The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks.
Limitations Link to heading
Oliver’s1 main thesis on limitation is the following. Every day (provided that we make it through the day) we live 24 hours. If we are fortunate enough to live to a ripe old age of eighty, we’ll have lived a bit more than four thousand weeks. We all must learn to operate under these same constraints. There are many2 permutations on how each day could play out (some driven by our own choices and some driven by randomness). Even under markovian assumptions, the possibilities of what we experience in a year or a decade are unfathomable. The sheer magnitude of these combinatorics can drive us to feel that we fail to produce, experience or accomplish anything meaningful. Ultimately, we do ourselves a disservice by failing to accept these constraints at face value.
This disservice is threefold. First, we inherit a constant and nagging feeling of scarcity by focusing on the “things left undone.” This is true of occupational, familial and leisure activities. I have been guilty of feeling that I don’t have enough time to read all the books, play all the video games, do all the electronics projects and write all the software that I could want. And those are just the things that I want to enjoy leisurely!
Second, we (unintuitively) dig ourselves deeper into this anxiety by frantically checking off this never-ending todo list. Oliver calls this “The Efficiency Trap.” This likewise applies to all activities in life.
The world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities. … The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more wonderful experiences you start to feel that you could have, or ought to have.
Third, by focusing on all things, we disproportionately prioritize and accomplish low-value activities. Having been raised Mormon, I thought the reference to Stephen Covey’s rocks in a jar analogy was incredibly apt. Oliver basically says Covey rigged the demonstration! The various rocks, pebbles, sand and water were chosen to precisely fit into the jar, implicitly promising that prioritization would lead to being able to accomplish all things both big and small. Truthfully, there are an infinite number of big rocks and pebbles that get left out of the jar whether or not we acknowledge that fact. By failing to acknowledge our limitations we inadvertently prioritize meaningless and low-priority activities.
Time Link to heading
I’m incredibly partial to pithy statements, especially when those statements are presented as equivalencies between two dissimilar concepts. So Oliver’s statement
[W]e are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.
easily burrowed into my mind. I sat on this sentence (and its surrounding paragraphs) for a few hours. I, too, came to the conclusion that we are the sum of all the moments that we experience. This has the paradoxical effect of making me simultaneously feel both hollow and very full. Hollow since I’m prone to measure myself by my potential and expected future contributions and full since I’m able to see the many experiences that have shaped me into my present-day self.
Oliver’s futher explanations and guidance also led me to fully reject another pithy statement of equivalence “time is money.” Time resists most definitions of money Time could be a medium of exchange, but the time taken to process a transaction is directly proportional to the quantity of exchanged. Time is not a unit of account, first because it’s difficult (read impossible) to measure how much we have and second because we have no way to increase that unit of account (it’s monotonically decreasing). Time is also not a store of value. The current moment is continuously rotting and giving rise to the next.
Digging deeper, Oliver warns us not to have a “transactional” relationship with time. Being composed of “time stuff” ourselves, a transactional relationship with time leads to a transactional relationship with ourselves. When speaking to my dad, Sonny Walker Morris CPA, about this, we both realized that the last 1000 weeks (retirement) is going to require some large mental shifts. Commonly, we treat time as billable hours, something to be used or alchemically converted into some other substance. This commoditized view of time ultimately leads us to view ourselves as commodities, only achieving our purpose when our time is sold.
Most concretely, Oliver, in the chapter “We Never Really Have Time,” argues that all we have is the present moment. Sure, with high probability, I can reasonably expect to experience most of next week but we can’t assure that it will happen. The future is, by nature, not entirely predictable. Oliver says
In focusing so hard on instrumentalizing [our] time, [we] end up treating [our] lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so [our] days are sapped of meaning, even as [our] bank accounts increase.
These quotes make me reconsider how I treat the present. The past 30 years of my life, I’ve been very future focused. First on myself, then on my wife and I, finally on this little family we have formed. This last view into our relationship with time I feel is the most concrete. The objective is being present in the present and not always delaying gratification, happiness and fulfillment to the future. These thoughts cause me to ask tough questions like “how much am I investing in a future that I may never experience?” Or “how am I diminishing the present by solely focusing on the future?” I don’t think any of us have the answers, and like all things there is probabily some optimal convex combination that weights the future and the present, but that combination (for me) probably would be more optimal by shifting some attention to the present3.
Attention Link to heading
Like I said, I’m a sucker for pithy one-liners, especially
Attention just is life.
What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is
I’ve definitely said “attention is your most valuable resource” in many conversations the past year.4 Most of these have been sparked by avid usage of a Nokia 225 as my daily driver cell phone.5 All this to say, I’m really big on the attention game and Oliver definitely helped me expand my mind here.
First, I definitely spent a load of time thinking about the “attention economy” and how that mixes with the phrase “attention defines reality.” This is a dangerous concoction. I feel like a ton is being written on this currently so I don’t feel the need to hash out all of my insights here, but suffice it to say it’s probably (definitely) not in our best interest to let social media, our work, our religion or our favorite tv show command our experience of reality by commanding our attention.6
Second, the phrase
[W]hen you pay attention … it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life
really nails why controlling attention is so important.7 Some things are worth paying your life for. For me, those are my family, my job, my hobbies, my skills and my health. There is a certain finality in this phrase with perhaps the subtle implication that we may die not having achieved what we wish. But, If we think of attention as “life credits,” I think we’d all think twice before binging a thirty minute reddit scroll session.8
I’ve found that attention is highly-correlated with interest. For example, at my previous job, I had the opportunity to focus deeply on a niche within a niche: calibration of autonomous systems. From my experience, most roboticists don’t think calibration is very interesting and as a result have not paid much attention to the field. However, having been steeped in calibration-land for a few years, I find the field fascinating.9 The same rings true for me and chicken sandwiches. By paying attention to the experience of eating a chicken sandwich, I’ve gained greater appreciation for what makes “the best chicken sando.” Oliver quotes
Attention is the beginning of devotion - Mary Oliver
Although I wouldn’t describe myself as devoted to chicken sandwiches or calibration, this phrase definitely rings true for me.
