Time Management for the rest of us

Reward for efficiency is more work. The ability to joyfully Not Do is an essential skill. Let go of the fantasy of getting everything done and focus on doing the few things that count
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I’m obsessed with time management tools and gadgets. Schedules, to-do lists, calendars, Pomodoro, charts, spreadsheets, weekly and yearly planners, trackers, timers, alarms, sleep hacking… You name it, I’ve probably tried it. I’ve even had ChatGPT try to figure out my ideal daily schedule, work out routine and meal plan. The problem is, that I don’t seem to get more done. I just seem to spend more time planning, plotting, and charting, which I do enjoy, but that’s not the goal here.

Drawing of person sleeping on a couch

“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”

– Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

The Gap

I started thinking that carefully planning each minute might not be the way to a more productive life, and surely not to a happier one.

There is always vastly more to do than I’ll ever have time for. And it’s not a question of stopping to waste my time on the dumb stuff. Even if I picked the best, most worthy, necessary, or enjoyable activities for each minute of every day, there would still be tons of them left.

There’s a gap between what we think we could or should be doing with our time, and what we are actually able to do as humans with the days, weeks, and years available to us. This gap causes us frustration and pain. We are anxious about making bad choices and worry about neglecting the truly meaningful stuff.

Do you live in the future?

I came across the work of a British journalist and author Oliver Burkeman who, in his book “Four Thousand Weeks” (which is about the length of an average human lifespan) and in his “Time Management for Mortals” series on the Waking Up app challenges the very essence of mainstream productivity advice. He says it’s dedicated to maintaining the false hope that there is a way of bridging the aforementioned gap.

It’s not about squeezing more into our day, he argues. The fear of missing out on life’s grand experiences and the dread of making wrong choices haunt us. We believe that if we’d only became optimized enough, we’d be able to fit so much into our day that the gap would evaporate. We’d finally have time for all that matters. We’d be on top of everything. We’d become limitless and omnipotent as soon as we find the necessary reserves of energy and self-discipline to plan your days perfectly. But this is a lie and it traps us in a cycle of perpetual discontent.

“In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. From this perspective, idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation.”

– Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

time management schedules

As a way of avoiding discomfort, we live with an unspoken agreement with ourselves: that real life, the one we dream of, will commence once we achieve some future milestone. Whether it’s finishing school, finding the ideal partner or job, saving enough money, or finishing our to-do lists, we continually postpone our happiness, believing that today is just a stepping stone to a brighter tomorrow.

The solution lies in accepting the natural limitations of our existence. There’s no way to get everything done, to take advantage of all available opportunities, to die with the bucket list all checked off. But we don’t feel comfortable accepting these facts. We often prefer to lie to ourselves.

The fear of missing out and fear of making bad choices

Have you ever thought “This day is so perfect that there’s literally nothing that could be added to make it better”? If your answer is Yes, congratulations. Tell us how you did it and how long it lasted. The rest of us might have perfect moments but most of the time we feel that we’re behind both on our obligations and on the fun we could be having. There’s this false belief that everyone else has figured it out and we’re the only ones not really sure how to suck the marrow out of life.

“Sometimes the most valuable of all talents is to be able not to seek resolution; to notice the craving for completeness or certainty or comfort, and not to feel compelled to follow where it leads.”

– Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

managing time, the joy of missing out. Sitting on a bed with cup of coffee

We can’t make 2+2 equal 5 any more than we can avoid missing out on countless wonderful experiences. As for choices, we can guess which way to go but since we live in a sea of infinite possibilities, none of us have the luxury of knowing if the decision we make will end up being the best one. Realizing this, we no longer have to impose these unrealistic demands on ourselves.

Think of the three best things that happened in your life. Did you plan them? More likely than not, they happened despite your meticulous scheduling, not because of it.

The joy of missing out or how to pick?

We haven’t missed out on life or failed our duties if our lists are not checked off by the time we die. There’s no winner in the race to the end of the to-do list. You won’t get peace of mind and extra hours in the day. You’ll just find more stuff to add to that list, or other people will add it there for you, seeing how efficient you are.

“The good procrastinator accepts the fact that she can’t get everything done, then decides as wisely as possible what tasks to focus on and what to neglect. By contrast, the bad procrastinator finds himself paralyzed precisely because he can’t bear the thought of confronting his limitations”

– Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

procrastination

The reward for efficiency is usually more work. It’s a trap.

Burkeman suggests looking at life as a large menu in a restaurant. Pick what you like the look of and let yourself happily “miss out” on all the rest. Of course, there’s no guarantee that you will choose the best thing on offer and you can’t possibly try every single dish. With every choice we make, we constantly wave goodbye to countless other, sometimes wonderful, possibilities.

