Endless to-do list? Here’s how not to waste your life
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Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher, got to the core of our troubles with time in a famous letter known by the title On the Shortness of Life. We complain about how little time we have, he observed — we feel hounded by its onward march and terrified to contemplate the day when our portion of it will end — and yet we fritter it away, day after day, on things we don’t truly value.
Seneca chided his contemporaries for living “as if you drew from a full and abundant supply of time, though all the while that day . . . is perhaps your last”. The average life may not be as short today as it was in Seneca’s time. (Although it’s not exactly long either: if you live to be 80, you’ll have had roughly 4,000 weeks.) And yet time feels as tormenting as it ever did.
And most approaches to time management, not to mention most of our allegedly time-saving technologies, make things worse. Rather than helping us make the best of our little allotment of time, they pitch us into a futile struggle to deny the truth of our limitations and to avoid the discomfort involved in staring our finitude in the face.
Take the familiar predicament of the overlong to-do list. Productivity gurus offer an array of techniques for becoming more efficient (or “optimised”) so as to process more emails and dispatch more tasks. The implied promise is that one day, finally, you’ll feel “on top of things” and “in control” of your life. Yet because the incoming supply of demands on your time is effectively infinite, that day never quite arrives, no matter how close it might sometimes seem. It’s like getting better at climbing up an infinitely tall ladder. No matter how fast you go, you’ll never reach the top.
In fact, it’s worse than that: becoming more efficient and productive leads to more busyness. A few years ago, drowning in emails, I resolved to up my game and implemented the system known as Inbox Zero — constantly working toward having an empty inbox. But it turns out that when you get really good at processing your emails, all that happens is that you just get more emails. (Not least because each reply you send is likely to trigger a reply to that reply and so on forever until the heat death of the universe.)
Likewise, should you acquire a reputation at the office for powering more speedily through your work than any of your colleagues, what on earth do you think is going to happen? Obviously, you’ll just find yourself being given more to do.
Nor is this culturally reinforced effort to outrun our limitations confined to the worlds of professional and domestic obligations. As the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa explains, it applies just as much to “bucket lists”, at least for those of us with the good fortune to be able to spend some of our time improving our minds, visiting exotic locales or pursuing hedonistic pleasures.
The range of such experiences that the world has to offer is, to all intents and purposes, unlimited. And so any attempt to feel as though you’ve really sucked the marrow out of the world is doomed to end in disappointment: there’ll always be far more you dreamt of doing than you ever managed to do.
A truly practical approach to making the best use of time demands that we stop trying to deny the undeniable, acknowledging not merely that we might not get around to everything but that we definitely never will. That we’re guaranteed to have to abandon certain ambitions, disappoint certain people and drop certain balls in order to make time for doing a few things that count.
In the words of the creativity coach Jessica Abel, borrowing an insight from the world of personal finance, that means “paying yourself first” when it comes to time. What she means is doing at least a little of what you care about now, as opposed to banking on finding time for it in the future, once the decks are clear and life’s duties are out of the way. Life’s duties will never be out of the way. And so if you really mean it when you say you’d like to write a novel or spend more of your time with your ageing parents or fighting climate change, at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.
There’s another, subtler sense in which our efforts to “use time well” frequently seem to end up making things worse: the more you focus on how you’re using time, the more each day seems to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calming, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives.
The problem is one of instrumentalisation. To use time, by definition, is to treat it instrumentally, as a means to an end. Of course we do this every day: you don’t boil the kettle out of a love of boiling kettles or put your socks in the washing machine out of a love for operating washing machines. You do these things because you want a cup of coffee or prefer to wear clean socks.
Yet it turns out to be perilously easy to over-invest in this instrumental relationship to time, focusing exclusively on where you’re headed at the expense of focusing on where you are. The result is that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the “real” value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached and maybe never will.
In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the artefact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later by recording images and video of it on their phones. They were so intently focused on using their time for a future benefit — for the ability to revisit or share the experience later — that they barely experienced the exhibition at all.
Of course, grumbling about the younger generation’s smartphone habits is a favourite pastime of middle-aged curmudgeons like Taylor and me. But his deeper point is that we’re all frequently guilty of something similar. We treat everything we’re doing — life itself, in other words — as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.
Taylor’s anecdote also demonstrates one of the sneakier problems of the instrumental approach to time, which is that it doesn’t only apply to those areas of life in which we’re concerned with accomplishing things, most obviously our careers. We start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively too. Enjoying leisure for its own sake — which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure — comes to feel as though it’s somehow not enough. It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off primarily as an investment in the future.
Sometimes this pressure takes the form of the explicit argument that you ought to think of your leisure hours as an opportunity to become a better worker. (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive”, reads the headline of one hugely popular New York Times article.) But a more surreptitious form of the same attitude has infected your friend who always seems to be training for a 10k, yet is apparently incapable of just going for a run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing to do only insofar as it might lead to some future accomplishment. And it infected me too during the years I spent attending meditation classes and retreats with the barely conscious goal that I might one day reach a condition of permanent calm.
The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel like a chore. In other words, like work, in the worst sense of that word. Furthermore, it has left us with a very strange notion of what it means to spend your time off “well” and, conversely, what counts as wasting it.
According to this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. Rest is permissible but only for the purposes of recuperation for work or, perhaps, for some other form of self-improvement. It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for rest’s sake alone.
It follows from all this, then, that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully”, focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it — to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. In order to fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. Take up a hobby, with no particular expectation of improving at it (and certainly not of turning it into a marketable “side hustle”). Go for an aimless walk. Stare out of the window.
Seen this way, a little idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation. “If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.”
For all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment in history, we could think of it as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider how we’re using our finite time. The coronavirus pandemic has made it far harder to ignore the shortness and fragility of life, thanks to the omnipresence of death and bereavement.
But lockdown also jolted many of us into a fresh understanding of what truly matters — both because it deprived us of experiences we didn’t realise we would miss so acutely (in my case, singing in an amateur choir) and because of all the things we didn’t miss (such as commuting, or remaining at one’s desk until 6.30pm solely to appear hardworking). If there was ever a time to turn such epiphanies into a lasting change, this is it.
The surprising truth of the matter is that confronting finitude needn’t be a recipe for despair or, alternatively, for living the rest of your life in a white-knuckled panic as you self-consciously attempt to “seize the day”, squeezing the most from every moment. On the contrary, it’s a liberation. You get to give up on the futile attempt to do everything, please everyone, achieve a perfect work-life balance. (That was always illusory to begin with.) Then you get to dedicate your time and attention to getting stuck in to what counts.
The problem, you might say, was never actually our limited time to begin with, but instead our constant attempts to “solve” the quandary of time, to pack in more things than are achievable in order to evade the discomfort of the tough choices that in fact are part of the package. Or as the late American Zen Buddhist teacher Charlotte Joko Beck liked to put it, speaking about the human condition in general, “what makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.”
Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and author. His book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” (Bodley Head) is out now
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