In the 20 years since David Allen promised us a “mind like water” in Getting Things Done, there is not a productivity hack I haven’t tried. I’ve task-batched, time-blocked, typed to the ticking of a Pomodoro timer, sliced the day into quarter-hour increments, and started my mornings by swallowing a (figurative) frog. Rather than enjoying more leisure thanks to increased efficiency, however, ticking off to-dos left me spending my days in a state of what Marilynne Robinson has called “joyless urgency”.
It was with some relief that I learned that Oliver Burkeman, a former mental wellbeing columnist for the Guardian, hadn’t fared any better. In his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Burkeman describes an a-ha moment on a park bench in Brooklyn, in which he realised that the race to get more done was a sham. Clear the decks, and they just get filled more quickly. Smugly achieve inbox zero, and guess what? Sisyphus, you’ve got mail. Worse still, by putting out fires first, you never get around to doing the deep work that requires uninterrupted time.
Whatever it takes to protect that uninterrupted time, by contrast, is worthwhile. While I haven’t gone as far as an author friend who puts his phone in a timed safe when writing (which he periodically takes a hammer to and has to replace), turning off notifications has been a game-changer. As has ringfencing my most productive hours. Having taken a class on how to write a book proposal a full five years before putting pen to paper, I can confirm it only happened when I gave it my focused attention, instead of trying to cram it in the cracks between other commitments.
For Burkeman, the best time-management technique is simply accepting the reality that we’ll never get everything done. The self-help author Stephen Covey liked to use rocks in a jar as a metaphor for time. If you fill the jar with pebbles and sand (the small stuff) first, there’s no room left for the big rocks (what’s important).
But the demo is rigged, writes Burkeman: there are, and always will be, far more rocks than can fit in the jar. To focus on what’s most meaningful to us — whether a creative project, a relationship or a cause — we have to learn which rocks to neglect. “It’s the moderately appealing ones — the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship — on which a finite life can come to grief,” he warns.
Only by facing what Heidegger called our “finitude” can we hope to make better choices. Those of us fortunate enough to live until 80 will have about 4,000 weeks, which is, writes Burkeman, “absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short”. To his mind, what distinguishes us from other apes is not language or the length of our opposable thumbs but the capacity to make ambitious plans that we will have heartbreakingly little time to fulfil.
Not everyone will be as wowed as I was by the 4,000 weeks revelation. When I asked my son how many weeks are in a lifetime, he ballparked it correctly in the blink of an eye-roll, and shrugged at my lament that it was so little. Not only does he have (God willing) a lot of weeks left, but each one still feels long to him. As the cartoonist Bill Watterson put it in a Calvin and Hobbes strip, in which the pair are perched in a tree on a summer day waiting to drop a water balloon, the days are just packed.
Burkeman confirms that time speeds up as we age and life becomes more routinised. “It’s hard to imagine a crueller arrangement: not only are our 4,000 weeks constantly running out, but the fewer of them we have left, the faster we seem to lose them.”
Further down the actuarial table, my father, struck with a malignant brain tumour, doesn’t have so many weeks left. Rather than regretting what remains unticked on his bucket list, what he would like is more ordinary weeks, filled with the things that have given his life meaning since retiring from teaching — kvetching about sky-high P/E ratios on value forums, playing ping-pong with his grandson, and taking long walks with my mother to continue their nearly six decade-long conversation. These are all, it’s worth noting, what are known as atelic activities — enjoyed for their own sake rather than an end goal.
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Each year, the Harvard Business School Portrait Project asks graduating MBA students the question posed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver in “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” Since 2002, when the project began, it has become démodé to mention money; the answers increasingly involve giving back. There’s little talk of lolling in the grass on a summer day, however. Despite its most oft-quoted line sounding like a call to action, the poem is in fact an ode to idleness. Having spent her day strolling through fields and kneeling to commune with a grasshopper, “What else should I have done?” asks Oliver. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
Having chucked last year’s day planner out of the window, I am being very careful about what I allow in the new one. Once you get over the disappointment that, despite a large industry trying to say otherwise, there is no magic bullet for optimising life, it’s rather liberating not wasting time trying to find one. In these last few weeks of summer, I’ll spend as much time as I can with my dad, and make ample space for idling.
Mia Levitin is a writer and critic
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