Escaping the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning
By Maria Popova
A decade ago, when I first began practicing with my mindfulness teacher while struggling to make rent and make meaning out of my borrowed stardust, one meditation she led transformed my quality of life above all others — both life’s existential calibration and its moment-to-moment experience:
You are asked to imagine having only a year left to live, at your present mental and bodily capacity — what would you do with it? Then imagine you only had a day left — what would you do with it? Then only an hour — what would you do with it?
As you scale down these nested finitudes, the question becomes a powerful sieve for priorities — because undergirding it is really the question of what, from among the myriad doable things, you would choose not to do in order to fill the scant allotment of time, be it the 8,760 hours of a year or a single hour, with the experiences that confer upon it maximum aliveness, that radiant vitality filling the basic biological struggle for survival with something more numinous.
The exercise instantly clarifies — and horrifies, with the force of its clarity — the empty atoms of automation and unexamined choice filling modern life with busyness while hollowing it of gladness. What emerges is the sense that making a meaningful life is less like the building of the Pyramids, stacking an endless array of colossal blocks into a superstructure of impressive stature and on the back of slave labor, than like the carving of Rodin’s Thinker, cutting pieces away from the marble block until a shape of substance and beauty is revealed. What emerges, too, is the sense that the modern cult of productivity is the great pyramid scheme of our time.
Oliver Burkeman reckons with these ideas in Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (public library) — an inquiry equal parts soulful and sobering, offering not arsenal for but sanctuary from our self-brutalizing war on the constraints of reality, titled after the (disconcertingly low) number of weeks comprising the average modern sapiens lifespan of eighty (seemingly long) years.
After taking a delightful English jab at the American-bred term “life-hack” and its unfortunate intimation that “your life is best thought of as some kind of faulty contraption, in need of modification so as to stop it from performing suboptimally,” Burkeman frames our present predicament:
This strange moment in history, when time feels so unmoored, might in fact provide the ideal opportunity to reconsider our relationship with it. Older thinkers have faced these challenges before us, and when their wisdom is applied to the present day, certain truths grow more clearly apparent. Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.” The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control — when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.
In consequence, we lose sight of the fundamental tradeoff that the price of higher productivity is always lower creativity. All of it, Burkeman observes, is the product of an anxiety about time that springs from our stubborn avoidance of the elemental parameters of reality. A century and a half after Emily Dickinson lamented that “enough is so vast a sweetness… it never occurs, only pathetic counterfeits,” he writes:
Denying reality never works, though. It may provide some immediate relief, because it allows you to go on thinking that at some point in the future you might, at last, feel totally in control. But it can’t ever bring the sense that you’re doing enough — that you are enough — because it defines “enough” as a kind of limitless control that no human can attain. Instead, the endless struggle leads to more anxiety and a less fulfilling life.
This pursuit of efficiency hollows out the fullness of life, flattening the sphere of being that makes us complete human beings into a hamster wheel. Burkeman terms this “the paradox of limitation” and writes:
The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead — and work with them, rather than against them — the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.
Echoing physicist Brian Greene’s poetic meditation on how our mortality gives meaning to our lives, he adds:
I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations. But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.
At the crux of facing the limits of reality is the fact that we must make choices — a necessity that can petrify us with “FOMO,” the paralyzing fear of missing out. And yet, as Adam Phillips observed in his elegant antidote to this fear, “our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless tantrum about, the lives we were unable to live. But the exemptions we suffer, whether forced or chosen, make us who we are.”
We have different coping strategies for managing the melancholy onus of having to choose. I am aware that my reliance on daily routines, unvaried meals, interchangeable clothing items, recursive playlists, and other life-loops is a coping mechanism aimed at automating certain choices in order to allay the anxiety and time-cost of having to make them afresh each day. Others orient orthogonally to the problem, avoiding making concrete choices and commitments, in life and in love, in order to keep their options “open” — an equally illusory escape from the grand foreclosure that is life itself.
But however we cope with the fearsome fact of having to choose, choose we must in order to live — and in order to have lives worthy of having been lived. It is, of course, all about facing our mortality — like every anxiety in life, if its layers of distraction and disguise are peeled back far enough.
With an eye to the etymology of “decide” — which stems from the Latin decidere, “to cut off,” a root it shares with “homicide” and “suicide” — Burkeman considers the necessity of excision:
Any finite life — even the best one you could possibly imagine — is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility… Since finitude defines our lives… living a truly authentic life — becoming fully human — means facing up to that fact.
It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.
Facing our finitude is, of course, the most challenging frontier of our ongoing resistance to facing the various territories of reality. The outrage we intuitively feel at the fact of our mortality — outrage for which the commonest prescription in the history of our species have been sugar-coated pellets of illusion promising ideologies of immortality — is a futile fist shaken at the fundamental organizing principle of the universe, of which we are part and product. Only the rare few are able to orient to mortality by meeting reality on its own terms and finding in that reorientation not only relief but rapturous gladness.
A generation after Richard Dawkins made his exquisite counterintuitive argument for how death betokens the luckiness of life, Burkeman offers a fulcrum for pivoting our intuitive never-enough-time perspective to take a different view of the time we do have:
From an everyday standpoint, the fact that life is finite feels like a terrible insult… There you were, planning to live on forever… but now here comes mortality, to steal away the life that was rightfully yours.
