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).
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).
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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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%.
Age quod agis