This Book Changed My Relationship With Time
Now, this poster shows every single week of an average life as one square on this. And then the black ones are the weeks that CV experts UK have already lived.If you're in the 6% of my audience that's 13 to 17 years old, this is about how many weeks you've used up. If you're in the 39%, that's 18 to 24, you are about here. If you are in the 34% that is 25 to 35, you are here. And if you're in the 1.1% that's over 65, then you are around here.
4,000 Weeks Is Definitely Not Guaranteed
If you're anything like me, this illustration hopefully makes you think, damn, I want to make the best use of this time, especially because the full 4,000 weeks is definitely not guaranteed. And this is exactly what Oliver Burkeman analyses in his book, 4,000 Weeks: Time and How to Use It. The struggle that we all have with this feeling of really limited time.
Now, this book has a pretty interesting philosophical approach to productivity and time management, which is why it is the book that we are discussing in today's episode of Book Club, the ongoing series where we distil and discuss highlights from some of my popular, most favourite books. So almost everything about our relationship with time comes from every day being exactly quantified down to the second by clocks.
This mechanical time makes us act a bit obsessively, counting minutes and hours, comparing everything that we've done to the amount of time that it took to do, and rewarding or punishing ourselves based on what we did with that time. And the more we chop our day up into these perfectly measurable blocks, the more time starts to feel like this conveyor belt of jars and boxes that we need to fill up efficiently and productively so that we allegedly make the most of our life.
If you're like me, you've probably got a pretty secure existence with enough food and shelter, and most of your problems are probably time related problems, the feeling that you are not optimally filling these jars as they've rolled past. Now, here are three big examples of time problems that we all face.
First, there is online distraction. Now, being distracted by photos and memes and sometimes pointless stuff on Instagram feels really bad because it's time that we could have spent on something more meaningful. Secondly, if we feel like we're not particularly fulfilled in our lives, we also feel that's a time problem because it feels like the time that we have to fulfil our hopes and dreams and aspirations is all draining away in the background. And the final example is decision paralysis.
We get paralysed when it comes to big decisions. For example, who to marry, or what to study at university, or what work to do, because we know that choosing one option often closes the door on a bunch of other options that we'll never have the time to revisit. Now, none of this would be a problem if we had an endless supply of mornings to scroll through cat blogs on Instagram, or if we could spend decades trying out every career path, but we don't have unlimited time.
Why Millions Of People Buy Time Management Books
The conveyor belt is always moving, and this fear about whether or not we are optimally loading the conveyor belt of stuff is why millions of people buy time management books like this one and watch productivity nerds like me giving advice here on YouTube. And what most time management gurus say that, in theory, it is in fact possible to fit everything in provided you have the perfect time management system, but when I read 4,000 Weeks and I spoke to Oliver on my deep dive podcast, he had big problems with this whole line of thinking.
Well, the most stereotypical book is going to imply that you can get everything done that is important to you, whether it's ambitions and goals, or obligations and demands, all of it, provided that you render yourself sufficiently optimised and efficient so that you can sort of pack in more and more and more into the same amount of time. That you won't need to make tough choices with what you do about your time, and that you can achieve a control over your day that is basically absolute. And I kind of want to say, no, you don't even have time for all the things that matter.
Our Rock Experiment
That's the truth here in what we discovered in our rock experiment, that we genuinely don't have time for all of the important things that matter to us. But most of us find this hard to accept, and we tell ourselves that we can cram everything in probably at some point in the future. The philosopher Henri Bergson summed up like this, "The future appeals more to us than the present moment because it appears to us in a multitude of pleasant forms all at the same time."
Basically, it's easier to stay in a fantasy world, believing that all of our dreams could hypothetically come true in the future, than it is to make hard decisions about which goals to invest in and which ones to ignore, given that we actually can't get everything done. This was my rationale when I decided to go for medicine as a university degree rather than computer science. I had all these tech and entrepreneurial aspirations, but I didn't want to close the door on those.
Idea Being A Doctor
I also liked the idea of being a doctor, and I didn't want to close the door on that. So I thought, oh, if I do medicine, it keeps my options open. I'll be able to do all of the things, which is a decision that did end up working, but it really feeds into this whole narrative that we have as a society that we should be doing lots and lots of things with our time.
