The Limit-Embracing Life
The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem—or so I hope to convince you—is that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse. To see how we got here, and how to escape into a better relationship with time, we need to rewind the clock—back to before there were clocks.
On balance, you should definitely be grateful you weren’t born a peasant in early medieval England. For one thing, you’d have been much less likely to make it to adulthood; but even if you had, the life that stretched ahead of you would have been one defined by servitude. You’d have spent your backbreaking days farming the land on which the local lord permitted you to live, in exchange for giving him a crippling proportion of what you produced or the income you could generate from it. The church would have demanded regular contributions as well, and you’d have been much too scared of eternal damnation to disobey. At night, you would have retreated to your one-room hut, alongside not only the rest of your family (who, like you, would rarely have bathed or brushed their teeth) but also your pigs and chickens, which you brought indoors at night; bears and wolves still roamed the forests and would help themselves to any animals left outside after sunset. Disease would have been another constant companion: familiar sicknesses ranged from measles and influenza to bubonic plague and St. Anthony’s fire, a form of food poisoning caused by moldy grain, which left the delirious sufferer feeling as though his skin were burning or as if he were being bitten by unseen teeth.
Time Before Timetables
But there’s one set of problems you almost certainly wouldn’t have experienced: problems of time. Even on your most exhausting days, it probably wouldn’t have occurred to you that you had “too much to do,” that you needed to hurry, or that life was moving too fast, let alone that you’d gotten your work-life balance wrong. By the same token, on quieter days, you would never have felt bored. And though death was a constant presence, with lives cut short far more frequently than they are today, time wouldn’t have felt in limited supply. You wouldn’t have felt any pressure to find ways to “save” it. Nor would you have felt guilty for wasting it: if you took an afternoon break from threshing grain to watch a cockfight on the village green, it wouldn’t have felt like you were shirking during “work time.” And none of this was simply because things moved more slowly back then, or because medieval peasants were more relaxed or more resigned to their fate. It was because, so far as we can tell, they generally didn’t experience time as an abstract entity—as a thing—at all.
If that sounds confusing, it’s because our modern way of thinking about time is so deeply entrenched that we forget it even is a way of thinking; we’re like the proverbial fish who have no idea what water is, because it surrounds them completely. Get a little mental distance on it, though, and our perspective starts to look rather peculiar. We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, “an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences,” in the words of the American cultural critic Lewis Mumford. To see what he means, consider some time-related question—how you plan to spend tomorrow afternoon, say, or what you’ve accomplished over the last year—and without being fully conscious of it at first, you’ll probably find yourself visualizing a calendar, a yardstick, a tape measure, the numbers on a clock face, or some hazier kind of abstract timeline. You’ll then proceed to measure and judge your real life against this imaginary gauge, lining up your activities against the timeline in your head. Edward Hall was making the same point with his image of time as a conveyor belt that’s constantly passing us by. Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for “staying on top of things” and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them. If we use containers labeled “work time” for the purposes of leisure, our employer may grow irritated. (He paid for those containers; they belong to him!)
The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today. (It’s tempting to think of medieval life as moving slowly, but it’s more accurate to say that the concept of life “moving slowly” would have struck most people as meaningless. Slowly as compared with what?) In those days before clocks, when you did need to explain how long something might take, your only option was to compare it with some other concrete activity. Medieval people might speak of a task lasting a “Miserere whyle”—the approximate time it took to recite Psalm 50, known as the Miserere, from the Bible—or alternatively a “pissing whyle,” which should require no explanation.
Living this way, one can imagine that experience would have felt expansive and fluid, suffused with something it might not be an exaggeration to call a kind of magic. Notwithstanding the many real privations of his existence, our peasant farmer might have sensed a luminous, awe-inspiring dimension to the world around him. Untroubled by any notion of time “ticking away,” he might have experienced a heightened awareness of the vividness of things, the feeling of timelessness that Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan priest and author, calls “living in deep time.” At dusk, the medieval country-dweller might have sensed spirits whispering in the forest, along with the bears and wolves; plowing the fields, he might have felt himself one tiny part of a vast sweep of history, in which his distant ancestors were almost as alive to him as his own children. We can assert all this with some confidence because we still occasionally encounter islands of deep time today—in those moments when, to quote the writer Gary Eberle, we slip “into a realm where there is enough of everything, where we are not trying to fill a void in ourselves or the world.” The boundary separating the self from the rest of reality grows blurry, and time stands still. “The clock does not stop, of course,” Eberle writes, “but we do not hear it ticking.”
