The pressure to be more productive and fit ever-increasing quantities of activity into a stubbornly non-increasing quantity of time leads to productivity anxiety, shriveled attention spans, and burn-out.
You would feel less anxious about wasting an evening doom-scrolling if you had an infinite amount of them. Somehow either doing too much or too little can create the sense of wasting time.
Despite all this activity we sense there are important and fulfilling ways we could be spending our time, even if we can’t say exactly what they are. Yet, we systematically spend our time doing other things to get by instead.
Scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death.
But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks. The rare few lucky enough to become a centenarian will see only five thousand.
That’s absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.
You likely have many more weeks ahead of you. The psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that at this phase of life you focus on the virtues of competence and fidelity. Allow yourself failures in the spirit of discovering and developing your personal identity and priorities so that your future weeks can be lived well with intention and purpose.
That’s a significant amount of the weeks you’ll see. The psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that at this phase of life you focus on the virtue of love. Share yourself more intimately with others and invest in happy relationships so that your future weeks can be lived well with companionship and purpose.
That’s likely a majority of the weeks you’ll see. The psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that at this phase of life you focus on the virtue of care. Spend your weeks “making your mark” by intentionally nurturing things that will outlast you, raising children, mentoring others, becoming involved in your community and organizations, and creating positive change that benefits others.
You’re likely well aware of your own finitude having lived the large majority of the weeks you’ll see. The psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that at this phase of life you focus on the virtue of wisdom. Accept and appreciate your accomplishments so far as a life well lived. Continue to nurture things that will outlast you and mentor others, spend your weeks intentionally on your true priorities, and appreciate novelty in the mundane.
You’re no doubt well aware of your own finitude as one of the lucky ones to live well past four thousand weeks. The psychologist Erik Erikson suggests that at this phase of life you focus on the virtue of wisdom. Accept and appreciate your accomplishments so far as a life well lived. Spend every remaining week intentionally on your true priorities and appreciate novelty in the mundane.
There are numerous techniques, products, and services to squeeze the most productivity from your week. The problem isn’t that these don’t work, it’s that they do work. And yet paradoxically you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result.
The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.
Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.
If you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time—no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken.
We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations.
Surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take, and that you can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster, because it isn’t within your power to force reality’s pace as much as you feel you need to, and because the faster you go, the faster you’ll feel you need to go.
We are forced to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t make the world run at your preferred speed and so there are tough choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.
Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for. Digging in to a challenging project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice.
A real risk of doing too much is finding your work time, in attempt to be productive, encroaching on an evening’s rest. Rest as it turns out—whether in the evening, over a weekend, or a long vacation—is critical for productive creative work. Its absence can lead to stress, burnout, and counterintuitively overall poor performance despite the extra hours worked.
Though why should vacations or lazy mornings need defending in terms of improved work performance? Enjoying leisure for its own sake—which is the whole point of leisure—should not feel as though you’re failing at life. Leisure is not merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment for the purposes of further work, but for its intrinsic satisfactions.
Other human beings are always impinging on your time in countless frustrating ways. In an ideal world the only person making decisions about your time is you. However this comes at a cost that’s not worth paying.
It’s good to have plenty of time, but having all the time in the world isn’t much use if you’re forced to experience it all on your own. To do countless important things with time: to socialize, go on dates, raise children, launch businesses, start movements; it has to be synchronized with other people. In fact, having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively can be actively unpleasant.
We treat our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share. Even if that means surrendering some of your power to decide exactly what you do with it and when.
Tough choices are inevitable; focus on making them consciously and well.
Keep two to-do lists: an “open” one for everything on your plate, doubtlessly nightmarishly long, and “closed” with a fixed number of entries, only moving tasks onto it when previous ones have been completed.
You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list, but you were never going to in any case. The choice to leave them there is hard, but time spent on them is time not spent on the things you chose to focus on.
Establish pre-determined time boundaries on your work, and make decisions in light of those limits. If your primary goal is to do what’s required to be finished by 5:30 you’ll be aware of the constraints on your time and motivated to use it wisely.
Focus on one big project at a time, and see it to completion before moving onto the next.
It’s alluring to try to alleviate the anxiety of having too many responsibilities or ambitions by getting started on them all at once, but you’ll make little progress that way. Instead, 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 that anxiety feel worthwhile, and as you complete them you’ll have less to be anxious about anyway.
Simply because your time is finite, you’ll inevitably underachieve at something. When you can’t do it all, you can feel ashamed and give up. When you decide in advance what to fail at, you remove the sting of shame.
Nominate in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence from yourself. Instead focus that time more effectively, and you won’t be surprised when you fail at what you planned to fail at all along.
The to-do list will never be finished. Inbox zero will inevitably refill. There’s an unhelpful assumption that you begin each morning with a productivity debt that you must pay off with hard work to achieve a zero-balance by evening.
Keep a “done” list which starts empty and fills up over the day. You could have spent the day doing nothing remotely constructive, and look what you did instead! Lower the bar for what gets to count as an accomplishment; small wins accrue.
The attention economy demands urgency, bringing a litany of demands for your care every day. Consciously choose your battles in industry, charity, activism, and politics.
To make a real difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.
Modern digital devices offer distraction to a place where painful human limitations do not apply; you need never feel bored or constrained in your freedom of action—which isn’t the case when it comes to work that matters.
Combat this by making your devices boring. Remove apps that distract (even consider Slack or Email). Switch your screen to grayscale. Use time-limiting reminders.
Choose single-purpose devices like an e-reader where it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read. If distracting apps are only a swipe away they’ll prove impossible to resist when the first twinge of boredom or difficulty of focus arises.
The fewer weeks we have left the faster we seem to lose them. The likeliest explanation for this phenomenon is that our brains encode the passing of time on the basis of how much information we process in any given interval.
Cramming your life with novel experiences does work, but can also lead to existential overwhelm and is also impractical, especially if you have a job or children.
Alternatively pay more attention to every moment no matter how mundane. Plunge into the life you already have with twice the intensity and your life will feel twice as full and will be remembered as lasting twice as long. Meditation, going on unplanned walks, photography, journaling, anything that draws your attention more fully to the present.
When presented with a challenging or boring moment with another person, deliberately adopt an attitude of curiosity in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome or explain your position but to figure out who this human being is who we’re with.
This curiosity is well suited to the unpredictability of life with others because it can be satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way.
Whenever a generous impulse arises your mind: to give money, to check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work, act on that impulse right away. If you put it off for whatever reason, you’ll likely not get back to it. The only acts of generosity that count are the ones you’re actually making.
People are social creatures, and generous action reliably makes us feel much happier.
When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable. If you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time simply to feel as if you’re acting. Calm down, gain autonomy over your choices, and make better ones.