 weeks. The point is, it’s not that long, and it goes fast. Hence the joyless urgency conundrum, the tyranny of bucket lists, the horror of FOMO, the feeling that you are always running to catch up, that if only you were more efficient in your time management and more productive, then everything will get done.
Stop, says Burkeman. Stop because it won’t. Put down the productivity manuals — there’s a glut of them, The 4-Hour Work Week, Smarter Faster Better, Extreme Productivity — and step away from the life hacks. Stop ticking lists. It’s not that these things don’t work, says Burkeman, it’s that they do. “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.” That joyless urgency again.
What we forget is that, as philosopher Thomas Nagel puts it, “We will all be dead any minute”. Our only concern, therefore, should be time management in the broader sense, but this idea has been hijacked into what Burkeman calls “a depressingly narrow minded affair” involving cranking through work tasks while balancing a family on your nose, batch cooking on Sundays and getting up earlier to get more stuff done.
“Productivity is a trap,” writes Burkeman. “Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved a ‘work-life balance’ by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7am’.” Or as philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”.
Yes, we all need income, but does our pursuit of more income than we need leave us without any time to experience the wonder of being alive? “We are not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays,” writes environmentalist Charles Eisenstein. “We are not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.”
I realised this one sunny day when I quit full time 9 to 5 employment aged 27. I realised I’d rather be cash poor than time poor, and stuck with it, so while I have no pension, no job security, a crap car and no savings, I own my time. To me, that feels priceless.
The issue, says Burkeman, is not our limited time, our 4,000 or so weeks on Earth, but our ingrained ideas about how we use our time. We need to let go of FOMO, and embrace what he terms JOMO — the joy of missing out. You may never climb Machu Picchu or learn Italian or run a marathon or form a band, and that’s okay. Instead, we need to face our finitude: “It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death that we finally become truly present in our lives”.
But isn’t it a bit morbid to focus on death? Not really. What philosopher Martin Heidegger considered morbid was/is our carefully-constructed avoidance and denial of our expiry date, so that we run about like distracted hamsters, hiding behind pathological busyness. We conform to what is expected of us — birth, school, work, death — while attempting to ‘get everything done’. We get anxiety and depression and wonder why.
Maybe after the pause provided by the pandemic, we might consider what we really would like to do with our remaining time alive. Chances are it will not involve replying to emails. Or keeping up with the Joneses, whomever they may be. Here are Burkeman’s 10 tools for embracing your finitude.
If you have a to-do list, don’t add anything to it until the stuff already on it is done, and don’t have more than 10 things on the go, or you will feel overwhelmed. Set pre-determined time boundaries to your work so that it doesn’t bleed over into your time away from work. Stick to those boundaries.
Focus on one major project at a time. Finish it before you start a new project, so that your time is not littered with half-finished stuff niggling at your peace of mind. Train yourself to tolerate the anxiety of doing one thing at a time, rather than half doing too many of them.
Go for strategic underachievement. Nominate an area of your life where you don’t require yourself to excel, and focus your energies elsewhere. My garden is a jungle of doom because I prefer yoga and haven’t time for both. Deciding in advance removes the shame of setting yourself up to fail by taking on too much.
Accept that it will never be all finished, so feel good about what you’ve already done. Instead of starting each day with a productivity debt, keep a ‘done list’, which is kind of a reverse to-do list. It starts empty each morning and you fill it in as you do things. Keep the bar low, advises Burkeman, and don’t underestimate the motivating power of ‘small wins’. Made the bed? Fed the cat? Put it on the list.
Burkeman reminds us that social media is “a giant machine for getting you to spend your time caring about the wrong things”. Thanks to its ‘persuasive design’, similar to casino slot machines in relation to encouraging compulsive behaviour, social media gobbles great chunks of our time.
Cat memes aside, it also bombards us with all the world’s atrocities and injustices, every one of them important and worthy of our attention and financial support. Except we can’t, because there are so many causes; which is why it’s important to “consciously pick your battles in charity, activism and politics” and “focus your finite capacity to care”.
Change your phone from a toy to a tool by removing its social media apps, and changing its settings from colour to greyscale. Use single purpose devices — Kindles, for instance, which do not support other all-singing all-dancing distractions. Your focus will improve.
The received wisdom with regard to slowing down the sense of time hurtling by faster and faster as we get older is to cram as much new experiences into life as humanly possible, so that time slows down as it did when we were children. But maybe we can’t travel or immerse ourselves in new stuff because of work or child rearing or whatever. “Pay more attention to every moment, however mundane”, advises Burkeman. Meditation teacher Shinzen Young says that when you experience life with twice the usual intensity, “your experience of life will be twice as full as it currently is”. Be in the present. Shake up your perception of now, and live in it fully. Absorb the detail.
Writer Susan Jeffers, in her book Embracing Uncertainty, suggests how choosing curiosity (wondering what will happen next) rather than worry (hoping something specific will happen and being afraid it won’t) makes for better outcomes, as we let go of expectation. In relationships of all kinds, instead of trying to control or second guess other people, Burkeman advocates adopting this attitude of active curiosity as an antidote to frustration, resentment and unmet expectation.
Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein suggests that whenever a generous impulse arises — such as to check on a friend, praise someone, give money — to act on it immediately. When we defer — “I’ll do it later” — it comes from wanting to feel in control of our time, but we often don’t go back to it. Doing it immediately means it gets done, and as well all know, generous action makes us feel happier. Win, win.
The most crucial skill of all. If you can’t bear the discomfort of doing nothing, you are more likely to either make poor choices doing the wrong thing, or spend every moment being productive in the service of future goals, which “postpones fulfilment to a time that never arrives”.
Burkeman suggests Shinzen Young’s ‘Do Nothing’ meditation as a way of regaining your own autonomy over time, so that we “make better choices with our brief allotment of life”. Stop and stare into space for a while.
Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time And How To Use It, is published by The Bodley Head