Greg Thorkelson, MD with Ryan Reagan, PhD, LPC
For the next few posts, we’re going to pivot to some lighter fare. Recently, the office book club covered two books that address our problematic relationships with time and attention since the pandemic: Stolen Focus by Johann Hari and Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Don’t judge the latter by its title. It is far more about our relationship to time than tricks and hacks to increase productivity. In fact, you probably find that last line intriguing or infuriating depending on your position. It’s all relative. Someone smart said that.
This week’s post will focus more on Four Thousand Weeks. The reason is that there is some helpful advice in the final chapters of the book, and the purpose of this blog is to provide guidance. Burkeman poses five fundamental questions to consider as a starting point. We need starting points. As a society, I don’t believe that we’ve come close to fully registering the impact of the pandemic. It was a once in a century pull of the emergency break. Granted, we did that before in the previous century, but time in that world was different.
Stolen Focus also touches on the experience of time accelerating, a phenomenon that was first noticed decades ago. For all the destruction, misery, and trauma wrought by the pandemic, it revealed much about how we were living and consequently what we were missing while busy. It is this “busyness” that is part of the problem. Busy with what? Burkeman’s point is that the what matters. Spoiler alert—time management efforts are doomed to fail because time cannot be managed. It is not something you can possess. Time was never yours to begin with.
Burkeman states that the fundamental question of time management is “what would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you were making it count.” To get started he offers five helpful questions for those of us struggling with fundamental question above. Sometimes life drags us to one of those places where we realize we’re not living the life we had envisioned, or we’ve lost touch with purpose, or we just can’t put our figure out where and how to pivot.
1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
Ah, the comfort zone. We are anxiety avoidant creatures. We seek to maximize comfort and minimize discomfort for obvious reasons. But, as another quote goes “life is what begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” A question James Hollis suggests that you can ask when faced with a choice between two stark choices is does this enlarge me or diminish me? Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment.
2. Are you holding yourself to, or judging yourself by, standards of productivity and performance that are impossible to meet?
There is a comforting belief that if we get the formula just right, then we will be able to finally achieve the life that we’ve dreamed. Unfortunately, what we imagine is not the world we live in. Reality will always supply a limitless number of possibilities. The idea that we could meet them all is delusional. There is a technique attributed to Warren Buffet—write down a list of the 20 most important things to you, then circle the top 5. Focus on those relentlessly. In fact, actively ignore 6-10. They were not good enough to make the top 5 and you will be drawn to them. Never hurts to repeat this exercise.
3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
One of the anxiety-avoiding techniques we use to avoid accepting the here and now, is to treat life as a journey to the person you ought to be. The psychologist Stephen Cope points out that at some point it dawns on us that nobody actually cares much about what we are doing with our life, so who am I justifying my existence to?
4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
Life is always going to be uncertain and will always involve fear. The idea that you’re working toward some destination of authoritative control is worth abandoning, especially if it is preventing you from making decisions. By embracing the notion that you may never truly know what you are doing, you give up notions of perfectionism since total authority is never going to arrive. You can be bold, take risks.
5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about your actions reaching fruition?
Doing for the sake of doing. There is an assumption that what we do matters only if we can see the results. But the pyramids of Egypt took generations to complete and certainly many never saw the finished product. Consider poignant words of Martin Luther King stating that he had “seen the promised land” but “may not make it with you.” Results we never see can still matter.