This happens for some people in prayer, or in meditation, or in magnificent landscapes; I’m pretty sure my toddler son spent the whole of his infancy in such a state and is only now beginning to leave it. (Until we get them onto schedules, babies are the ultimate “task-oriented” beings, which, along with sleep deprivation, may explain the otherworldliness of those first few months with a newborn: you’re dragged from clock time into deep time, whether you like it or not.) The Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, visiting Kenya in 1925, was setting out on a hike in the first glow of dawn when he, too, was suddenly plunged into timelessness:
From a low hill in this broad savanna, a magnificent prospect opened out to us. To the very brink of the horizon we saw gigantic herds of animals: gazelle, antelope, gnu, zebra, warthog, and so on. Grazing heads nodding, the herds moved forward like slow rivers. There was scarcely any sound save the melancholy cry of a bird of prey. This was the stillness of the eternal beginning, the world as it had always been, in the state of non-being … I walked away from my companions until I had put them out of sight, and savored the feeling of being entirely alone.
The End of Eternity
There’s one huge drawback in giving so little thought to the abstract idea of time, though, which is that it severely limits what you can accomplish. You can be a small-scale farmer, relying on the seasons for your schedule, but you can’t be much other than a small-scale farmer (or a baby). As soon as you want to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, you need a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time. This is widely held to be how the first mechanical clocks came to be invented, by medieval monks, who had to begin their morning prayers while it was still dark, and needed some way of ensuring that the whole monastery woke up at the required point. (Their earlier strategies included deputizing one monk to stay awake all night, watching the movements of the stars—a system that worked only when it wasn’t cloudy, and the night-shift monk didn’t fall asleep.) Making time standardized and visible in this fashion inevitably encourages people to think of it as an abstract thing with an independent existence, distinct from the specific activities on which one might spend it; “time” is what ticks away as the hands move around the clockface. The Industrial Revolution is usually attributed to the invention of the steam engine; but as Mumford shows in his 1934 magnum opus, Technics and Civilization, it also probably couldn’t have happened without the clock. By the late 1700s, rural peasants were streaming into English cities, taking jobs in mills and factories, each of which required the coordination of hundreds of people, working fixed hours, often six days a week, to keep the machines running.
From thinking about time in the abstract, it’s natural to start treating it as a resource, something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible, like coal or iron or any other raw material. Previously, laborers had been paid for a vaguely defined “day’s work,” or on a piecework basis, receiving a given sum per bale of hay or per slaughtered pig. But gradually it became more common to be paid by the hour—and the factory owner who used his workers’ hours efficiently, squeezing as much labor as possible from each employee, stood to make a bigger profit than one who didn’t. Indeed, some cantankerous industrialists came to feel that workers who didn’t drive themselves hard enough were literally guilty of stealing something. “I have by sundry people [been] horribly cheated,” fumed the iron magnate Ambrose Crowley, from County Durham in England, in a memo from the 1790s, announcing his new policy of deducting pay for time spent “smoking, singing, reading of news history, contention, disputes, anything foreign to my business [or] in any way loitering.” The way Crowley saw it, his lackadaisical employees were thieves, illegitimately helping themselves to containers from the conveyor belt of time.
You don’t need to believe, as Mumford sometimes seems to imply, that the invention of the clock is solely to blame for all our time-related troubles today. (And I certainly won’t be arguing for a return to the lifestyle of medieval peasants.) But a threshold had been crossed. Before, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of. Afterward, once “time” and “life” had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used—and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today. Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer—as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution—instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable. It grows alluring to try to multitask—that is, to use the same portion of time for two things at once, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to notice: “One thinks with a watch in one’s hand,” he complained in an 1887 essay, “even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.” And it becomes a lot more intuitive to project your thoughts about your life into an imagined future, leaving you anxiously wondering if things will unfold as you want them to. Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you’re using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed. The title of a book that arrived on my desk the other day sums things up nicely: Master Your Time, Master Your Life.
The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough. Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.” Superficially, this seems like a sensible way to live, especially in a hypercompetitive economic climate, in which it feels as though you must constantly make the most judicious use of your time if you want to stay afloat. (It also reflects the manner in which most of us were raised: to prioritize future benefits over current enjoyments.) But ultimately it backfires. It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives. And it makes it all but impossible to experience “deep time,” that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.
As this modern mindset came to dominate, wrote Mumford, “Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” In its place came the dictatorship of the clock, the schedule, and the Google Calendar alert; Marilynne Robinson’s “joyless urgency” and the constant feeling that you ought to be getting more done. The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.
Confessions of a Productivity Geek
The rest of this book is an exploration of a saner way of relating to time and a toolbox of practical ideas for doing so, drawn from the work of philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers who all rejected the struggle to dominate or master it. I believe it sketches a kind of life that’s vastly more peaceful and meaningful—while also, it turns out, being better for sustained productivity over the long haul. But don’t get me wrong: I spent years trying, and failing, to achieve mastery over my time. In fact, the symptoms were especially glaring in the subspecies to which I belonged. I was a “productivity geek.” You know how some people are passionate about bodybuilding, or fashion, or rock climbing, or poetry? Productivity geeks are passionate about crossing items off their to-do lists. So it’s sort of the same, except infinitely sadder.
