Time Management for Mortals

I recently listened to a series on the Waking Up App called Time Management for Mortals, which was a delightful listen and timely for me as time and my relationship to it has been an exploration ever since I entered into Zen Buddhism and is currently very alive for me as I juggle multiple businesses, relationships, goals, pleasures, responsibilities that many of us in modern society do.

What I loved about this series is that it is not yet another lesson in making yourself more efficient by learning how to simultaneously brew your espresso and blend your green smoothy while getting through messages in your inbox. Instead, the series focuses on time itself, inviting us to reframe our relationship with it. Do we have time, or are we time? The author, Oliver Burkeman, references the monumental works of Martin Heidegger (Being and Time) and Zen Master Eihei Dogen (Time-Being) and quotes several modern thinkers.

A primary concept in the series is of accepting our own finitude and escaping the efficiency trap. The efficiency trap is the hidden belief that if you get so many things done, you will finally be free to start living life. Accepting our finitude is realizing we do not have endless time – a mere 4,000 weeks if we’re lucky enough to live our entire life expectancy. And a key concept with finitude is that when we move forward with a decision, we implicitly acknowledge that we are saying no to countless alternative lives. The root of the word deciding is cutting away– literally slicing away alternative life paths, similar to the words homicide and suicide. We are all in the position of Robert Frost’s legendary Road Not Taken, choosing between two paths in the woods, only we cannot know which path will be better, and even staying at the fork and not choosing is a form of a decision. As humans, we don’t like this situation. We tend to do all we can to not consciously participate and be compelled to choose at so many moments in the day, thereby acknowledging all those unlived lives and sacrificing some options for others. I want to start a successful business and be in solitary meditation retreats for months of the year. Yet, my finitude, and inability to be in two places at once, forces me to choose.

We hang back from making choices, partly to hang on to perfect fantasies that could only be damaged by making a choice and bringing them into reality. To not feel the discomfort of being limited, we cling to the feeling of control by keeping our options open. By staying in procrastination or commitment phobia, it’s easier never to start that business, to begin the novel, get married or start the family, because not starting on these things, we can allow multiple timelines to coexist in a kind of reverie.

Burkeman goes on to express how exercising your decision muscle is a way of fully entering reality and surrendering your fantasies of perfect projects and relationships. Instead, you get a commitment to imperfect action, in reality, right now.

There are many other concepts explored – Burkman contrasts FOMO (Fear of missing out), which comes from the overwhelm of events and activities presented to us through social media, and offers an alternative view of JOMO (Joy of missing out). FOMO is like worrying that you won’t be able to make 2+2=5 when our options and choices are always greater than our capacity to participate in them. Therefore missing out isn’t something to regret but is what makes life juicy and gives more weight to what we do choose.

I could go on and on, but I encourage you to listen for yourself. Burkeman explores several other aspects of our relationship to time – distraction, planning, patience, shared time, and our cosmic insignificance.

And to close: 

It’s not cruel that our lives aren’t longer. On the contrary, it’s a staggering, stupendous bonus that we get any time on the planet as conscious creatures at all.

You can listen to an excerpt of the series here:


And find the entire series on Waking Up:


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