Lastly, I think we need more meta-attention mechanisms in our lives. In other words, we need better ways to pay attention to that which we pay attention. “Screen Time” on the iPhone is a good example of this. I know I used to feel embarrassed when I would get my Sunday morning summary of how I spent time on my phone that week. I, being trained in control theory, often think of attention as some dynamic system and I wonder what kind of feedback we require in order to achieve controllability and stability of that system. More directly, I wonder if a once-a-week checkup on screen time usage is sufficient feedback for the majority of us.
Surrender Link to heading
When it comes to all of this life management stuff, it’s easy for me to get overwhelmed. A recurring technique Oliver uses is to present the problem, show how our inteference makes it worse and then say “give up” (in fancier words). The chapter “The Efficiency Trap” is probably the best example of this. Whenever, I came across this pattern I always read this “give up” part like the spanish word “entregarse,” or in a butchered english translation “to give yourself up to.” Here are a few examples where I think this is presented
- We are limited and we only escape by recognizing our limitations
- Reading is a slow process; We only participate effectively by giving ourselves over to the process of reading (slowly).
- The future is uncontrollable, we feel more at ease about our future by recognizing that we can’t control it
- We find uniqueness by first being incredbily not-unique
- You find joy and meaning in the present moment by letting it unfold and not overly focusing on getting joy and meaning out of it.
I have found this strategy to be true in my life. One example is that, as a self-certified nerd, I always strugged with dating10. When I met Brianna, I was at a time in my life where I really focused on being present. Dating her felt natural and rarely did I concern myself with how our friendship would develop. This blossomed into a wonderful relationship and now we have a whole self-certified cool family. I doubt our relationship would have grown under different circumstances.
Oliver’s entire chapter on patience is the culmination of how we implement this philosophy of “giving ourselves.” I found it very insightful that we should never expect to reach a time where we are free from problems. Overall, I need to be more comfortable with surrendering myself to the time that it takes for things to be done well.11
Gratitude Link to heading
I’ll be the first to admit that realizing I’m limited to four-thousand weeks of life evokes a feeling of being slighted. The word decide as Oliver describes, derives from the latin de caedere, meaning to cut off. Thus, to decide is to kill off all alternatives. This viewpoint is one I’ve engaged with frequently, viewing the opportunity cost of every decision as all my missed opportunities. It’s easy to see that this is not a winning strategy for feeling good about your decisions.
All of this leaves me feeling like How dare the universe take my precious time from me? Honestly, I have wrestled with this for some time. You can’t simply Google: How do I give up eternity?."12 As Oliver shares, the key to overcoming mindset is gratitude:
Why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born.
Oliver shows us that the logical alternative to our existence isn’t that we don’t experience an unlimited amount of time; the alternative is that we never existed. In my life, this has been one of the toughest truths to swallow, but doing so has brought a real, true purpose to the present. Making a choice (deciding) isn’t depriving ourselves of all incredible opportunities we have before us. It’s affirming our intention to enjoy the things we choose.
Cosmically, we are a slice in human history, which is an incredibly small fraction of the timeline of life on earth. At the same time, all we experience is life on the third rock from the sun. The alternative to existing for this brief period of time in this confined space is not existing at all. Sometimes, we need to remind ourselves that it’s a wonder that we get to do anything at all. Like Dennis Quaid’s character in The Rookie we could spend more time expressing the we get to do the things we experience. This is one particular point I’d like to focus on: “getting” to do anything at all (even those things that are less glamourous or painful).
Conclusion Link to heading
There is a lot more to this book than what I’m able to write in this short review. I highly recommend everyone read this book and it’ll probably become a yearly read for me. Thanks to Oliver Burkeman for his unique insight on time (life) management.
Mr. Burkeman if you ever read this, I hope it’s ok that I call you Oliver. I’ve never been one much for formalities and after aggresively marking up your book, I feel like we’ve had a deep conversation that puts us on first name basis :) ↩︎
I wanted to say infinite, but I was too lazy to write out a bijection to either the natural numbers or the real numbers. ↩︎
At one time, I was pretty sure I had coined this phrase, just like I thought I coined the phrase “all abstractions are leaky” but a simple google search showed me that both are unoriginal thoughts. ↩︎
Yes, I still use an iPhone XR when I travel and yes I’m going to write about my “dumb phone” experience some day. ↩︎
I realize this may be contradictory with “our transactional relationship with time,” but life is messy and just because ideas may present contradictions doesn’t cause them to be any less valuable. ↩︎
Also, have you ever thought, how many miles have I scrolled on my phone? I think some of our thumbs would be ultra-marathoners! ↩︎
I find this sometimes difficult to do with toddlers. Fortunately, I’m in good company because at least Oliver feels the same way. ↩︎
Someday, I intend write this one out in full, but not today. ↩︎