An endless to-do list?This is the way to not waste your life

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The ancient Roman philosopher Seneca found the core of our time-related troubles in a famous letter. About the shortness of lifeWe complained that we have too little time, he observed-we feel trapped by its progress, afraid to think about the day when our part will end-but we waste it day after day when we don’t do it The real value of things.

Seneca blamed the life of his contemporaries as “as if you were drawing inspiration from ample and abundant time, even though it has always been that day…maybe your last time.” Today’s average life expectancy may not be as short as it was in Seneca’s era. (Although it is not very long: if you live to be 80 years old, you will have about 4,000 weeks.) However, time feels as torturous as ever.

Most time management methods, let alone most time-saving techniques we call, make things worse. They did not help us make the most of our limited time, but instead plunge us into a futile struggle to deny the truth about our finiteness and avoid the discomfort of looking directly at our finiteness.

Take, for example, a long to-do list. Productivity Master provides a series of techniques to improve efficiency (or “optimization”) in order to process more emails and dispatch more tasks. The implicit promise is that one day you will feel “in control” and “in control” of your life. However, since the demand for your time is virtually unlimited, that day will never come, no matter how close it sometimes seems. It’s like climbing an infinitely high ladder to get better. No matter how fast you go, you will never reach the top.

In fact, the situation is worse than this: becoming more efficient and productive leads to more busyness. A few years ago, drowning in emails, I decided to upgrade my game and implement a system called Inbox Zero-constantly trying to make the inbox empty.But it turns out that when you’re really good at Process your email, All that happens is that you will receive more emails. (Especially because every reply you send may trigger a reply to that reply, and so on, until the universe heats to death.)

Most time management methods will make things worse and plunge us into a futile struggle to deny the truth of our limitations © Lucas Varela

Similarly, if you gain a reputation for completing work faster than any colleague in the office, what do you think will happen? Obviously, you will find that you have more things to do.

This culturally intensified effort is not intended to transcend our limitations in the areas of professional and family obligations. As the German social theorist Hartmut Rosa explained, it also applies to the “bucket list”, at least for those of us who are lucky enough to spend some time improving our minds, visiting exotic places or pursuing pleasure In terms of people.

The range of such experiences that the world must provide, regardless of intent and purpose, is unlimited. Therefore, any attempt that feels as if you have really absorbed the essence of the world is doomed to end in disappointment: you always dream of doing more things than you have ever managed to do.


A truly practical method Making the most of our time requires us to stop trying to deny things that are undeniable, not only admitting that we may not be able to solve all problems, but we absolutely never will. We definitely have to give up some ambitions, let some people down and give up some balls in order to make time to do something meaningful.

In the words of creative coach Jessica Abel, borrowing insights from the field of personal finance means “paying yourself first” when it comes to time. She meant to do at least something you care about now, rather than expecting to find time to do it in the future, once the deck is clear and the responsibilities of life are not affected. The responsibilities of life will never be excluded. Therefore, if you are really serious when you say you want to write novels or spend more time with your elderly parents or deal with climate change, then at some point you will have to start doing so.

You should at least do something you care about now, instead of expecting to make time for it in the future, once the deck is clear and the responsibilities of life no longer exist © Lucas Varela

There is another more subtle feeling that our efforts to “use time well” seem to make things worse in the end: the more you pay attention to how to use time, the more every day seems to be something you have to spend. On the way to some calm, better, and more fulfilling points in the future, this has never really come.

The problem is one of instrumentalization. The use of time, as the name suggests, is to treat it as a tool to achieve an end. Of course, we do this every day: you don’t boil a kettle because you like it, and you don’t put socks in the washing machine because you like to operate the washing machine. You do these things because you want a cup of coffee or prefer to wear clean socks.

However, it turns out that it is very easy to overinvest in this instrumental relationship, focusing only on where you are going and ignoring where you are. The result is that you find yourself spiritually living in the future, finding the “true” value of your life at a certain time that you have not yet reached or will never reach.

