In the current average human lifespan we get 4,000 of each day of the week: 4,000 Saturday nights, 4,000 lazy Sundays, 4,000 Monday mornings. When we are young, that might feel like a dizzying number of tomorrows. As the years go by, not so much. Oliver Burkeman’s midlife inquiry into how we might most meaningfully approach those days is perfectly pitched somewhere between practical self-help book and philosophical quest. Having been the Guardian’s resident “pursuit of happiness” correspondent for a decade, offering the weekly promise that “This column will change your life”, this is something like his accumulated wisdom.
It starts with some necessary caveats. The day will never arrive when you have emptied your inbox. There will always be too many demands on your time, or nowhere near enough. Anything might happen in the next half an hour. Burkeman’s own journey as he describes it over the past years is perhaps a familiar one. He started out in his adult life believing there might be a trick to optimising personal productivity. He was a planner, a to-do lister, a buyer of highlighter pens. He was half-persuaded that there might be three or seven or 12 robust habits that allowed you finally to feel in control, on top of things.
Slowly, as plans never quite went to plan, and choices were made, and kids arrived, he came to understand that in any interesting life, time will almost never be your own to “spend” efficiently, and that most of the secret lay in embracing that fact. As he works his way towards these truths, Burkeman provides a brief history of human ideas of time. The definition that we are most familiar with, the stuff that might require urgent management, was really, he suggests, the product of two things: the sharp decline of faith in an afterlife, and the Industrial Revolution. Our acceptance of finite time – of this being all there is – roughly coincided with clocking on and clocking off. This made time more pressured and precious. Most of our anxieties, Burkeman argues, derive from the fact that “every moment of our existence is shot through with what Heidegger called finitude”, or a nagging sense that we might be wasting what little time we have.
As he explores more closely what this might mean, he also proposes some strategies, or thoughts, to counter that anxiety. The traditional airport-bookshop volumes about time-management tend to emphasise the importance of finding focus. These concerns have been exacerbated by the great global engine of digital distraction; social media companies make their billions from the time you aimlessly, addictively provide them, “making you care about things you don’t want to care about”, as Burkeman says.
It helps, he suggests, rather to understand certain basic human limitations. Procrastination is unavoidable, though we can get better at ignoring the right things. Fomo – fear of missing out – is only debilitating if you fail to realise “that missing out is basically guaranteed” in life, the inevitable consequence of one path chosen over another. The self-help gurus might tell us never “to settle” in a relationship or a job. Burkeman argues rather that “you should definitely settle, or to be more precise, you don’t have a choice”. It is inevitable that you come to realise any chosen partner or job is not all other potential partners or jobs. Happiness is a factor of what you do with that information.
Productivity is also revealed as a fairly dubious modern virtue. “The Latin word for business, negotium, translates as not-leisure, reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the higher calling [of ease],” he says. If we make leisure only another arena for self-improvement then it sacrifices the present in favour of an imagined future. One hero of this book is the hobbyist, who can steal an afternoon for no purpose; another is the person who “develops a taste for having problems”, in the knowledge that the state of having no problems only arrives postmortem. Burkeman ends his book, as his publisher perhaps insisted, with 10 tips to take away. The how-to is not necessary; as with all the best quests, its many pleasures don’t require a fast-forward button, but happen along the way.