Leveraging the Limitations of Time


Time management can generally be divided into to two broad topics; answering the big picture questions about life to address effectiveness (“are we doing the right thing?”) and exploring productivity or efficiency (“are we doing things right?”). Both are obviously important though the productivity concern may feel like the more pressing need for many. The burden of getting more done with our limited resource capacity confronts us as we start every working day and equally applies to our personal lives.


Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks attempts to answer the productivity question by applying a big picture philosophy. He provides a bit of a mixed message for those looking for a competitive advantage in a fast paced world. He essentially says, “the race is over and you have already lost.” Until you face the reality that you will never have enough time to do everything and become everything, you will never be able to live a life of meaning. The book’s title, Four Thousand Weeks, is the total amount of time a person living to 80 years old will have to get everything done in this life. Burkeman argues how we view the finitude of time influences how we view and prepare for the future. He believes the common response is to spend our time racing to fill up our calendars, aware that there is more to do and an increasingly closing window of time to do it.


He observes that some our most accepted management and life principles and approaches reduce rather than enhance our quality of life. For example, our obsession with planning and working to realize a better future means we don’t live in the current moment. The problem is made worse once we get to the next level up because we immediately set our sights on a higher one. This reflects the familiar path of getting good grades in high school to gain admission to a prestigious university where our achievements will determine our first job or graduate school. This leads to the realization that performance there will dictate future employment opportunities. It can be easy to wake up one day and realize you are 30 and feel like you never got to be 20. Yet we all recognize the importance of vision and hard work in the present to realize our future ambitions.


Burkeman notes the all-consuming focus on future rewards creates dissatisfaction by raising our anxiety levels. Rather than be fully engaged in the opportunity to solve today’s problems, we spend much of our emotional energy anticipating tomorrow’s knowing they seldom materialize. Mark Twain captured this well, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” The realization that most potential problems don’t occur and there may not be much we can do about the ones that do suggests proactivity may be overrated. However, the ability to anticipate and properly position ourselves for the future is so often what divides winners and losers.


The opportunity to use technology to do more with our time has also created barriers to living more meaningful lives in the present according to Burkeman. We experience more dissatisfaction because with each improvement in technology we raise expectations on what we should be able to experience. We don’t compare today’s improvements with the past but rather the future possibilities that we want today.


Technology improvements have also raised the bar on personal performance. For many years, futurists have predicted that technology would dramatically reduce the needed work hours for all kinds of jobs. The advances in artificial intelligence have added fuel to these predictions. Yet so far, technology for many people has increased their workload. As you produce more, you create more work for yourself and others. Managers also take notice and adjust work goals upward. We are working faster and harder but are we really adding more value and meaning? In spite of this, our ability to compete personally and organizationally requires us to keep up and even lead when it comes to applying the latest technology.


Access to greater amounts of information has also reduced the satisfaction we find in our current position. Burkeman argues if we are constantly aware of new choices it is hard to make a decision and more importantly to make a commitment. If there is always potentially a better job, a better house, and a better potential spouse, we don’t want to settle for our current situation. We can’t enjoy what we have because all our energy is focused on what we could have in the future. And yet, strategic flexibility to move quickly is often touted as an effective approach in a rapidly changing world.


Burkeman has presented one of the biggest challenges of time management, how do we balance living this day to its fullest while optimizing the opportunity to live all our future days to their fullest. Burkeman wants us to feel this tension to see our priorities differently.


One of the most famous time management illustrations on priorities involves fitting rocks, pebbles, sand, and water into a big jar. A professor asks the students if they think it is possible to get all the ingredients into the jar. The students are not very optimistic, but the professor systematically starts with the big rocks, the pebbles, then the sand, and finally the water to get everything in the jar. The point of the lesson is that you must start with your most important priorities, represented by the big rocks. Burkeman notes the experiment is rigged. The professor started with the number of big rocks he knew would fit into the jar. The experiment only works if you start with the right number of priorities. Unfortunately, narrowing down all the seemingly important and interesting options is the biggest challenge.


Warren Buffet, the famed investor, when asked about achieving life goals gave the following advice; prioritize the top 25 things you want in life and focus on the top 5. When asked about the other twenty, he said to avoid them at all costs as they can become distractions to achieving your most important ambitions.


We often feel a sense of regret that we can’t say yes to all the opportunities in front of us. But by saying no, we are able to make true commitments. When we commit to a job, a person, or a cause we are more likely to experience meaning in our current moment and shape our future in the most positive way possible. We are not doing more for the sake of doing more. We don’t regret the path not taken because we are fully present attending to the path we are on. We live in the present and find joy in the future.


Burkeman also advises us to find power in being patient. We, especially in our younger days, are impatient for the future to arrive. But when we are patient, we are more likely to take the time to see the opportunities that today brings. We are less anxious about tomorrow. We find pleasure in adding value in the smaller moments of our day, which we eventually discover are what constitute most of our lives.