Against the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning


“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… Since finitude defines our lives… living a truly authentic life — becoming fully human — means facing up to that fact.”


Against the Trap of Efficiency: The Counterintuitive Antidote to the Time-Anxiety That Haunts and Hampers Our Search for Meaning

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 NotYou have to find something to make the time go by, whether it is the 8.760 hours in one year or the entire day.

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 You can think.Cut pieces of marble from the block to create a beautiful shape. You will also notice that this modern cult is based on the pyramid structure of our times.

Wall clock Discus chronologicus — an early eighteenth-century German depiction of time. You can also purchase a printed copy.

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:

It might actually be a strange period in history that makes time feel so unmoored. This is the perfect opportunity to reflect on our relationship with it. These challenges have been faced by older thinkers, which makes certain truths more obvious when they are applied to today’s world. Productivity is an illusion. Being more productive only makes you more stressed, while trying to get rid of the clutter just makes it worse. 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.

We lose sight of the basic tradeoff: higher productivity comes at a cost of lower creativity. Burkeman asserts that this all stems out of an anxiety about the time and our unwillingness to acknowledge the basic 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:

It is not possible to ignore reality. Although it may temporarily provide relief because you can continue to believe that you will feel more in control in the future, this does not make you any less capable of dealing with reality. 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. The endless struggle only leads to greater anxiety and less fulfillment in life.

The pursuit of efficiency reduces the wholeness of life and makes it a mere hamster wheel. Burkeman terms this “the paradox of limitation” and writes:

Your life will become more frustrating, stressful and empty if you attempt to control your time. 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.

Time-CatcherMaria Popova Prints available.

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.”

Different coping methods can be used to manage the sadness of making difficult choices. My reliance upon daily routines and unchanging meals, interchangeable clothes items and other life-loops to manage the stress of making decisions every day is an effective coping strategy. 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.

One of Salvador Dalí’s etchings for a rare edition of Montaigne’s essays

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.

The most daunting frontier of the ongoing resistance we have to face the realities of reality is confronting our finitude. 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. Rarely are people able to meet reality as it is and find relief, but also joy.

Liminal daysMaria Popova Prints available.

Burkeman is the fulcrum that allows us to change our intuition about the never-enough-time view and take another look at the limited time we 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. Is it wrong to assume an inexhaustible supply of time and that mortality is the only possible option? 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. Burkeman says that treating attention as a source of information is a reduction in its centrality and reality-shaping importance 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. However, attention, like all things, is what makes you alive. It’s the sum total of everything that you pay attention. When you look back on your life, the things that compelled you to pay attention in each moment are what will make up your experience of life.

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. One of the most striking aspects about our lives is how many emails we have received in our lifetime. Who would not want to radiate soul-gladness on their graveside? “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.”

Burkeman wrote:

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. Life is one big sweep of uncertainty. This, besides the fortunate fact that we are born, is the only thing that can be certain. We are so worried about the future that we resort to obsessive planning, compulsive productivity, or other touching illusions.

You will vanishMaria Popova Prints available.

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.

Arthur Rackham created this art using a 1926 issue of The Tempest. Available as a printed version.

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 you only get this moment.

[…]

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.


Giving = Being Loving

Over the past decade, I spent hundreds of hours creating and spending many thousands each month. MarginalianIt was known for the infuriating name Brain Pickings its first 15 years. Thanks to the support of readers, it has been free from ads and still exists. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. Consider donating if you feel this work makes your life easier. It makes a huge difference to support this cause.


Subscribe to our newsletter

MarginalianReceive a weekly free newsletter. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s most inspiring reading. Here’s what to expect. Like? Sign up.

Related Posts