• We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action. (p. 4)
  • In 2020, in lockdown during the coronavirus pandemic, with our normal routines suspended, many people reported feeling that time was disintegrating completely, giving rise to the disorientating impression that their days were somehow simultaneously racing by and dragging on interminably. Time divided us, even more than it had before: for those with jobs and small children at home, there wasn’t enough of it; for those furloughed or unemployed, there was too much. (p. 7)
  • You’ll get more done, race to more meetings, ferry your kids to more after-school activities, generate more profit for your employer – and yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious, and somehow emptier as a result. (p. 9)
  • It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to. (p. 11)
  • 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. (p. 13)
  • Historians call this way of living ‘task orientation’, because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today. (p. 20)
  • Afterwards, once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used – and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today. (p. 24)
  • Afterwards, once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used – and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today. Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. (p. 24)
  • I spent years trying, and failing, to achieve mastery over my time. In fact, the symptoms were especially glaring in the subspecies to which I belonged. I was a ‘productivity geek’. (p. 26)
  • It’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. (p. 30)
  • In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organising your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do – and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. (p. 32)
  • Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t – and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you. (p. 33)
  • As the Yale University law professor Daniel Markovits has shown, even the winners in our achievement-obsessed culture – the ones who make it to the elite universities, then reap the highest salaries – find that their reward is the unending pressure to work with ‘crushing intensity’ in order to maintain the income and status that have come to seem like prerequisites for the lives they want to lead. (p. 38)
  • Think of it as ‘existential overwhelm’: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you actually can do. (p. 45)
  • What’s needed instead in such situations, I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges – to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get round to at all. (p. 50)
  • But smoothness, it turns out, is a dubious virtue, since it’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it liveable, helping nurture the relationships that are crucial for mental and physical health, and for the resilience of our communities. (p. 52)
  • Contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort – which is to say, the inconvenience. (p. 52)
  • Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility. (p. 60)
  • The only real question about all this finitude is whether we’re willing to confront it or not. (p. 60)
  • Each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with. And it stops making sense to pity yourself for having been cheated of all the other options. (p. 68)
  • The exhilaration that sometimes arises when you grasp this truth about finitude has been called the ‘joy of missing out’, by way of a deliberate contrast with the idea of the ‘fear of missing out’. It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything. (p. 69)
  • The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things. (p. 72)
  • Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time. (p. 73)
  • If a certain activity really matters to you – a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause – the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention. (p. 74)
  • If you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it. (p. 75)
  • The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts – because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. (p. 75)
  • The point isn’t to force yourself to finish absolutely everything you start, but rather to banish the bad habit of keeping an ever-proliferating number of half-finished projects on the back burner.) (p. 76)
  • The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. (p. 77)
  • In a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones – the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship – on which a finite life can come to grief. It’s a self-help cliché that most of us need to get better at learning to say no. (p. 77)
  • 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. (p. 78)
  • Better to cherish an ideal fantasy than to resign himself to reality, with all its limitations and unpredictability. Bradatan argues that when we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we’re usually in some version of this same mindset. (p. 79)
  • If you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax – because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start. (p. 80)
  • The received wisdom, articulated in a thousand magazine articles and inspirational Instagram memes, is that it’s always a crime to settle. But the received wisdom is wrong. You should definitely settle. Or to be more precise, you don’t have a choice. You will settle (p. 84)
  • 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. (p. 88)
  • What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is. (p. 91)
  • At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life. (p. 91)
  • If all you ever see of your ideological opponents online is their very worst behaviour, you’re liable to assume that even family members who differ from you politically must be similarly, irredeemably bad, making relationships with them hard to maintain. (p. 96)
  • So it’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining ‘important matters’ in the first place. In the words of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they sabotage our capacity to ‘want what we want to want’. (p. 96)
  • We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention’, with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy. Mary Oliver calls this inner urge towards distraction ‘the intimate interrupter’ – that ‘self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels’, promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever’s unfolding one browser tab away. (p. 104)
