On the Wise Use of Our Insultingly Short Lifespan

There is an absurdly wide gap between the human capacity to make many grand plans and the lifetime available to realize them. This brevity of life makes rigorous prioritization central to all time management and, at the same time, makes every choice painfully significant. Unfortunately, in our desperation, we tend to squeeze so much into our day until we are finally sufficiently overloaded to say no with a clear conscience.

Evo­lu­tion has endowed humans with the fan­tas­tic abil­i­ty to antic­i­pate future states men­tal­ly, com­mon­ly referred to as plan­ning. For human­i­ty, this abil­i­ty, com­bined with our ver­bal skills, which enable us to plan and exe­cute some­thing col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly, is a great bless­ing. Still, for the indi­vid­ual, it is also a curse. The abil­i­ty to plan and dram also cre­ates demands, desires, and con­flicts. There is always more to try and achieve. Very apt­ly, but also some­what resigned­ly, the French math­e­mati­cian and philoso­pher Blaise Pas­cal sum­ma­rized this tragedy of human exis­tence: “All of human­i­ty’s prob­lems stem from man’s inabil­i­ty to sit qui­et­ly in a room alone.” (Pas­cal & Kleuk­er, 1777, p. 221).

The Brevity of Life

The com­plaint about the short­ness of life against the back­ground of our pos­si­bil­i­ties, desires, and demands is, there­fore, as old as human­i­ty itself. How­ev­er, thinkers and philoso­phers seem to be par­tic­u­lar­ly affect­ed by this prob­lem. Seneca, for exam­ple, devotes an entire book to the short­ness of life and makes this point clear right at the begin­ning: “Life hur­tles by like a run­away mare, so fast and furi­ous that it is impos­si­ble to dis­cern its mean­ing before it is too late” (Seneca, 2015, p. 7).

Since ancient times, the gap between con­ceiv­able and poten­tial­ly real­iz­able pos­si­bil­i­ties and the time avail­able for them has widened for more and more peo­ple. The human being of moder­ni­ty and post­moder­ni­ty is now con­front­ed with almost infi­nite pos­si­bil­i­ties and entrust­ed with the once-divine task of giv­ing mean­ing to his bare exis­tence. The approx­i­mate­ly 4,000 weeks avail­able to us for this seem at first sight like a bad joke of a cru­el cre­ator: “The aver­age human lifes­pan is absurd­ly, ter­ri­fy­ing­ly, insult­ing­ly short” (Oliv­er Burke­man, 2021, p. 3).

Now the 4,000 weeks allot­ted to us are not noth­ing either, but a mir­a­cle per se, and they can be quite a lot when used wise­ly. You don’t have to retreat into the woods like Hen­ry David Thore­au to live con­scious­ly. Still, his claim and mis­sion may well guide us: “I went to the woods because I wished to live delib­er­ate­ly, to front only the essen­tial facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, dis­cov­er that I had not lived” (Thore­au, 2012, p. 59). 

Choosing Wisely

We can imag­ine a lot in the­o­ry and hope for a lot, but we can only put a lit­tle of it into prac­tice. No mat­ter how well we orga­nize our­selves and how per­fect­ly our time man­age­ment sys­tems work, how ear­ly we get up, and what morn­ing rou­tine we use, we will only ever be able to imple­ment a frac­tion of the pos­si­bil­i­ties. How­ev­er, it is through this nat­ur­al lim­i­ta­tion of our capac­i­ty that our deci­sions become sig­nif­i­cant. If we had infi­nite time at our dis­pos­al, what we decide would not mat­ter much. It is only when the one yes simul­ta­ne­ous­ly and inevitably means a mul­ti­tude of no’s that the option we choose acquires weight. “The quan­ti­ty of our noes dic­tates the qual­i­ty of our yeses,” Greg McK­e­own for­mu­lat­ed this apt­ly in his pod­cast.

