Rethinking time management starts with these 5 questions: NPR

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The more we can accept and actively embrace our limited time on Earth, argues author Oliver Burkeman, the easier it becomes to devote our time to what matters most to us.

Minnie Phan for NPR


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Minnie Phan for NPR


The more we can accept and actively embrace our limited time on Earth, argues author Oliver Burkeman, the easier it becomes to devote our time to what matters most to us.

Minnie Phan for NPR

Good time management begins with accepting your mortality.

It’s not the only step in the process, of course, but according to author Oliver Burkeman, it’s a critical part that many productivity or optimization-conscious individuals often overlook.

In this age accustomed to super-fast speeds and a constant bombardment of convenience, every new fad, life hack, or time-saving scheduler app makes us feel like we’re ‘about to conquer time. […] to be perfectly in control, ”says Burkeman,“ recovery productivity geek ”.

“But of course we never understand that because I think humans can’t do it. Because time eventually goes by and things take the time they take.”

His new book, Four thousand weeks: time management for mortals, is all about how and why to reevaluate your relationship over time – starting with the surprising shortness of average human lifespan, which gave the book its title. Burkeman doesn’t fire any punches from there.


Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

“Any degree to which you can see the truth that our time is limited, that we cannot do it all, that you can imagine many more goals than you could ever achieve, but be okay with that is another degree that you know you’ve taken ownership of your life and started building one that makes sense, ”says Burkeman,

Because the more we can accept and actively embrace our limited time on Earth, Burkeman postulates, the easier it becomes to spend our time on what matters most to us.

To help guide us, weary time travelers, Burkeman’s book asks five questions to help you reconsider your relationship to time.

Do you hold to and judge yourself by unattainable productivity or performance standards?

We are obsessed with the future, plan our days down to the second and plan our calendars for three years because by aiming to master time, we seek a little more control over our lives.

“But you never really have time to own a dollar or a pair of shoes,” says Burkeman. “You get one moment, then another moment, and it’s the same for absolutely everyone.”

We must first admit defeat. From there, the pressure fell on all levels.


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“It’s not about being good enough or not applying enough self-discipline or not finding the right technique,” ​​says Burkeman. “But that we are ultimately material beings in a material world constrained in a million different ways. So it follows that this kind of perfection cannot be achieved in reality.”

So instead of wasting precious minutes on perfectionism at work or at home, Burkeman says to accept that “imperfection is just the way it is.”

Rather than being constantly in agony to choose the best possible partner or overburdening ourselves to be the best worker, understand that your time – and therefore your realistic choices – is limited and free yourself from incredibly high standards.

Where in your life or work are you currently looking for comfort when what is needed is a little discomfort?

With so much technology at your fingertips, it can be easy to go on autopilot.

The “colonization of convenience” has made it easier than ever to list a day’s to-do list, and it maybe never been easier to get sidetracked from the things that matter most to us with social media , streaming services, etc.

While these things can and often serve as connectors and comfort, Burkeman says to think seriously about the role that your attention and distractions play in your life.

“When you come to the end of your life, the sum of all the things you paid attention to will have been your life,” he says.

Think about all the people and things that you think are the most important in your life: your friends, your interests, your hobbies. Then think about who and what you are actually spending your time on.


Life Kit Quote Card that reads "When you come to the end of your life, the sum of all the things you paid attention to will have been your life," Olivier Burkeman

Are the lists the same? Do you use all your brainpower in the office and check in as soon as you get home with the kids? Do you always procrastinate learning that new song because the social networks keep calling you?

Over time, our attention “adds to a life,” he says. It is therefore important to make sure that you are spending your time and energy wisely.

In what ways have you not yet come to terms with the fact that you are who you are and not who you think you should be?

The commodification of time makes many of us feel, among other things, that we never do enough – that there is a better, brighter, brighter version of ourselves just around the corner if we can. only work hard enough or long enough to find it, says Burkeman.

He says this existential feeling of “productivity debt” is incredibly problematic, but there is a lot you can do instead of blaming yourself for not being your idealized self.

Instead of constantly trying to reach a mythical super-you future, Burkeman suggests doing a bit of the opposite: strategically underperforming or “choosing ahead of time what to fail.”

He suggests deciding on a cyclical basis to relax in one aspect of your life – perhaps not keeping a perfectly clean house for six months or getting minimal exercise.

“Instead of constantly feeling bad about yourself when you can’t seem to do an impossible amount,” says Burkeman, give yourself a conscious grace and room for other things in your life.

A “completed list” is another great option to help you change your perspective on a daily basis. Rather than a to-do list that may or may not be done, but will almost certainly put pressure on you throughout the day, a completed list is “a way to keep some of the attention that you do a whole lot of things. ”

I brushed my teeth, it’s done! I completed another double shift – it’s done and it’s done!

What areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

We all yearn for certainty and conviction, but “I would say everyone does it all the time,” says Burkeman. And, it must be repeated, the passage of time is not the promise of a better future.

Instead of biding your time until you feel ready for whatever it is you are waiting for, Burkeman suggests thinking about how you are spending your time now.

“I think a lot of us go through our lives with a sort of background feeling that we’re not quite doing what would be most meaningful for us to do with them,” he says, at- beyond, of course, of the many real and economic factors that may limit us.

To solve this riddle, he turns to the work of psychotherapist James Hollis, who suggests that we should ask our lives, “Does this path make me bigger or smaller?” “

While research has shown humans are bad at predicting future happiness, Burkeman says people often “know in their bones” whether a path is toxic or may lead to growth. And it helps us get through the tough times.

“Most of us understand that a meaningful life involves a whole bunch of things that don’t really feel right and enjoyable when it comes time to do them,” he says, citing anyone who has had to change diapers as an example. at 2 a.m. .

“But at the same time, it usually makes it feel at least in the best of times, like you’re doing the right thing with your life, that you’re doing it right now that there is meaning to it. “

How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions come to fruition?

Often times, we look to the present to work toward a great end goal or future legacy, says Burkeman, but at the expense of making the most of the time that lies ahead.

“A plan is just a thought,” he said, “it is a statement of your intentions made in the present moment.” And that’s not a bad thing – it makes sense to make decisions now on what would make the most sense to do in the future. But, we must remember that the weather will not always meet our requirements.

This was the biggest change for Burkeman.

“The shift from planning your day with a sort of desperately anxious need for the day to unfold that way rather than just planning your day,” he says. “Because of course it’s useful to plan your day, and I’m not against that. But you know reality is going to have its own ideas as well.”

The resounding lesson, says Burkeman, is that time is not guaranteed, and whatever you do during that time – be it the greatest of legacies or the greatest of mistakes – will eventually be erased in the flow and the ebb of history. It is only this time, this very second, that it is necessary to count.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with technical support from Patrick Murray.

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