The New Year is the time when we collectively reflect on the events of the prior year and focus on what was not accomplished. We focus on how little time we have left and anxiously plan for the coming year to be more effective. As a coach, this should be high season for me. Telling you all to just chill out would be like Weight Watchers telling everyone to ignore food points and invest in a muumuu.
Despite being a compulsive lister and a massive planner, I have a visceral aversion to both New Year’s Resolutions and productivity-hacking. Luckily the book and concepts I’ll be discussing today don’t focus on these common themes of the “back to work” season we find ourselves in. Rather, let’s discuss how our concept of time impacts how we experience the roughly 4,000 weeks we get to spend living. I’m inspired by the book Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, a journalist who spent a lot of time writing about productivity hacks and psychology for the Guardian. Where he has landed is to turn time management on it’s head.
“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 truth is that no matter how we manage our time, no moment in the future is guaranteed to arrive. The more we “optimize” our lives to accomplish increasing amounts of mundane tasks such as answering emails or folding of laundry, the more of those unending items arrive in our inbox or laundry bin. Essentially we are optimizing our ability to complete the mundane, which simply welcomes more of it due to our increased ability to handle it.
“One of the greatest hoaxes in this whole thing is the future.” Alan Watts
To most people living in the Western world, it’s the future we’ve got to worry about. Contrast that with the Indian Hindu Buddhist idea of time. Where as they feel that in the course of time, everything falls apart. And that therefore there is nothing to be hoped from, hoped for from the future.Alan Watts
In his talk about the nature of time, Watts discusses how the concept of history preceding from a series of important events and facts (such as described in the Bible) in a generally upward slope of progress to today and beyond, is really a Western idea compared with the cyclical or even self-destructive nature of life understood by Hindus and Buddhists. This idea of history and progress hampers us because we become obsessed with optimizing for the future without an understanding of where we are going. The more effective we get at predicting the future, the more we pay for that ability with anxiety.
Counting our Anxiety to the Second Hand
The existence of and modern culture’s embrace of the time, kept to the minute and second, itself creates a kind of anxiety in us. We rush to adhere to appointments, to complete a certain number of tasks within a week, and to continually meet the pace that technology enables and that our competition with each other continues to hasten.
Whereby we have hairlines to designate the point at which a certain second passes is symbolic of the emptiness of our moments. When the moment is reduced to a hairline, you feel that it’s here and gone. That you can’t ever really be now because it’s all flying away all flying away and you can never sit down and be there. The moment is a curious thing. It isn’t fleeting at all. The moment is always with you. This is the point of all those spiritual exercises which are concerned with concentrating on what you are doing now and keeping your mind on it.Alan Watts
“A surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied—no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport.” It may not get here and if it does, it will most certainly differ from expectations.
Time is slipping away…
In addition to “getting things done” we also have the anxiety about using time as a resource to accomplish each step in a series of plans we enact in order to bring this blissful future together, the culmination of our plans. This is where New Year’s Resolution and the FOMO anxiety peaks. We envision the future moment when we have achieved a particular dream that we will be happy. Often that anticlimax leaves us even more dissatisfied with a “now what?” feeling.
There’s also something about the year turning that has us convinced (the media doesn’t help) that we can somehow trick or flagellate ourselves into being that other person we wish to be if we just will it strong enough, or plan it diligently enough.
“Perhaps most radically of all, seeing and accepting our limited powers over our time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.” Burkeman
Our desire for perfection cuts off our creativity at the wrists
Perhaps deep in your mind you have not started a project because you fear it will be a failure. Burkeman tells the story of a great architect who designed the world’s most perfect mosque. He was besieged with offers from builders to work with him to build his masterpiece. He ended up burning the plans rather than attempt to build it and disappoint himself with the result. The suggestion from Burkeman: “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.”
He also champions the virtue of hobbies that you know you suck at. To engage in something simply for the pleasure of the thing without the pressure to do it well, is a unique endeavor. To resist the urge to turn it into a “side-hustle” or optimize your way out of the enjoyment of it. Similarly, Julia Cameron advocates nourishing your inner child so that you can give yourself permission to engage in creative activities and accept your own artistic nature, without judging your output before it’s even allowed free of your mind’s eye.
Resolve to Unleash Yourself
I leave you with some parting suggestions for dealing with the insanity of the past two years and the turning of the calendar wheel.
- If you’re a listing addict add some “get-to-do’s” to your list of tasks which involve pampering yourself or taking yourself on an “artist’s date” as detailed in Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way.
- Vision boarding and planning are still fun and reasonable activities, unless you expect too much change or desire to transform yourself into someone that is not you. I love to create vision boards by collaging using old magazines and markers. This activity for me is more about setting intentions than assigning myself laborious deadlines.
- When you find yourself growing impatient due to a line, or traffic, aim instead to be mindful and enjoy the moment as it comes. Avoid the instinct to distract yourself.
- Resist the urge to overburden yourself with “productive” tasks just because the year has turned. Think about the different areas of your life and assess which are fairly realized and which are neglected. For example, physical health, social and friendships, spiritual, creative expression, career. Assess yourself and see where you would like to make changes to how you care for each of your important focuses. Make time to speak with someone if you need help untangling these focuses and your identities.