“ Time management for mortals ”

by Oliver Burkeman

Book Cover

A philosophical book about the finitude of life. It is dense, and by far the most eye opening I’ve read in a long while. I give it my strongest recommendation. Warning: I’m not gonna make justice to the book, if this topic interests you I recommend you read it or have a glance at the detailed notes.


In one line: Life is finite, and we can’t have it all. We, modern humans, are future oriented and tend to forget our current misery because tomorrow will be better. But this is all there is. We need to make real life-decisions. There’s a last time for everything you are doing, so be present today.

Life is finite, and we need to accept that fact. Doing more (as most time-management advice is advocating) is not the answer, and only calls for more to do.

Instead we need to embrace finitude. It requires to make actual decisions about what’s important to you, be aware of distractions and the mildly important, and limit your WIP. This is not calling for extreme productivity, but for realizing that you can’t have a crazy career, a very fulfilling family life, involvement in activism, become a virtuose musician and an accomplished athlete. We need to pick. Keeping options open is counterproductive, settling and comitting is what allows to start moving.

We need to slow down, to embrace that this is all there is. To be really present in activities we engage with and embrace the boredom. To realize that we’re not in control, and accept that things are happening. To expect less of others and be more patient. To persist a little more and see where the bus we’re in is leading us. Leave behind the expectations of others, and find what matters to you.

In the end nothing matters, we’re insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and the universe is indifferent to us. Making a dent in the universe is pointless, you’re dead all the same. Aspiring to grandiosity is a recipe for disappointment. Target a modestly meaningful life, have a positive impact on the people you can reach, and around you. Do the things because they matter, and let go of the result because you can’t control it.

Finitude can sound very pessimistic, but it’s in fact liberating. You are not expected to achieve the impossible. What you see is is all there is, nothing compares to your fantasies, so once you find a good option, commit to it and settle.


Choosing to choose

Limit embracing life: Life is finite and time is finite. We’re doing much to avoid being confronted to that finitude.

The fact that we’re alive is, by itself, defying all odds. We tend to think about what is due to us, whereas we should already be amazed that we’re already alive. And there’s always someone who would be happy to be in our place.

In the end life ends, humanity is incredibly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Running after some grandiose plan, trying to “make a dent in the universe” is pointless, since it doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you life a fulfilling life and be a net positive to your surrounding.

Efficiency trap: Controlling time is a very new concept when it comes to humanity, only dates from the industrial era. Since time became the organizational center of our lives, we became obsessed with “managing it”.

The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.

Most of the time management frameworks are made to cram-in more, and work around that finitude. The problem is that a) that doesn’t solve finitude b) doing more is always calling to have more to do - responding to all emails brings more emails, doing all tasks is bringing more tasks, being efficient at work makes you the go-to person, etc. c) it doesn’t bring happiness either.

because in reality your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice—the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time. If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, that other people want you to do, to make their lives easier, and which you didn’t think to try to resist.

Facing finitude: Finitude imposes to make hard decisions, and time management frameworks are usually just ways around having to make too many of them. The fading of religion and notably of belief in afterlife induced people to face finitude. Instead the tendency is to want to “make the most out of life”. The simple reality of finitude imposes that we make hard decisions since we can’t do everything. Not only trivial ones when two events superpose (going to Amy’s party or Bob’s), but much more radical ones: you can’t have a stellar career, spending a lot of time with your spouse and multiple kids, be an athlete, have a very tidy house, be relaxing drinking mai-thais on the beach on a bi-yearly basis and cross all items from your bottomless bucket list. You have to face finitude and make decisions about your life. You will disappoint people. But you have to chose and be comfortable with having parts of your life be less than efficient.

We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.

Having your priorities straight means that you’ll discard everything that’s not important. Be wary of the “mildly interesting”. The top 3 things are those you should put your effort in. The bottom 3 are for sure things you’re not gonna do. The middle 4 things are those you think you want to do, but should avoid by any means because they’re distraction. There’s no time for them.

In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing.

in a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones—the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship—on which a finite life can come to grief.

Three principles:

  1. When it comes to time, pay yourself first.
  2. Limit your work in progress
  3. Resist the allure of middling priorities.

Becoming a better procrastinator: Procrastination is the symptom of having to face finitude. We’re so afraid of not willing to put in the effort, and having something else better to do, that we don’t even start. If it’s important, do it. If it’s not, just discard. You don’t need to be perfect, if it’s not important, you should do your best to do the minimum on them.

if you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax—because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.

