I’ve noticed that books published in a similar timeframe can touch on similar themes or ideas. Last summer, for example, I read about kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold, in Michelle Harper’s memoir The Beauty in Breaking and Julia Alvarez’s novel Afterlife. A beautiful metaphor, for sure.
This month, everything I read seemed to touch on the coming end of the world and what we should do with our limited time on it. A more daunting quest than repairing pottery, authors sure were creative in their solutions, often looking for a scapegoat to the problem of finality.
Mr. Burkeman spends most of his book assessing the reasons why we might obsess over time management and all of the small and large decisions we make in our lives that determine productivity and effectiveness. On a personal scale, these decisions seem to matter a great deal, but I’ve also noticed, based on the commentary of circles of friends, the news, and other loud voices, that many of us feel the need to react to what feels like the coming of the end times, to do what we can to push it back, to make life better for future generations. In Burkeman’s words,
"It's the understandable tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy, so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history, to which all prior time was always leading up." (210-211)
His words remind me of a character from Sea of Tranquility who muses,
"When have we ever believed that the world wasn't ending?...there's always something. I think, as a species, we have a desire to believe that we're living at the climax of the story. It's a kind of narcissism. We want to believe that we're uniquely important, that we're living at the end of history, that now, after all these millennia of false alarms, now is finally the worst that it's ever been, that finally we have reached the end of the world." (189)
And yes, Burkeman points out, while "[i]t is true, as more upbeat commentators like to remind us, that people have always believed they were living in the end times…much of the news these days is really rather good: infant mortality, absolute poverty, and global inequality are all falling rapidly, while literacy is rising, and you’re less likely than ever to get killed in a war." (229-230)
Still, the world has huge problems. What to do about them, Mr. Burkeman?
His arguments are long-winded and meandering, but his point in the end is to let go of the need to control your life and, by extension, what happens to the whole world. Once you let go of “your need to know that everything will turn out fine,” “you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.” (233)
The trick being, that you should do this work without it going to your head. "You might imagine...that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful...but what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well" (211)
Bottom line (and this is rather harsh and devoid of religious belief): "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." (208)
"To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn't realize we were carrying in the first place." (210)
Ms. Mandel’s character Gaspery-Jacques Roberts demonstrates how heroic a life can look when embracing this mindset. His small, sacrificial decisions had huge ripple effects in her novel. Perhaps it helped that he seemed to be selfless by nature, and yet, he seemed to almost laugh in the face of decision, a word that Burkeman points out stems from “the Latin word decidere, which means "to cut off," as in slicing away alternatives, [similar to] words like "homicide" and "suicide." Any finite life -- even the best one you could possibly imagine -- is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility." (60)
Burkeman posits that "once you're no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a "life well spent," you're freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time." (212)
The philosophy here is really interesting, but my main observation is that this guy is really long winded for someone completely obsessed with time management. The format is a huge contrast to the "live simply and unhurriedly" book I wrote about in 2021, though the ideas of embracing limits and slowing down are perhaps similar. Still, Burkeman seems intensely motivated to include all of his research, which reminds me stylistically of books like Flyboys and Hidden Figures. It shows clearly that he really believes that we need an entirely new approach to the phrase “using your time well.”
One of Mr. Burkeman’s main points is that we should embrace the fact that we will never reach that peak efficiency we desire, nor will we ever cross some pre-ordained finish line of productivity. He seems to have always cared about these things, but it is clear that there was a sudden impetus for his need to find a different answer. All to say: he became a father. Having a toddler forced him to recognize his limits, and above everything else, his limited control over his time (and his child).
In the end, Mr. Burkeman admits that accepting his limits will likely remain an ongoing aspirational quest, and in admission of how difficult such a mindset truly is, he offers a few hints and hacks for how to get around this conundrum.
First, march with the army. Maybe not literally, but Burkeman points out the subliminal thrill of coordinated group activity, the sensation of feeling part of something magnitudes larger than yourself. His example pertained to infantrymen who never deployed but developed camaraderie simply by performing drills, marching together. I certainly recognized this from my own experience on dance teams and in choirs.
Second, increase the number of novel experiences in your life within the limits of necessary routines. I have always wondered why life seems to accelerate as we age and also why certain periods of time seem to occupy disproportional space in my memory, namely why experiences like “high school” and “college” and, in particular “study abroad” dominate above so many other life changing and significant events. Burkeman’s book is the first place I read a satisfying explanation, and the reason, he claims, is within the number of novel experiences during that time frame.
Still, Burkeman warns against cramming in too many novel experiences, explaining that while it might work, “it's liable to worsen another problem, "existential overwhelm." Moreover, it's impractical: if you have a job or children, much of life will necessarily be somewhat routine, and opportunities for exotic travel may be limited. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to 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....[like] 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 journaling, playing "I Spy" with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you're doing in the present." (241-2)
As I continue to settle into my new home and wonder how best to use my time, my days, and these years we have ahead of us, I’ll be thinking of Mr. Burkeman and picturing him playing “I Spy” with his toddler. Especially because, in the end, Mr. Burkeman, I think this is what matters most: your connections to others. However you use your time, may you remind people how much they matter, regardless of how they spend their time, and may they serve to reflect the same reminder for you.
Here you will find a catalog of my writing and reflections.