Time management is all life is.

In view of our finitude (we all will one day die) and limitation (we cannot pursue every possiblity), why isn’t time management or productivity framed in terms of our deepest existential questions? Why don’t we think of time management as the very question of life itself?

I finished reading the book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. Here are my takeaways and notes.

Book Notes, Quotes and Key Takeaways

  • Life hackers and productivity geeks aim at “squeezing the most out of your time.”
  • Time is not something we can increase.
  • Our time is limited.
  • “We will all be dead any minute.” - Philosopher Thomas Nagel
  • As such… “Time management, broadly defined, should be everyone’s chief concern. Arguably, time management is all life is.”
  • Time management runs up against and into the very questions of our finitude and our limited possibilities.
  • “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. These things matter to some extent, no doubt. But they’re hardly all that matters.”
  • Trap of Future (Task) Orientation Thinking and Pursuit: We strive to “get through” our tasks in order to live one day in the future. But this future keeps retreating and we continually add more to do and push back that future of doing what matters indefinitely.
  • Preindustrialization Medieval Peasants didn’t live according to a task orientation or “abstract timeline orientation” because ironically it is impossible (and would be considered insane) to try and do “a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner.”
  • Much of preindustrial time thinking was (according to Richard Rohr) “living in deep time,” meaning a connected timelessness.
  • Industrialization couldn’t have happened without clocks.
  • Our mentality shifted to time as a resource and with it, external and internal pressures towards time.
  • Suddenly we wanted to “master” or “control” time.
  • We ended up with “joyless urgency.”
  • In truth, we will never “be on top of everything.”
  • “The universal truth behind my specific issues is that most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves.” (emphasis mine)
  • We recoil and avoid confronting this finitude-defining aspect of our time.
  • “We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”
  • One solution: “focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you’re in.”
  • Accept “notion that fulfillment might lie in embracing, rather than denying, our temporal limitations.” (emphasis mine)
  • We must reject “being on top of everything” and let go of “anxiety of feeling overwhelmed” in order to live our own personal truth and personal meaning in our own time.
  • FOMO is guaranteed.
  • “each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with.”
  • We must make profound and possibility-limiting choices with our time.
  • In order to meaningfullly live a current possibility in time, we have to procrastinate in one form or another. We must accept not making progress on a lot of things. Paths closed in order to live meaningfully on a select few.
  • “The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,” Henri Bergson wrote, “and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.”
  • We must reject “capitalist pressure toward instrumentalizing your time”
  • Embrace hobbies for what they are: “In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit.”
  • We have developed an “idleness aversion,” meaning we struggle to not be productive in a instrumental sense.
  • Atelic activities (like hiking, meeting friends, walks, listening to music) give us enjoyment and meaning without a telos or ends that we are pursuing.
  • Time leisure is a different kind of productivity, compared to Taylorist form.
  • Attention…just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention to.” (emphasis mine)
  • Research in Sweden and other countries has shown that time is also a “networked good,” meaning we find greater happiness and meaning when our time is spent together.
  • 1940s Soviet Union tried to implement a disconnected schedule of time where different people worked on different schedules in order to be more efficient. Experiment failed since people were lonely and couldn’t live together in their offtime.
  • Put another way, there is meaning from being in time and in rhythm with others. Syncronizing feels good.
  • On December 15, 1933, Carl Jung wrote a letter to someone asking about life advice. His advice:

“Dear Frau V., Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way…If that’s what you want, you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what.” By contrast, the individual path “is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other.”

  • Advice: Make devices as boring as possible.
  • When facing a challenging or boring morment, adopt an attitude of curiosity.
  • Rainer Maria Rilke: “live the questions”

My Quick Take Reviews

  • I rated this book a 5 out of 5 on Goodreads.
  • Would I recommend it? Yes, this book should be read and pondered by all of us.
  • Best of who? It’s pretty broadly applicable.
  • Would I read it again? Not anytime soon. I’d be interested to re-read the first chapter since it is great “author” example of providing a clear philosophical critique with personal application / follow-ups. Very engaging and well-argued.

What I got out of this book? Critique of the Efficiency Trap

This book came on the heels of a range of other readings and my own design and thinking against reducing benefits of what we do to simply instrumental terms. For example, much of the quantified self feels like reducing us to what are data is and misses key aspects of what it means to be more than just a “meat puppet.”

I’ll admit that much of my own thinking around productivity and even a substantal amount of my blog writing on these topics has fallen into one of the biggest critiques of book, namely the Efficiency Trap.

Efficiency Trap describes the phenomenon around productivity wherein the more productive you become the more demands are placed on you (either by yourself or by others). As you your efficiency increase so will the work you strive to do. Basically you always end up with more work to do. If efficency and productivity are the goals, you’ll never really get out of it since the bucket of instrumental TODOs never stops filling up.

This book provided a specific and broad-ranging Critique of the Efficiency Trap. By reminding us about our human finitude and limitation of possibilities, it struck a chord in my own life and work.

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