Yet, on reflection, there’s something very entitled about this attitude. Why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality the outrageous violation? Or to put it another way, why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born? Surely only somebody who’d failed to notice how remarkable it is that anything is, in the first place, would take their own being as such a given — as if it were something they had every right to have conferred upon them, and never to have taken away. So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.
Our anxiety about the finitude of time is at bottom a function of the limits of attention — that great strainer for stimuli, woven of time. Our brains have evolved to miss the vast majority of what is unfolding around us, which renders our slender store of conscious attention our most precious resource — “the rarest and purest form of generosity,” in Simone Weil’s lovely words. And yet, Burkeman argues, treating attention as a resource is already a diminishment of its reality-shaping centrality to our lives. In consonance with William James — the original patron saint of attention as the empress of experience — Burkeman writes:
Most other resources on which we rely as individuals — such as food, money, and electricity — are things that facilitate life, and in some cases it’s possible to live without them, at least for a while. Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.
Annie Dillard captured this sentiment best in her haunting observation that “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” — a poetic sentiment that, on a hectic day, becomes an indictment. What makes our attention so vulnerable to distraction is the difficulty of attending to what is consequential in the grandest scheme — a difficulty temporarily allayed by the ease of attending to the immediate and seemingly urgent but, ultimately, inconsequential. (Who among us would, on their deathbed, radiate soul-gladness over the number of emails they responded to in their lifetime?) “People are drawn to the easy and to the easiest side of the easy,” Rilke admonished a century before social media’s stream of easy escape into distraction, before productivity apps and life-hacks and instaeverything. “But it is clear that we must hold ourselves to the difficult.”
Whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude — with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, in the case of distraction, limited control over that time, which makes it impossible to feel certain about how things will turn out… The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise — to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.
And so we get to the crux of our human predicament — the underbelly of our anxiety about every unanswered email, every unfinished project, and every unbegun dream: Our capacities are limited, our time is finite, and we have no control over how it will unfold or when it will run out. Beyond the lucky fact of being born, life is one great sweep of uncertainty, bookended by the only other lucky certainty we have. It is hardly any wonder that the sweep is dusted with so much worry and we respond with so much obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, and other touching illusions of control.
Burkeman — whose previous book made a similarly counterintuitive and insightful case for uncertainty as the wellspring of happiness — writes:
Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again — as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine: that your partner won’t leave you, that you will have sufficient money to retire, that a pandemic won’t claim the lives of anyone you love, that your favored candidate will win the next election, that you can get through your to-do list by the end of Friday afternoon. But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitations when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win.
And so insecurity and vulnerability are the default state — because in each of the moments that you inescapably are, anything could happen, from an urgent email that scuppers your plans for the morning to a bereavement that shakes your world to its foundations. A life spent focused on achieving security with respect to time, when in fact such security is unattainable, can only ever end up feeling provisional — as if the point of your having been born still lies in the future, just over the horizon, and your life in all its fullness can begin as soon as you’ve gotten it, in Arnold Bennett’s phrase, “into proper working order.”
The primary manifestation of this — and the root of our uneasy relationship with time — is that, in the course of our ordinary days, we instinctively make choices not through the lens of significance but through the lens of anxiety-avoidance, which increasingly renders life something to be managed rather than savored, a problem to be solved rather than a question to be asked, which we must each answer with the singular song of our lives, melodic with meaning.
Leaning on Carl Jung’s perceptive advice on how to live, Burkeman makes poetically explicit the book’s implicitly obvious and necessary disclaimer:
Maybe it’s worth spelling out that none of this is an argument against long-term endeavors like marriage or parenting, building organizations or reforming political systems, and certainly not against tackling the climate crisis; these are among the things that matter most. But it’s an argument that even those things can only ever matter now, in each moment of the work involved, whether or not they’ve yet reached what the rest of the world defines as fruition. Because now is all you ever get.
If you can face the truth about time in this way — if you can step more fully into the condition of being a limited human — you will reach the greatest heights of productivity, accomplishment, service, and fulfillment that were ever in the cards for you to begin with. And the life you will see incrementally taking shape, in the rearview mirror, will be one that meets the only definitive measure of what it means to have used your weeks well: not how many people you helped, or how much you got done; but that working within the limits of your moment in history, and your finite time and talents, you actually got around to doing — and made life more luminous for the rest of us by doing — whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was that you came here for.
In the remainder of the thoroughly satisfying and clarifying Four Thousand Weeks, drawing on a wealth of contemporary research and timeless wisdom from thinkers long vanished into what Emily Dickinson termed “the drift called ‘the Infinite,'” Burkeman goes on to devise a set of principles for liberating ourselves from the trap of efficiency and its illusory dreams of control, so that our transience can be a little more bearable and our finite time in the kingdom of life a little less provisional, a lot more purposeful, and infinitely more alive.
Complement it with Seneca on the Stoic key to living with presence, Hermann Hesse on breaking the trance of busyness, artist Etel Adnan on time, self, impermanence, and transcendence, and physicist Alan Lightman’s poetic exploration of time and the antidote to life’s central anxiety, then revisit Borges’s timeless refutation of time, which Burkeman necessarily quotes, and Mary Oliver — another of Burkeman’s bygone beacons — on the measure of a life well lived.
Published December 20, 2021