As we contemplate the beginning of a new year, full of possibility, making resolutions to eat and drink more healthfully, to exercise more, to accomplish this or that professional or personal goal, there’s a sense of limitless possibility – and that’s a problem.
What could you accomplish in 4,000 weeks? It turns out to be your life’s work, because 4,000 weeks is the time it takes to get to about 80 years of age.
“We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action,” writes Oliver Burkeman in his 2021 bestseller, “4,000 Weeks.”
It’s a conundrum for the ages, as he quotes one of Seneca’s famous lines: “This space that has been granted us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live.”
Chasing the Dragon of ‘Work/Life Balance’
Ok, time for some honest self-reflection: How many of you, as part of your New Year resolutions, plan to implement a new system to get yourself organized? The stack of file folders is at the ready. Your computer desktop is clean, and you’re making a pledge – today! – that you’re finally going to find that Shangri-La known as inbox zero.
Recognition of the brevity of life is not new. In modern times, however, this fact has caused us to find ever more ingenious ways to get more things done – ever more and more – if only I could get organized. Keep pushing, keep pressing, in eternal hope of getting it all done so you can finally get to living!
The pressure is on. Anxiety levels rise. We’re busier than ever and out of control.
“How can you be sure that people feel so busy?” Burkeman asks. “It’s like the line about how to know whether someone’s a vegan: Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”
In college, several friends and I realized we had become a cliché when every query to how we were doing resulted in the following response: “I’m so busy; I’m so tired; I’m so cool.” Cool was the currency of value, and exhausted busyness the path to a payday. I’m still caught in this trap.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
“Personal productivity is ultimately motivated by the desire not to die,” Burkeman explains. Much of the anxiety we experience is based on an unwillingness to accept our finitude, the fact that none of us gets out of this life alive. We paper over this reality with our to-do lists.
We refuse to accept limits, believing that we can have it all. In reality, “the joy of missing out (is) the recognition that the renunciation of alternatives is what makes their choice a meaningful one in the first place.”
Please reread that last sentence, because it contains an important clue to how we might begin to manage our way out of this mess.
“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything,” Burkeman says, “the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.”
As Burkeman found in his own experience, “the things I got done most diligently were the unimportant ones … one can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”
Let’s not waste 2023.
There is discomfort inherent in facing the reality of our limited life spans. There’s no shortage of things to do, so it takes effort to intentionally choose the project most important to you, pushing down the anxiety as other work piles up and clamors for your attention.
Get used to being uncomfortable, I often tell students and young professionals, because that’s life. Offering advice like that, I rarely get invited back. Yet the fear of discomfort is often worse than the experience itself.
“Nobody in the history of humanity has achieved ‘work-life’ balance, whatever that might be,” Burkeman observes, “and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 am.’”
Which brings us back to your New Year’s plans and resolutions and the possibilities for a new year, and a passage by Burkeman that I will quote at length:
“The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control – when the flood of email has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.
But you know what? That’s excellent news.”
It’s time to start making choices. It’s time to get comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s time to start living the weeks we have left.