Watermelon problem: You can’t do it all.

something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,” he writes: you can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first “settling” on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them.

Settling is extremely important. Data shows it makes people happier. It’s also a problem linked to finitude: if we always think there’s a better option, we refuse to settle. Always a better partner, always a better job. But settling is inevitable because life is finite, and choices need to be made. Instead, accepting an option that looks good, and making it work is harder, but more fulfilling. Settling is making it harder to back out, and puts pressure onto working out problems.

We’ll do almost anything to avoid burning our bridges, to keep alive the fantasy of a future unconstrained by limitation, yet having burned them, we’re generally pleased that we did so. […] When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away

Intimate interrupter: Attention is finite. Today’s world is constantly seeking our attentions, partly because it’s finite and valuable. This is not only causing issue when our attention is called to something that doesn’t matter, but more importantly when it’s called to something that looks like it matters. Certainly famine, disasters, injustice and violence are things that need attention and fixing, but our own life is finite and we can’t fix the entire world. Personally carring about too many problems is preventing entirely to do anything about any of them. This is where the news and social media are a nuisance.

Being bored is discomfortable, and we’ve been taught to hate and given tools to fight boredom to the extreme. Boredom is an unpleasant encounter with finitude. We seek distraction online where no limits seem to apply.

what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation

To face finitude we need to accept boredom, and be present to experience life better. Be present in conversations with our spouse and kids, in a walk to the bus in the morning. To tame the power of distractions we need to stop expecting things to be otherwise.

This is all there is.

Beyond control

We Never Really Have Time: We tend to be future-oriented, and tell ourselves that we will be happier when we have X, or that life will get easier when Y. And that’s why we sacrifice today on the altar of a better tomorrow. When in reality, now is all there is. Life is fragile and finite, and we have no proof for when it will stop. Ego pushes us to think that nothing bad will happen, but we don’t know that. That is not to say we shouldn’t save for retirement or burn everything because screw the planet ; but we shouldn’t accept our current misery on the premise that it is the grounding work for a promotion next year, when we might very well be dead by then.

We also tend to just put all our money on the fact that something else will make us happy. “When I finally” is a trap. The promotion won’t make us happy, and there will always be more.

Get around to launching the side business you’ve dreamed of for years, and if it succeeds, it won’t be long before you’re no longer satisfied with keeping it small.

We need to accept that things are happening, and not expect that our favored option will unravel: I don’t mind what happens is a philosophy of accepting we’re not in control of the world, and we can’t be disappointed that it turns the way it turns.

You Are Here Our lives are full of activities we are doing for the last time. There’s a last time you will visit your childhood home, a last time you’ll kiss you kid, a last time you’ll have dinner with your spouse. And you don’t know when it will be.

We need to appreciate the things that happen. Stop to see the beauty and perfection, to feel how we feel, be grateful for now and forget about the future. Enjoy the scenery, a hike, a hug, a laugh.

there’s something odder about the ambitious and well-paid architect, employed in the profession she always longed to join, who nonetheless finds herself treating every moment of her experience as worthwhile only in terms of bringing her closer to the completion of a project, so that she can move on to the next one, or move up the ranks, or move toward retirement.

Rediscovering rest Enjoy leisure and hobbies, doing something for the sake of doing it, without the goal of being perfect at it or the judgement of others regarding how well we’re doing it, or the usefulness of it. Rest by itself, without the premise of personal growth. With no pressure other than enjoying what we do. Resting is important, not for its usefulness, but from the joy we derive out of it.

We have inherited from all this a deeply bizarre idea of what it means to spend your time off “well”—and, conversely, what counts as wasting it. In 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 itself alone, without regard for any potential future benefits, because rest that has no instrumental value feels wasteful.

Impatience spiral: The other side of patience is to stop having expectations for others, and accepting that the world cannot be pressed. Expecting for someone on the road to move faster, for a toddler to stop being a toddler, are unreasonable expectations that are bound to make one stressed, angry and miserable. Ironically, the more efficient things become, the less patience we have for them. It makes us addicted to speed. An internet page that loads in more than 3s makes us jittery - while it’s still orders of magnitude faster than having to go to the library.

When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety, and your anxiety is transformed

Staying on the bus: You need patience to trully experience things. Problems are bound to happen, things are bound to not be by expectations. Sometimes that triggers a flight reaction that is counter productive. If you don’t insist a little, you’ll never fix things. We need to develop a taste for having problem, embrace incrementalism (small steps, and hard limits on how much time we give to something), and understand that originality is beyond unoriginality, that life is a repetition of something else, but at some point it becomes unique.