The ability to Not Do, to consciously and willingly miss out, is an essential skill.

Chose the few things that matter most and spend time on them right now. Don’t leave them to a hypothetical day when your schedule opens up. That time will never come.

A better to-do list

If you ever came across an old to-do list from months or years ago, I bet you found plenty of things on it that pretended to be all-important at the time but whether or not you got them done, it made absolutely no difference to your life today. You might as well have used that energy to play frisbee.

This is how you can make your lists work for you:

  • Does it really need to be done? If not, cross it out.
  • Does it take less than 5 minutes? If so, do it immediately.
  • Would someone else happily do it? Delegate.
  • Can you barter it for something you’d much rather do (if you mop the floors, I’ll give you a foot rub)? Make a deal.
  • Can you pay someone else to do it? It might be worth it.
  • Can you make it more pleasant for yourself (sorting out that closet while talking to your niece on the phone, filling out that paperwork in your favorite coffee shop)? Be creative.
  • Can you decide on the maximum number of minutes or hours you’re willing to work on it? Set the timer and stop when it runs out. Resume tomorrow. Learn to walk away.

To narrow your list even further, pick just one item from each arena of your life (work, home life, health) and put it on the Short List. Make these a priority and only when they’re done, add new ones.

Many successful creatives use the timer technique. They concentrate on “deep work” for a set amount of time and then they put the task down even if it’s unfinished, reinforcing the belief that the great idea, the burst of energy, the enlightened thought will still be here tomorrow.

Concentrating on one thing without interruption can be overwhelming or boring, and putting it down unfinished can make us feel anxious or frustrated. To avoid these feelings, we start craving distraction. Checking Facebook or even cleaning the bathroom is suddenly much more appealing. The key here is to take a moment, notice what the brain is trying to do, and become aware of the distracting feelings and thoughts without acting on them. They are normal and they will pass.

Dreaming and reality

white sand beach

I was standing on an Australian beach that has been voted one of the most beautiful in the world. I have always dreamt of these white sands and aquamarine waters. Why did I not feel ecstatic then? I snapped a picture (the one you see, no filter) and looking at it I realized that I had based my expectations on photos. In reality, there were noisy tourists slathering sunscreen on their pale bodies just 5 meters to my right, sandflies were biting my ankle and there was sand in my sandwich.

That’s another problem with making decisions. No matter what we chose to do, we fear that reality will fall short of expectations. And, most often, we’re right.

The idea of a future full of possibilities is more appealing than the future itself. This might be why we are reluctant to make choices, step in a new direction, or try new things.

Burkeman put it nicely when he said: “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.”

The solution is to always expect reality to be different (for better or worse) from our dreams. If we realize that this is a normal human experience, we can give up the impossible quest for perfection. This will take the pressure off of our experiences and we’ll be free to enjoy them as they are.

Cosmic insignificance therapy

Oliver Burkeman goes even further, tempting us to contemplate our insignificance in the universe, promising this will let us finally put down the heavy burden we didn’t even know we were carrying and live a more meaningful, vivid, and juicy life:

time management. Picture of Milky Way Gallaxy arrow with you are here

“Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. To embrace it to whatever extent you can. (Isn’t it hilarious, in hindsight, that you ever imagined things might be otherwise?)

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.”

In other words, we can stop being so hard on ourselves. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter if we make something of our lives, if we leave a legacy or make a dent. Whatever we do or not do, the universe will not even notice and the Earth will keep on hurtling through space.

We might as well relax, have fun, make bold choices and sample some of the dishes on life’s menu. I’m going to start by weeding out my to-do list and maybe even (gasp!) hide it in the drawer for a week and see what happens.

To Sum Up

  • There’s a gap between what you think you can do and what you are actually able to do
  • You can never become optimized enough to bridge this gap
  • You’re not the only one who doesn’t have life all figured out
  • The best things in your life happen without planning
  • You can make a better to-do list
  • For some tasks, it’s best to stop mid-way
  • Spend time on what matters most, now
  • Enjoy dreaming but don’t let it stop you from making decisions
  • Reality will always differ from the fantasy
  • In cosmic terms, we are not as big a deal as we think we are
  • What you’re feeling is completely normal. I feel it too.

Here’s a list of Oliver Burkeman’s books on GoodReads. You can also listen to him on Sam Harris’ WakingUp meditation app which you can try for 30 days for free. None of these are affiliate links, I get nothing but a fuzzy feeling by recommending these books, people, and sites that I like.

If you’d like to take a break from your hectic life, check out my story about silent meditation retreats – what they are, how much they cost, and why people do them.

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