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Steve Alvest


How mere mortals manage time

This list was adapted from an article on my website, Shock Notes.


Over the past century, there have been exponential advances in automation, efficiency, speed, and dissemination of information on best practices. Then why is it that people seem to struggle now, more than ever before, with time management?

In his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, award-winning journalist Oliver Burkeman explores the failings of modern time management, as well as some mindset shifts that can help you make the best use of the four thousand weeks or so that you have on Earth.

Here are my favorite twelve takeaways from the book.

    1. Procrastination is inevitable

    “[A]t any given moment, you’ll be procrastinating on almost everything, and by the end of your life, you’ll have gotten around to doing virtually none of the things you theoretically could have done. So the point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most.”

    2. Living life to the fullest requires settling

    To live a fulfilling life, you have to choose a path and go. “[Y]ou 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. Likewise, there’s no possibility of a romantic relationship being truly fulfilling unless you’re willing, at least for a while, to settle for that specific relationship.”

    3. Choose and don’t look back

    “[W]hen people finally do choose, in a relatively irreversible way, they’re usually much happier as a result… it can be so unexpectedly calming to take actions you’d been fearing or delaying—to finally hand in your notice at work, become a parent, address a festering family issue, or close on a house purchase. When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.”

    4. The antidote for anxiety

    No matter how much you plan, you can never be certain of the future. “a life spent ‘not minding what happens’ is one lived without the inner demand to know that the future will conform to your desires for it—and thus without having to be constantly on edge as you wait to discover whether or not things will unfold as expected.”

    5. Our lives are full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time

    “Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son—a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty—there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time.”

    6. Embrace radical incrementalism

    The most productive and successful people work in brief daily sessions and take ample time off, rather than working long days and eventually burning out. “[B]e willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done. If you’ve decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it.”

    7. Synchronize your time with others

    The most rewarding things in life are done with other people. To take advantage of this, “you can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations. You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating.”

    8. What you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much

    “[W]hen it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less… From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards; or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy. Or that virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.”

    9. Let your impossible standards crash to the ground

    “Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.”

    10. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity

    “[K]eep two to-do lists, one ‘open’ and one ‘closed.’ The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.)… establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work.”

    11. Keep a “done list”

    “Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete… keep a ‘done list,’ which starts empty first thing in the morning, and which you then gradually fill with whatever you accomplish through the day… (If you’re in a serious psychological rut, lower the bar for what gets to count as an accomplishment: nobody else need ever know that you added ‘brushed teeth’ or ‘made coffee’ to the list.)”

    12. Cultivate instantaneous generosity

    “[W]henever a generous impulse arises in your mind—to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work—act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.”

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