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.).


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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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.


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%.

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