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You can't control time, but you can change your relationship with the clock

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

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 an essential element that many a productivity-minded or optimization-inclined individual often forgets.

In this era in which we're accustomed to lightning-fast speeds and a constant bombardment of convenience, every new time-saving fad, life hack or planning app makes us feel as if we're "just on the verge of conquering time ... of being perfectly in control," says "productivity geek in recovery" Burkeman.

"But of course, we never quite get that because I think humans can't get there. Because time ultimately just marches on, 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 with time — starting with the startling brevity of the average human life span, which gave the book its title. Burkeman doesn't pull 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 can't do everything, that you can imagine far more goals than you could ever achieve but be OK with it, that is another degree you know you have taken ownership of your life and started to build a meaningful one," says Burkeman.

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

To help guide us weary time travelers, Burkeman's book poses five questions to help you reconsider your relationship with time.

Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?

We obsess about the future, plan our days down to the second and schedule our calendars out three years deep because in aiming for time mastery, we seek a little more control over our lives.

"But you never really possess time in the way that you might possess a dollar or a pair of shoes," says Burkeman. "You get a moment and then another moment, and it's the same for absolutely everybody."

We must first admit defeat. From there, the pressure is off on every level.

Life Kit quote card that reads: "Any degree to which you can see the truth that our time is limited, that we can't do everything ... that is another degree you know you have taken ownership of your life and started to build a meaningful one." — Oliver Burkeman
/ NPR

"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 just follows that that kind of perfection can't be achieved in reality."

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

Rather than constantly agonizing over choosing the best possible partner or overburdening ourselves to be the best worker, understand your time — and therefore, your realistic choices — are limited, and liberate yourself from impossibly high standards.

Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort when what's called for is a little discomfort?

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

The "colonization of convenience" has made it easier than ever to get through a day's to-do list, and it has perhaps never been easier to get distracted from the things that matter most to us with social media, streaming services and the like.

While these things can and do often serve as connectors and comforts, Burkeman says to give serious thought to the roles that your attention and your distractions play in your life.

"When you get to the end of your life, the sum total of all the things you paid attention to will have been your life," he says.

Think about all the people and things you consider most important in your life — your friends, your interests, your hobbies. Then, think about who and what you actually spend your time on.

Life Kit quote card that reads: "When you get to the end of your life, the sum total of all the things you paid attention to will have been your life," Oliver Burkeman
/ NPR

Are the lists the same? Are you using up all your brainpower at the office and checking out as soon as you get home to the kids? Do you keep putting off learning to play that new song because social media won't stop calling you?

Over time, our attention "just adds up to a life," he says. So it's important to make sure you're spending your time and energy wisely.

In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are and not the person you think you ought to be?

The commodification of time makes many of us feel, among other things, like we're never quite doing enough — that there's some better, brighter, shinier version of ourselves just around the bend if we can only work hard enough or long enough to find that better version of ourselves, says Burkeman.

He says this existential feeling of a "productivity debt" is incredibly problematic, but there's a lot you can do instead of beating yourself up for not being your idealized self.

Instead of constantly trying to reach some future, mythical super-you, Burkeman suggests doing somewhat the opposite: strategic underachievement, or "choosing in advance what to fail at."

He suggests deciding on a cyclical basis to take it easy on one aspect of your life — maybe not keeping a squeaky clean home for six months or doing the minimum amount of exercise.

"Instead of constantly feeling bad about yourself when you fail to do an impossible amount," says Burkeman, give yourself some conscious grace and room for other things in your life.

A "done list" is another great option to help shift your daily perspective. Rather than a to-do list that may or may not get done but will almost certainly make you feel pressure throughout the day, a done list is "a way of keeping some of the focus on the fact that you are accomplishing a whole bunch of things."

Brushed my teeth — done! Finished another double shift at work — done and done!

In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you're doing?

We all crave certainty and conviction, but "I would suggest that everyone is winging it all the time," says Burkeman. And, need we say again, the passage of time is not a promise of a brighter tomorrow.

Instead of biding your time until you feel ready for whatever it is you're waiting for, Burkeman suggests reflecting on how you spend your time now.

"I think that a lot of us go through our lives with some sort of background sense that we're not quite doing what would be most meaningful for us to do with them," he says, beyond, of course, the many real social and economic factors that may limit us.

To solve this puzzle, he turns to the work of psychotherapist James Hollis, who suggests that we should ask of our lives, "Does this path enlarge me or diminish me?"

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 could lead to growth. And that helps us stick through tough times.

"Most of us understand that a meaningful life does involve a whole bunch of things that don't feel really great and pleasurable in the moment of doing them," he says, citing anyone who has had to change diapers at 2 a.m. as an example.

"But at the same time, that feels usually, at least in the best case, like you're doing the right thing with your life, that you're doing it in that moment that there's meaning to it."

How would you spend your days differently if you didn't care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

Oftentimes, we put our heads down in the present to work toward some great end goal or some future legacy, says Burkeman, but at the expense of enjoying the time in front of us.

"A plan is just a thought," he says. "It's a statement of your intentions made in the present moment." And that's not a bad thing — it makes sense to make decisions right now about what would be most sensible to do in the future. But, we need to remember that time will not always comply with our demands.

That has been the biggest change for Burkeman.

"The shift from planning your day with a sort of desperately anxious need for the day to turn out that way, versus just planning your day," he says. "Because sure, it's useful to plan your day, and I'm not against that. But you know that 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 within that time — be it the greatest of legacies or the greatest of mistakes — will eventually be wiped away in the ebb and flow of history. It's only this time, right this very second, that we need to count.


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

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