In his book Back to reasonPsychologist Steve Taylor recalled that watching tourists at the British Museum, they didn’t really look at the Rosetta Stone, the artifacts displayed in front of them, but prepared to pass on their phone. They are so focused on using their time for the benefit of the future-for the ability to revisit or share experiences later-that they have hardly experienced the exhibition.

Of course, complaining about the smartphone habits of the younger generation is the favorite pastime of grumpy middle-aged people like Taylor and me. But his deeper point is that we all often commit similar things. We treat everything we do—in other words, life itself—only if it lays the foundation for other things.

For all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment in history, we can think of it as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider how we use our limited time © Lucas Varela

Taylor’s anecdote also proves a more subtle problem with the instrumental time method, that is, it applies not only to the areas of life where we care about getting things done, but most obviously our careers. We are also beginning to feel the pressure to use our leisure time effectively. Enjoying leisure itself—you might think that this is the full meaning of leisure—at first feels as if it is not enough. If you don’t think of vacation primarily as an investment in the future, then you will start to feel as if you have failed in your life, in some vague way.

Sometimes this pressure comes in the form of a clear argument that you should treat your leisure time as an opportunity to become a better employee. (“Relax! You will be more efficient”, Read the headline of a very popular article in The New York Times. ) But a more insidious form of the same attitude infects your friend. He always seems to be training for 10k, but obviously he can’t just run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing, only if it might bring In the case of future achievements. During the years I have participated in meditation classes and retreats, it has also infected me, and my almost unconscious goal is that one day I may reach a state of permanent peace.

The sad consequence of justifying leisure based on its usefulness to other things is that it starts to feel like a chore. In other words, it’s like work, in the worst sense. In addition, it left us with a very strange concept of what it means to spend your time “well”, and on the contrary, what is a waste of time.

According to this view of time, anything that cannot create some form of value for the future, as the name suggests, is doing nothing. Rest is allowed, but it can only be used to resume work or other forms of self-improvement. It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest just to rest.


It comes from all of thisSo, at least “wasting” some leisure time and focusing only on the pleasure of experience is the only way not to waste it-real leisure, rather than secretly engaging in future-centric self-improvement. In order to fully adapt to your only life, you must avoid using every free time for personal growth. Cultivate a hobby, and do not particularly expect to improve on it (of course, it is not to turn it into a “sideline business” with market value). Go for a purposeless walk. Gaze out of the window.

From this perspective, a little laziness is not only forgivable; it is actually an obligation. “If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine is nothing,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote, “then production and wealth are just empty myths; They are meaningful when they are restored from happiness.”

For all the anxiety and uncertainty of this moment in history, we can view it as an unprecedented opportunity to reconsider how we use our limited time. Because death and bereavement are everywhere, the coronavirus pandemic makes it harder for people to ignore the shortness and fragility of life.

But the blockade has also given many of us new insights into what is really important-both because it deprives us of experiences that we didn’t realize we would miss so badly (in my case, in the amateur choir Singing), but also because we did not miss all the things (such as commuting to get off work, or staying at one’s desk until 6.30 pm just to show diligence). If there is time to turn this epiphany into lasting change, this is it.

The surprising fact is that facing finiteness is not necessarily the secret of despair, or, when you consciously try to “seize the day”, squeeze most from every moment. On the contrary, it is a relief. You can give up the futile attempt to do anything, please everyone, and achieve a perfect work-life balance. (This is always illusory at first.) Then you can focus your time and attention on the important things.

You might say that the problem is never actually the limited time we started at the beginning, but we constantly try to “solve” the dilemma of time and pack more things to escape the discomfort of difficult choices. It is actually part of the package. Or as the late American Zen Buddhism teacher Charlotte Joko Beck liked to say when talking about the general human condition, “What makes people unbearable is that you mistakenly think it can be cured.”

Oliver Burkeman is a journalist and writer.His book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” (Bodley Head) is now out

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