And then, around the eighty-minute mark, but without your noticing precisely when or how it happens, there’s a shift. You finally give up attempting to escape the discomfort of time passing so slowly, and the discomfort abates.

Loneliness of digital nomad: The simplest things are the best. Having friends, having a family, having rituals. These require sacrifices, notably on how we spend time, on being in phase with others. We need to lose some personal freedom to enjoy synchronous activies with others. We can be envious of people who have more, but they usually didn’t do the same sacrifices, and don’t have what we have.

every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s

Cosmic insignificance therapy: Nothing matters. Humans are just a blip in time and in the universe. The universe is massively indifferent to us. Society has been existing for only 6000 years. There are only but a handful people whose legacy survives generations in the collective mind, but they’re dead all the same. This is comforting, because none of what you are doing matters in the grand scheme of things. Everything we can aspire to is a “modestly meaningful life”: be a positive force to the people around us.

Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and overdemanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is.

The human disease: We don’t get to have time, we are not just on borrowed time, we are time, in that it’s passing and we can’t control or even predict it. We’ll never feel in control. We’ll never be spared from suffering.

You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway. And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually _be_here.

Make some real purchase on your life:

  1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort? What conversations with your spouse are you postponing? Does your decision diminishes or enlarges you?
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? You can’t do it all.
  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? People set expectations in us, maternal and patternal figures, teachers, mentors, etc. We carry these in adult life and try to satisfy these expectations because that’s who we’re supposed to be, and we don’t want to disappoint. This is how we get miserable.
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing? No-one knows anything. Everyone is pretending. Stop waiting until you feel like you know what you’re doing and do - because no-one knows.
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition? We want to carve the future too much on things that we don’t have control on. We can’t make our kids who they are, we can’t make people want what we want. In the end we can only do, we can’t generate the impact itself. Cathedrals are made over generations. Even if we don’t see the cathedral achieved, it is still worth doing.

Afterword: beyond hope: Hoping is waiting for the future, and praying for some entity to side with us.

As the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, it means relating to life as if “there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one.”

Sometimes this attitude can be justified when the future is entirely in somebody else’s hands: we can only hope a surgeon knows what they’re doing. For what truly matters, hope is disawoving our capacity to change things. We need to do and not expect.

The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.

Ten tools for embracing your finitude: (ndlr: fun how some of these are: use Lean)

  1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity: limit your backlog and timebox.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize: limit WIP, only work on one project at a time. Limit batch size.
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at: (aka strategic underachievement): nominate areas where you don’t expect excellence on yourself, where you won’t feel shame for failing. Lawn-maintenance and home-tidiness can be things you devote zero-energy and instead spend your time elsewhere. Importantly: you can put temporality on it. You can’t bomb in work, with your partner, etc. But you can definitely do the bare minimum at work while you work things our with a sick parent.

    But even in these essential domains, there’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of _im_balance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon

  4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete: You’re achieving stuff, realize that as well. Maintain a “done” list.
  5. Consolidate your caring: Social media gives too many things to care about. Focus on only a few.
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology: to limit distractions.
  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane: life accelerates because it’s lacking novelty. To counter-act you can either cram your life with new experiences or pay more attention to the moment, however mundane. Experience things with twice as much the intensity.
  8. Be a “researcher” in relationships: Be active in discovering others and be curious about them.
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity: Act immediately or you wont.
  10. Practice doing nothing: sit down for a few minutes and do nothing, think of nothing, not even of your breathing.

    I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber

    ~~ Blaise Pascal

Table of contents

Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead

Part I: Choosing to Choose

  1. The Limit-Embracing Life
  2. The Efficiency Trap
  3. Facing Finitude
  4. Becoming a Better Procrastinator
  5. The Watermelon Problem
  6. The Intimate Interrupter

Part II: Beyond Control

  1. We Never Really Have Time
  2. You Are Here
  3. Rediscovering Rest
  4. The Impatience Spiral
  5. Staying on the Bus
  6. The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad
  7. Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
  8. The Human Disease

Afterword: Beyond Hope

Appendix: Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude

About Reading Notes

These are my takes on this book. See other reading notes. Most of the time I stop taking notes on books I don't enjoy, and these end up not being in the list. This is why average ratings tend to be high.