1️⃣ Sentence Synopsis
This stoic’s approach to time management argues that the ways we’ve been conditioned to “use” our time ultimately leave us exhausted and overwhelmed because there is an “unbridgeable gap” between what we’d ideally like to do with our lives and the realities of our finite existence on earth.
I was listening to an interview with Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work (among many other books), and he recommended this as a thought-provoking take on the productivity-industrial complex. I found it helpful to reframe some of my own life goals and get closer to the heart of what I truly would like to experience with whatever time I’m gifted.
🔑 Key Takeaways
- Time shouldn’t be viewed as a resource. Once we commodify it, it can be exploited, wasted, bought, or sold. This connects with the “attention economy” but more deeply to our individual feelings and the self-loathing when feel when we don’t use it as “productively” as we should. Max Weber names this “idleness aversion” as one of the key components of the modern soul (in earlier times, our yearnings for productivity would have been yearnings for eternal life).
- Existential overwhelm is the epidemic of our age. We have a greater sense today, as a result of the internet, of the variety of worthwhile experiences a human being can have. This “inexhaustible supply” of potentiality can lead to feelings of regret, overwhelm and decision paralysis.
- Embrace being-towards-death. This idea, developed by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, requires that we fully acknowledge our limitations and come to embrace the idea that we cannot depend on a single moment in the future (because none of us know if we shall indeed live to experience it).
- Procrastinators and productivists are two sides of the same coin. The former believe they have all the time in the world to do a task, while the latter believe they can cram all the tasks in the world into a finite period of time. Each is in denial of mortality.
- All “distractions” relieve us of the discomfort of confronting our own limited control. Zen Buddhists say all human suffering is connected to our efforts to resist paying full attention to life as it is (wanting circumstance to be different from what it is) or wishing we had more control in the process.
- Plans are just thoughts. We need plans as tools to construct meaningful lives – but take them to be frameworks for exerting control over the future when all they really can be is “a present-moment statement of intent.”
- Hobbies are subversive. In a world where every activity is a means to an end, hobbies are a refreshing antidote (he also says they should be a “little embarassaing” in order to qualify as real hobbies).
💯 Strong Lines
- On secular modernity: “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life.”
- On time management systems: “The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.”
- On saying no to the things you love: “You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”
- On the illusion of creating a perfect anything: “Something—our limited talents, our limited time, our limited control over events, and over the actions of other people—will always render our creation less than perfect.
- On worry loops and anxiety spirals: “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.”
- On capitalism: “One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit.”
- On digital nomadism: “…every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s. The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root.”
🧠 Brain Tickles
- On Settling, Robert Goodin’s treatise on the connection between settling and striving (you cannot become successful at anything without first settling on that thing)
- I loved this quote by Simone de Beauvoir that was shared about how chance and choice converge in life:
I go to sleep after lunch in the room where I work, sometimes I wake up with a feeling of childish amazement—why am I myself? What astonishes me, just as it astonishes a child when he becomes aware of his own identity, is the fact of finding myself here, and at this moment, deep in this life and not in any other. What stroke of chance has brought this about?… The penetration of that particular ovum by that particular spermatozoon, with its implications of the meeting of my parents and before that of their birth and the birth of all their forebears, had not one chance in hundreds of millions of coming about. And it is chance, a chance quite unpredictable in the present state of science, that caused me to be born a woman. From that point on, it seems to me that a thousand different futures might have stemmed from every single movement of my past: I might have fallen ill and broken off my studies; I might not have met Sartre; anything at all might have happened.
- Most parenting advice focuses on the future adult the child will become (either the most happy, most successful, most economically productive) and our assumption is that a child’s purpose is to grow up rather than to be a child.
- If you’re willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself (this applies almost everywhere—creative work, relationship troubles, politics, parenting).
- Cosmic insignificance therapy. In the grand scheme of things, all we can hope for is a modestly meaningful life given the minute significance we actually have.
🍎 Ideas & Excerpts for Teaching and Learning
- Loved the critique of the “big rocks” metaphor (which is often used in the classroom and elsewhere for goal-setting activities) on page 73: “The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks—and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar.”
- “Attention is the beginning of devotion” – a whole different way to think about the attention economy starting with this line from Mary Oliver’s Upstream (excerpt here) and with the author’s recollection of a moment on a wind-swept Scottish beach, pg. 97.
- Jennifer Roberts’ assignment on patience (as described on page 174)
- This description of the writing process (from Robert Boice): “It was precisely the students’ impatient desire to hasten their work beyond its appropriate pace, to race on to the point of completion, that was impeding their progress. They couldn’t stand the discomfort that arose from being forced to acknowledge their limited control over the speed of the creative process—and so they sought to escape it, either by not getting down to work at all, or by rushing headlong into stressful all-day writing binges, which led to procrastination later on, because it made them learn to hate the whole endeavor.”
Five Questions (starting on pg. 220:
- Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
- James Hollis recommends this version at key decisions in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
- What would you do differently with your time, today, if you knew in your bones that salvation was never coming—that your standards had been unreachable all along, and that you’ll therefore never manage to make time for all you hoped you might?
- 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?
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
- How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
Life Advice (starting on pg. 235)
- Adopt a fixed-volume approach to productivity. Keep two lists – one “open” (with all the tasks you could ever want or hope to do) and one “closed” that can only have 4, or 6 or 10 entries at a time. Or, set boundaries for work times. Only work as much as you can within those constraints.
- Serialize, serialize, serialize. Focus on one project at a time.
- Decide, in advance, what to fail at.
- Focus on what you’ve already completed.
- Consolidate your caring.
- Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.
- Seek out novelty in the mundane.
- Be a “researcher” in relationships.
- Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
- Practice doing nothing.