  • It’s true that killing time on the internet often doesn’t feel especially fun, these days. But it doesn’t need to feel fun. In order to dull the pain of finitude, it just needs to make you feel unconstrained. (p. 106)
  • Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or – the preferred option of the productivity geek – redesigning your to-do list and reorganising your desk. (p. 107)
  • The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter is famous, among other reasons, for coining ‘Hofstadter’s law’, which states that any task you’re planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect, ‘even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law’. (p. 113)
  • The activities we try to plan for somehow actively resist our efforts to make them conform to our plans. (p. 114)
  • The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future – but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future. (p. 115)
  • 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. (p. 116)
  • 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. (p. 117)
  • You only ever get to feel certain about the future once it’s already turned into the past. (p. 117)
  • The person mired in this mentality believes that the reason she doesn’t feel fulfilled and happy is that she hasn’t yet managed to accomplish certain specific things; when she does so, she imagines, she’ll feel in charge of her life and be the master of her time. Yet in fact the way she’s attempting to achieve that sense of security means she’ll never feel fulfilled, because she’s treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state – and so the present moment won’t ever feel satisfying in itself. Even if she does get her workload under control, or meet her soulmate, she’ll just find some other reason to postpone her fulfilment until later on. (p. 126)
  • The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the ‘causal catastrophe’, which he defines as the belief ‘that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces’. That idea sounds reasonable enough – how else would you judge rightness or wrongness? – until you realise that its effect is to sap childhood of any intrinsic value, by treating it as nothing but a training ground for adulthood. (p. 131)
  • ‘Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,’ Herzen says. ‘But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment … Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.’ (p. 132)
  • There will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the sea, 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. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. (p. 132)
  • When an activity can’t be added to the running tally of billable hours, it begins to feel like an indulgence one can’t afford. There may be more of this ethos in most of us – even the non-lawyers – than we’d care to admit. (p. 135)
  • Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now – that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the ‘real meaning’ of your existence (p. 135)
  • The problem is that the effort to be present in the moment, though it seems like the exact opposite of the instrumentalist, future-focused mindset I’ve been criticising in this chapter, is in fact just a slightly different version of it. You’re so fixated on trying to make the best use of your time – in this case not for some later outcome, but for an enriching experience of life right now – that it obscures the experience itself. It’s like trying too hard to fall asleep, and therefore failing. (p. 138)
  • The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore – in other words, like work in the worst sense of that word. (p. 143)
  • In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. From this perspective, idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation. (p. 147)
  • It was members of religious communities who first understood a crucial fact about rest, which is that it isn’t simply what occurs by default whenever you take a break from work. (p. 151)
  • This is just a country walk, perhaps the most mundane of leisure activities – and yet, as a way of spending one’s time, it does have one or two features worth noting. For one thing, unlike almost everything else I do with my life, it’s not relevant to ask whether I’m any good at it: all I’m doing is walking, a skill at which I haven’t appreciably improved since around the age of four. Moreover, a country walk doesn’t have a purpose, in the sense of an outcome you’re trying to achieve or somewhere you’re trying to get. (p. 155)
  • As Setiya recalls in his book Midlife, he was heading towards the age of forty when he first began to feel a creeping sense of emptiness, which he would later come to understand as the result of living a project-driven life, crammed not with atelic activities but telic ones, the primary purpose of which was to have them done, and to have achieved certain outcomes. (p. 156)
  • We might seek to incorporate into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone – to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself. (p. 158)
  • In order to be a source of true fulfilment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome. (p. 159)
  • People complain that they no longer have ‘time to read’, but the reality, as the novelist Tim Parks has pointed out, is rarely that they literally can’t locate an empty half-hour in the course of the day. What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task. (p. 165)
  • As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness, or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed. We grow anxious about not keeping up – so to quell the anxiety, to try to achieve the feeling that our lives are under control, we move faster. (p. 168)
  • We push ourselves harder to get rid of anxiety, but the result is actually more anxiety, because the faster we go, the clearer it becomes that we’ll never succeed in getting ourselves or the rest of the world to move as fast as we feel is necessary. (Meanwhile, we suffer the other effects of moving too fast: poor work output, a worse diet, damaged relationships.) (p. 168)
  • When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety, and your anxiety is transformed. (p. 170)
  • In practical terms, three rules of thumb are especially useful for harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life. The first is to develop a taste for having problems. (p. 180)
  • A life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless. (p. 180)
  • Once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires – that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one. (p. 181)
