I recently read Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, a deep and humorous look at the nature of time and the struggle that humans have in using their limited time well. Burkeman references philosophers, psychologists and spiritual thinkers to explore the conundrum we face: we have a limited time on Earth, we don't know when it will come to an end, and we do a lot to distract ourselves from this brutal truth.
It's a bitter pill that we almost certainly won't have the chance to do everything we want with our one precious life, but Burkeman argues that facing this limit can liberate us.
The key is in accepting that we simply won't get everything done that we feel we must. Even things that feel important will fall by the wayside. The trouble with most approaches to time management is that they deny this. Most of them focus on helping us use our time more efficiently by fitting more into our schedules. Burkeman calls this mindset the Efficiency Trap, where the more you do, the more your list of to-do items expands to keep up with your faster pace.
Instead, Burkeman recommends that we pare down what we give our attention and energy to and procrastinate better. This involves knowing what feels most important to us and protecting our time for that important value.
For example, if a creative project is highest on your list of what gives your life meaning, then you must give that project time and attention on a steady basis. This may mean that other important things will be neglected, such as friendships, a work deadline, exercise, or cleaning the house. But if we wait until a future moment in which there is plenty of time to do this creative project, we will be waiting a long time. The idea that a bigger swath of time awaits us in the future is wishful thing.
Related to this is the idea of working on only one or two big projects at the same time, and seeing them through to completion. As someone who loves to keep her options open, this makes me bristle! One of the ways that people like me deny their limits is by keeping a lot of irons in the fire. This book finally helped me see that keeping too many balls in the air meant that I wasn't making progress on anything.
I still keep a long list of project ideas, but these are off limits until my current project is finished. It's tough not to bounce to another attractive project when my current one is creating anxiety or boredom, but that's the nature of finishing things. It's a matter of putting these other tasks off, and turning the Fear of Missing Out into the Joy of Missing Out. I now frame missing out as can joyful(ish), because I know I'm giving something up for a choice that is more important - at least for the time being.
Burkeman's book is something I needed to transform my relationship with time. I will never have enough time. The sooner I settle into that uncomfortable truth, the more I can just do my best to spend it on what is most important, and let the rest go.