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Productivity And The Hard Truth About Time Management

This post first appeared on Forbes.com

How well does the way you spend your time match your priorities?

Better time management is a perennial coaching goal, as I’ve seen in hundreds of coaching engagements over the last fifteen years. It comes in several forms, commonly:

  • Prioritize better and devote more time to “important” activities (often involving strategy, creativity and deep work ) and less time to unimportant activities (meetings where nothing gets accomplished, mundane tasks, etc.)
  • Get control of the endless to-do list and reduce stress
  • Work less and spend more time on health, loved ones, or hobbies

In my writing, I have devoted a fair amount of virtual ink to the topic, offering behavioral approaches–tactics like taking control of your calendar and mastering procrastination–and exploring mindset shifts to help you identify and prioritize your highest value and set boundaries.

But recently, at my husband’s recommendation I picked up Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals and it has changed how I think about time management. Burkeman’s central tenet is both obvious and mind-blowing. We have a limited amount of time (about 4000 weeks of life) and if we mean to live well, we need to acknowledge the math–we can’t do everything–and make choices about how we want to live. Mastery over time is an illusion. Mastery suggests that we could step outside time and wrangle our lives into a controlled state where we can do everything to our satisfaction. He writes“You’re already inescapably part of, and constrained by, reality – … your time is already running out, and … choosing to do anything with any given portion of it always means choosing not to do a million other things, many of which might have been equally worthwhile.”

Chasing optimization is a vain attempt to avoid hard choices. Instead, Burkeman urges us to look reality in the eye, embrace our limitations, and transform our relationship with time. It starts with facing the truth.

Embrace finitude. Four thousand weeks is a bit less than eighty years. This finite amount of time means that there is simply no way that we can do or accomplish everything we might want. Instead of seeing this as a defeat, embracing finitude releases us from the obligation to try to do or have it all. If we embrace our limitations rather than being demoralized them, then we focus our energies on having rich experiences, develop caring relationships, and make a meaningful difference to the people and activities to which we devote ourselves. Embracing finitude invites us to stop spinning all the plates and actually sit down and eat a nourishing meal.

Make hard choices. To be clear, this release from infinite obligation also means facing the discomfort of difficult choices. If you are like me–you like to keep options open and hate to miss out–the idea of walking through one door and letting others close can be very scary: what if it doesn’t work out, what if I’m wrong? Choosing one path may require letting go of another cherished dream, or giving up the illusion that you can figure it all out and perfect your life. Facing this truth may bring up feelings of sadness, even grief. Or maybe you fear that your choice might disappoint, hurt, or let down people you care about. Maybe (like me) take pride in how well you juggle and don’t want to admit failure. When faced with the pain of hard choices, it is so tempting avoid, to convince yourself that you can make it all work, leading you to immerse yourself in productivity apps, bullet journals or the Pomodoro technique. Each of these approaches has its place, but productivity tools only really work if you get clear about your choices–otherwise they just become another way to avoid the hard truth. Warren Buffet famously once advised making a list of your 25 goals, ranking them in order, and then discarding everything but the top five until you have achieved the top five, because they will distract you from your priorities.

Choose some constraints. The notion of time mastery suggests a kind of freedom to do what you want, when you want. But much of the richness of life comes from spending time with those we care about, even if it means surrendering some of our freedom to adapt our schedule to theirs. Bruce Springsteen writes about his own experience of ceding a piece of his freedom in his memoir Born To Run. For most of his life, Bruce kept musician’s hours, playing or writing music until three or four in the morning and sleeping past noon. One day, his wife Patti Scialfa came to him as he lay in bed at noon and said, “You’re gonna miss it.” When Bruce asked what she was talking about, Patti explained,“The kids, the morning, it’s the best time, it’s when they need you the most. They’re different in the morning than at any other time of day and if you don’t get up to see it, well then…you’re gonna miss it.” Next day he got up and learned to make pancakes. Sacrificing a personal preference or habit in order to share our time with the people who matter most to us.

Value the here-and-now. We can fall into the habit (trap) of assessing the value of our use of time based on future results, judging time to be well-spent based on whether it pays off in some future value and “wasted” if it doesn’t lead to a desired result. Our obsession with productivity is a prime example of seeing time as instrumental. To say that an hour was “time well spent,” is to see time as something that is supposed to “pay off.” This notion of time as a sort of currency or means to an end denies the potential value of the experience itself and evaluating a use of time based on some future result is to never actually be in the current moment. For example, many debates about parenting choices, like how long to breastfeed or whether to let your kids climb into bed with you or whether to allow them to play first-person-shooter games, turn on whether the child is more or less well-adjusted or successful. Instead, what if we ask about the experience itself: is rich, meaningful, positive, connecting? Or consider the value of learning that might be gained by trying an experiment that “failed.” And yet thinking of time as currency can be a useful framing, if it helps us to value the time itself differently. New York Times columnist Essau McCaulley, whose mother worked 2 pm to midnight six days a week to support the family, recently shared that he had cut back his own work and travel schedule when his 12-year-old daughter told him that she would rather have 20% more time with him than 20% more stuff.

Finally, let me acknowledge that the ability to reflect and make choices about time is in itself a privilege. As McCaulley highlighted, when your survival depends on working long hours that are not under your control, your flexibility and choice are severely limited. For those whose time in involuntarily compressed and limited, choosing how to use those precious moments is especially meaningful, as evidenced by McCaulley’s mother’s choice to take her children to church on her only day off. Those of us continue to reflexively ride the endless productivity merry-go-round to nowhere would do well to face up to the hard choices that we are privileged to have.