There­fore, time man­age­ment is more about mak­ing con­scious deci­sions than indis­crim­i­nate­ly work­ing off as many tasks as pos­si­ble. Since a deci­sion to do some­thing always con­fronts us with an over­whelm­ing­ly large amount of lost oppor­tu­ni­ties and ulti­mate­ly with the finite­ness of our lives, we only make it when it has become unavoid­able. We cram our days until it hurts, and only in this over­load sit­u­a­tion dare to reject tasks and oppor­tu­ni­ties. That’s why Cal New­port, in his August 2021 arti­cle in the New York­er, sees most knowl­edge work­ers in a lim­i­nal state of over­load: “a place where they toil, say, for the sake of fix­ing a spe­cif­ic num­ber, twen­ty per cent more than they real­ly have time for. This extra twen­ty per cent pro­vides just enough over­load to gen­er­ate per­sis­tent stress — there’s always some­thing that’s late, always a mes­sage that can’t wait until the next morn­ing, always a nag­ging sense of irre­spon­si­bil­i­ty dur­ing any moment of down­time. Yet the work remains below a lev­el of unsus­tain­able pain that would force a change.”

So we are able to make deci­sions, but in good con­science, we dare to say no only when over­loaded. Giv­en that we won’t accom­plish most things in our lives any­how, twen­ty per­cent more or less will not make a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence in the long run, and for sure not if we make use of our time so hap­haz­ardous­ly as we do day in and day out in our cal­en­dars and mail­box­es. What makes a dif­fer­ence is choos­ing wise­ly. How­ev­er, we need a cer­tain amount of lee­way and buffer to make this choice. In the lim­i­nal area of this just suf­fi­cient­ly painful over­load, our selec­tions are ran­dom because they are not guid­ed by clear pri­or­i­ties but sim­ply due to a lack of capacity.

So our opti­mal work­load is not twen­ty per­cent too much, even if that feels so nice­ly “busy,” but instead 80 per­cent or 85 per­cent. Gunter Dueck derives this fig­ure math­e­mat­i­cal­ly from queue­ing the­o­ry and sum­ma­rizes this rec­om­men­da­tion: “Any­thing over 85 per­cent util­i­sa­tion leads to chaos and even cat­a­stro­phe. This is because such high util­i­sa­tion gen­er­ates new work through annoy­ance and changes in pri­or­i­ties due to wait­ing emer­gen­cies, so that the util­i­sa­tion ris­es above 100 per cent and caus­es the sys­tem to col­lapse” (Dueck, 2015, p. 61).

Setting Priorities

Time man­age­ment does not mean squeez­ing as much as pos­si­ble into the avail­able time (effi­cien­cy) but rather say­ing yes to the right things and con­se­quent­ly say­ing no to many oth­ers (effec­tive­ness). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, our abil­i­ty to men­tal­ly antic­i­pate future states makes many things seem attrac­tive and desir­able. Thus every choice comes with high oppor­tu­ni­ty costs. But pre­cise­ly because our time is so frus­trat­ing­ly lim­it­ed, we must not sit par­a­lyzed, like the rab­bit in front of the snake, but make a good choice.

To make that choice in the dai­ly chaos, we should heed the prac­ti­cal advice War­ren Buf­fett is said to have once giv­en his pilot on how to pri­or­i­tize. He should list 25 things he wants to achieve in life and rank them in descend­ing order of impor­tance. The top five would then form the pri­or­i­ties accord­ing to which he should ori­en­tate his life. How­ev­er, he should not treat the oth­er twen­ty as sec­ond-tier pri­or­i­ties that he could tack­le if the oppor­tu­ni­ty arose but should avoid them at all costs. On the one hand, these ambi­tions are not impor­tant enough to form the core of his life, but on the oth­er hand, they are suf­fi­cient­ly seduc­tive to dis­tract him from the real­ly essen­tial things (Burke­man, 2021, p. 77f.).

References

Burke­man, O. (2021). Four Thou­sand Weeks: Time and How to Use It. Ran­dom House.

Dueck, G. (2015). Schwar­m­dumm: So blöd sind wir nur gemein­sam. Campus-Verl.

New­port, C. (2021, August 30). Why Do We Work Too Much? The New York­er. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/office-space/why-do-we-work-too-much

Pas­cal, B., & Kleuk­er, J. F. (1777). Gedanken. bei Johann Hein­rich Cramer.

Seneca. (2015). On The Short­ness of Life. (n.p.): Lulu.com.

Thore­au, H. D. (2012). Walden; Or, Life in the Woods. USA: Dover Publications.

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2 Comments

Robert N Copelan 19. February 2023 Reply

Thanks for this insight Mar­cus. This brings an inter­est­ing per­spec­tive to the con­cept of 20% of the work week being allo­cat­ed for learning/exploration/innovation and not the planned work. (which rarely actu­al­ly hap­pens) It should be 20% of the 80%.

Elisabetta Toso 1. March 2023 Reply

Age quod agis

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