Let's take a closer look at exactly how we go into denial about what we can actually get done given that we have limited time. And we use two main coping mechanisms to keep ourselves living in the present moment, clearing the decks and submitting to distraction. Let's talk about clearing the decks first.
Learning A Language, Or Writing A Book
This is when we put off big tasks that are important to us, like getting ripped, or learning a language, or writing a book. And we instead try to clear the decks of all of these small but urgent tasks that we just need to get out of the way first, because we think the big stuff needs our full focus. But the thing is that those annoying little tasks never actually go away.
The more mindless work that we get through, the more mindless work ends up back on our desk, and months can go by with us answering thousands and thousands of emails and bashing through these little work tasks but making no real progress on our big, scary goals, because, quote, "the time isn't quite right." This is basically procrastination.
Huge Scale Version
It's this huge scale version of telling ourselves that we will get to work, but only once we've cleaned our desk. We do it so that we don't have to face up to the fact that, A, we don't have time to do all of the things that actually matter, and, B, that we might fail at or be disappointed in those things that we choose to do. And, to be honest, sometimes work actually is that distraction from what really matters.
Like when we're worried about not getting everything done, our second big coping mechanism is submitting to distraction. Now, people discuss online distraction quite a lot, and, yes, algorithms and stuff are pretty good at getting you hooked on things like YouTube and Instagram and Twitter. But the truth is that most of us are actually willing accomplices in our own distraction.
Youtube, Instagram And Twitter
In the moment, we are very, very happy to be distracted even if we know we're going to feel bad about it later. And this is how Oliver puts it in 4,000 Weeks. He writes that "Distractions are not the ultimate cause of our distraction. Although well engineered, they're ultimately just the place we go to seek relief from the discomfort of facing our limitations." Distractions don't have to just be click bait. Like with clearing the decks, your whole job can be a distraction.
Or anything else, like maybe a relationship, or life obligations that you sort of half enjoy but you don't really see as truly meaningful. And in those cases, what we're running from is the discomfort of what really matters. And we're afraid of those big goals that we might not have the time for, or the ones that we might actually fail to achieve.
What Is The Solution, According To Oliver?
Well, he reckons that when we embrace our limits, we stop endless procrastination, and we really start living in the real world. And it all comes down to this thing, embracing your limits. And, conveniently, he recommends three main steps for this. The first step to embracing our limits is to accept defeat. Basically, we should embrace the fact that we can't get everything done, and that there's absolutely no cure for this. And this is really the big insight that can set us free.
Once we realise that we're actually setting the bar way too high, and that we are expecting to get everything done, and it's actually not possible to do that, we can let then all of our Superman ambitions and all that stuff crash to the ground, and then we can actually start doing the things that matter. Right. So the second way we can embrace our limits is by rediscovering wonder.
Short Compared To Infinity
I feel like most of us have this low level annoyance that our life is so short compared to infinity. It's like we feel weirdly entitled to live forever. At least, that's how we act. But instead of trying to cram absolutely everything into our 4,000 weeks, and resenting the fact that we don't live longer, or resenting the fact that we don't have so much time, it makes more sense to reset and compare the time that we do have to the more likely scenario of just not existing at all.
Oliver's got a story of this chap whose friend, David, suddenly died unexpectedly. That man was used to getting annoyed when he was stuck in traffic, or queuing in the supermarket. But after his friend sadly, tragically passed away, instead, he found himself wondering what would David have given to be caught in this traffic jam? And then feeling weirdly calm. He'd shifted his focus from what he was actually doing, and started appreciating the fact that he actually got to do anything in the first place.
We Rediscover This Kind Of Wonder About Life
Oliver says that once we rediscover this kind of wonder about life, we start to see just existing itself as this incredible coincidence that we get to enjoy instead of it being this tiny amount of time that never feels like it's enough. And then the third way of embracing our limits is to find meaning in finitude. Arguably, things get their meaning from the fact that we have limited time here on Earth.If we did apparently have an infinite life, then there wouldn't be any reason to do anything. We could just always just do it later, and nothing would really matter at the end of the day. University, for example, probably wouldn't feel special if you knew that you could stay for an extra 50 years, and we probably wouldn't care as much about events like Christmas or birthdays or families or whatever if we knew that we could always just do that a little bit later.???????
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