April Roundup: How to deal with time
Infinite options and finite time, an essay from 1877, reducing brain static, and an update on the forest property
Welcome to my secret little corner of the internet, where I share all my favorite things from the last month. In this edition, the theme is time: accepting our finitude, a short essay from 1877 (the year!) about working less, a technique for slowing down thoughts, and a song that’s perfect for reveling in moments of discovery, breakthrough or transition. Oh, and an update on the magical forest property, where I’m currently writing this from!
Let’s dive in.
Long Read: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
You may have heard of this book—it was widely publicized on the podcast circuit and elsewhere—but I can’t help but jump on the bandwagon. It’s original, entertaining, and surprising, and believe me, I never thought I would say those words about a book with “Time Management” in the title. It is less of a time management book, though, and more a meditation on the human relationship with time, throughout history and today. It is a particularly important read for a to-do-lister like me, who is known to put items like “take a bath” on her list. A few points that stuck with me:
Trying to fit everything in to our finite amount of time, through optimizing and to-do listing and so on, is inevitably a failed project: we will never do all the things that we want to do, given the nearly infinite appealing options of things one could do in a life.
Because there are infinite possible things to do in a life, getting more done only results in the expansion of things that need doing, and this applies to both work and fun. I’ve thought about this in the context of work, but less in the context of fun. It is common these days to feel like we are not fitting in all the leisure activities we wish we were—all the hobbies and trips—and if only we further optimized our time, we would be able to fit in everything fun we want to do (we never will, see #1).
Optimization and busyness are common means to push away awareness of what Burkeman calls our finitude, or the certainty of our death. We delude ourselves into thinking that if only we optimize further, we can fit in everything. It is only by accepting our finitude, and with it the fact that we will inevitably leave many good and appealing things undone, that we can start making actual hard decisions about how we want to spend our time. To Burkeman, it is essential to stop trying to fit in everything if you want to end up spending time on things that most matter to you.
Burkeman traces our cultural discomfort with unproductive leisure time to the Christian association between idleness and damnation. These lines hit me particularly hard:
We flatter ourselves that we’ve outgrown such superstitions today. And yet there remains, in our discomfort with anything that feels too much like wasting time, a yearning for something not all that dissimilar from eternal salvation. As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection…
To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake—entails first accepting the fact that this is it: that your days aren’t progressing toward a future state of perfectly invulnerable happiness.
Whew. Ya. Chew on that a bit. The book is full of such zingers.
Short Read: An Apology for Idlers by Robert Louis Stevenson
Ok, since I feel bad about starting this list with a widely talked about book rather than an undiscovered gem, I am now going to do a real deep cut: a personal essay written in 1877 by Robert Louis Stevenson (yes, the author of Treasure Island wrote personal essays!) This essay in defense of working less relates to many of the themes in Burkeman’s book. I have returned to it many times since since I first read it ten years ago because I find it both familiar and novel: the themes are so relevant to modern life but are delivered in the voice of a different era. It reminds me that humans have been thinking about the same questions—in this case the value of work and leisure—for a long, long time. I also just find old essays utterly charming to read.
IRL: A simple technique to reducing racing thoughts and brain static
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