  • The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism. (p. 181)
  • One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be 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. (p. 182)
  • The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. (p. 182)
  • To experience the profound mutual understanding of the long-married couple, you have to stay married to one person. (p. 184)
  • Having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively isn’t just useless but actively unpleasant. (p. 187)
  • What people need isn’t greater individual control over their schedules but rather what he calls ‘the social regulation of time’: greater outside pressure to use their time in particular ways. That means more willingness to fall in with the rhythms of community; more traditions like the Sabbath of decades past, or the French phenomenon of the grandes vacances, where almost everything grinds to a halt for several weeks each summer. (p. 191)
  • The Soviet government had inadvertently demonstrated how much of the value of time comes not from the sheer quantity you have, but from whether you’re in sync with the people you care about most. (p. 194)
  • 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 organisations. You can prioritise activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination towards control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week. You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own. (p. 201)
  • What you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much – and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less. (p. 208)
  • You might think of it as ‘cosmic insignificance therapy’: when things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life – relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries – shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. (p. 210)
  • This overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well. It sets the bar much too high. It suggests that in order to count as having been well spent’, your life needs to involve deeply impressive accomplishments, or that it should have a lasting impact on future generations – or at the very least that it must, in the words of the philosopher Iddo Landau, ‘transcend the common and the mundane’. (p. 211)
  • You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed – and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them, on the grounds that they weren’t ‘significant’ enough. (p. 212)
  • 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. (p. 213)
  • Any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves. (p. 213)
  • The peace of mind on offer here is of a higher order: it lies in the recognition that being unable to escape from the problems of finitude is not, in itself, a problem. The human disease is often painful, but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure.3 Accept the inevitability of the affliction, and freedom ensues: you can get on with living at last. (p. 219)
  • Pursuing the life projects that matter to you the most will almost always entail not feeling fully in control of your time, immune to the painful assaults of reality, or confident about the future. (p. 220)
  • The more humane approach is to drop such efforts as completely as you can. Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today. (p. 222)
  • Shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us. (p. 223)
  • It is from this position of not feeling as though you need to earn your weeks on the planet that you can do the most genuine good with them. Once you no longer feel the stifling pressure to become a particular kind of person, you can confront the personality, the strengths and weaknesses, the talents and enthusiasms you find yourself with, here and now, and follow where they lead. (p. 223)
  • It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment. (p. 225)
  • We’re all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we’ll never see. The cathedral’s still worth building, all the same. (p. 227)
  • But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate. (p. 227)
  • Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. (p. 233)
  • The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fuelled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible – the quest to become the optimised, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead. (p. 234)
  • Adopt a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity. (p. 235)
  • Keep 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. (p. 236)
  • Establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. (p. 236)
  • Focus on one big project at a time. (p. 237)
  • Train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing. (p. 237)
  • Nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself. (p. 237)
  • Even in these essential domains, there’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for ‘work–life balance’ with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon. (p. 238)
  • There’s good evidence for the motivating power of ‘small wins’, so the likely consequence of commemorating your minor achievements in this fashion is that you’ll achieve more of them, and less-minor ones besides. (p. 239)
  • Consciously pick your battles in charity, activism and politics. (p. 240)
  • Switching the screen from colour to greyscale. (p. 240)
  • Choose devices with only one purpose. (p. 241)
  • Childhood involves plentiful novel experiences, so we remember it as having lasted forever; but as we get older, life gets routinised – we stick to the same few places of residence, the same few relationships and jobs – and the novelty tapers off. (p. 241)
  • Pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. (p. 242)
  • Meditation helps here. But so does going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or keeping a journal, playing I Spy with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you’re doing in the present. (p. 242)
  • When presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, ‘to figure out who this human being is that we’re with’. (p. 242)
  • Whenever 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. (p. 243)
  • Shinzen Young teaches ‘Do Nothing’ meditation, for which the instructions are to simply set a timer, probably only for five or ten minutes at first; sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. Every time you notice you’re doing something – including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else – stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticising yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.) Keep on stopping until the timer goes off. (p. 245)