My adventures with Inbox Zero were only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve squandered countless hours—and a fair amount of money, spent mainly on fancy notebooks and felt-tip pens—in service to the belief that if I could only find the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline, I might actually be able to win the struggle with time, once and for all. (I was enabled in this delusion by writing a weekly newspaper column on productivity, which gave me an excuse to experiment with new techniques on the grounds that I was doing so for work purposes; I was like an alcoholic conveniently employed as a wine expert.) On one occasion, I tried scheduling the whole of every day in fifteen-minute blocks; on another, I used a kitchen timer to work exclusively in periods of twenty-five minutes, interspersed with five-minute breaks. (This approach has an official name, the Pomodoro Technique, and a cult following online.) I divided my lists into A, B, and C priorities. (Guess how many B- and C-priority tasks I ever got around to completing?) I tried to align my daily actions with my goals, and my goals with my core values. Using these techniques often made me feel as if I were on the verge of ushering in a golden era of calm, undistracted productivity and meaningful activity. But it never arrived. Instead, I just got more stressed and unhappy.
I remember sitting on a park bench near my home in Brooklyn one winter morning in 2014, feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work. I would never succeed in marshaling enough efficiency, self-discipline, and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future. Ironically, the realization that this had been a useless strategy for attaining peace of mind brought me some immediate peace of mind. (After all, once you become convinced that something you’ve been attempting is impossible, it’s a lot harder to keep on berating yourself for failing.) What I had yet to understand, at that point, was why all these methods were doomed to fail, which was that I was using them to try to obtain a feeling of control over my life that would always remain out of reach.
Though I’d been largely unaware of it, my productivity obsession had been serving a hidden emotional agenda. For one thing, it helped me combat the sense of precariousness inherent to the modern world of work: if I could meet every editor’s every demand, while launching various side projects of my own, maybe one day I’d finally feel secure in my career and my finances. But it also held at bay certain scary questions about what I was doing with my life, and whether major changes might not be needed. If I could get enough work done, my subconscious had apparently concluded, I wouldn’t need to ask if it was all that healthy to be deriving so much of my sense of self-worth from work in the first place. And as long as I was always just on the cusp of mastering my time, I could avoid the thought that what life was really demanding from me might involve surrendering the craving for mastery and diving into the unknown instead. In my case, that turned out to mean committing to a long-term relationship and, later, making the decision with my wife to try to start a family—two things I’d notably failed to get done with any number of systems for getting things done. It had been more comforting to imagine that I might eventually “optimize” myself into the kind of person who could confront such decisions without fear, feeling totally in charge of the process. I didn’t want to accept that this was never going to happen—that fear was part of the deal, and that experiencing it wouldn’t destroy me.
But (don’t worry!) we won’t be dwelling here on my personal hang-ups. 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. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up. We don’t want to risk getting hurt in relationships or failing professionally; we don’t want to accept that we might never succeed in pleasing our parents or in changing certain things we don’t like about ourselves—and we certainly don’t want to get sick and die. The details differ from person to person, but the kernel is the same. We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at. Instead, we mentally fight against the way things are—so that, in the words of the psychotherapist Bruce Tift, “we don’t have to consciously participate in what it’s like to feel claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality.” This struggle against the distressing constraints of reality is what some old-school psychoanalysts call “neurosis,” and it takes countless forms, from workaholism and commitment-phobia to codependency and chronic shyness.
Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance. After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required. Or we procrastinate, which is another means of maintaining the feeling of omnipotent control over life—because you needn’t risk the upsetting experience of failing at an intimidating project, obviously, if you never even start it. We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally. (“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.”) Or we plan compulsively, because the alternative is to confront how little control over the future we really have. Moreover, most of us seek a specifically individualistic kind of mastery over time—our culture’s ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want—because it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.
Denying reality never works, though. It may provide some immediate relief, because it allows you to go on thinking that at some point in the future you might, at last, feel totally in control. But it can’t ever bring the sense that you’re doing enough—that you are enough—because it defines “enough” as a kind of limitless control that no human can attain. Instead, the endless struggle leads to more anxiety and a less fulfilling life. For example, the more you believe you might succeed in “fitting everything in,” the more commitments you naturally take on, and the less you feel the need to ask whether each new commitment is truly worth a portion of your time—and so your days inevitably fill with more activities you don’t especially value. The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks (or toddlers) that won’t be hurried; the more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty. And the more individual sovereignty you achieve over your time, the lonelier you get. All of this illustrates what might be termed the paradox of limitation, which runs through everything that follows: the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.
Copyright © 2021 by Oliver Burkeman