The Illusion of Time Management (With audio version)




J.W. Bertolotti is the Founder of Perennial Leader Project, Host of In Search of Wisdom Podcast and Reflections on wisdom and life. 

Much has been written throughout history about time. In one of Seneca’s letters, he explained that it’s not that we have a short amount of time, but that we waste much of it.

This piece explores the connection between time and living a meaningful life.

The Productivity Trap

The Oxford dictionary defines time management as — “the ability to use one’s time effectively or productively.”

I ask then, what tasks constitute an “effective or productive” use of time? How do we know when we have finally achieved the elusive goal of effectively utilizing our time?

In the new book, 4,000 Weeks Oliver Burkeman explains: “Productivity is a trap, becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.”

Most advice on productivity promises that it will help you get everything important done — but that’s not realistic. Burkeman suggests, it’s better to begin from the assumption that tough choices are inevitable and focus on making them wisely.

Henry David Thoreau asked this critical question:

“It is not enough to be busy. The question is: What are we busy about?”

Avoiding the busyness of life may not be avoidable. But ensuring our busyness aligns with what truly matters is within our grasp. The legendary coach John Wooden would say, “never mistake activity for achievement.”

The Shortness of Life

There is no debate on the passing of time. “Time is a sort of river of passing events,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, “no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place…”

In On the Shortness of Life, Seneca stressed, “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control and abandoning what lies in yours.”

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

Similar to Seneca’s point, Burkeman writes: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for ongoing despair… It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible — the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”

This more profound realization of your finite time has the power to re-direct your focus towards what truly matters.

It Goes On

“As a day well-spent brings a happy sleep, a life well-lived brings a happy death.” — Leonardo Da Vinci

Later in life, the poet Robert Frost said: “In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

The philosopher Montaigne suggested,

“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us. adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death. We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere.”

To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.

The practice of Memento Mori (or remembering you will die) is universal wisdom across ancient philosophies and spiritual traditions. According to William B. Irvine, the author of The Guide to the Good Life, the Stoics contemplate death periodically to get the most out of life. To clearly understand, their days are uncertain. Consequently, when it comes time to die, they will not feel cheated. On the contrary, since they have spent their days pursuing a life worth attaining, in the words of Musonius Rufus, they are “set free from the fear of death.”

There is no escaping the truths that life goes on, and at some point, we will all face our dance of death. However, we can let these truths shape our thoughts and actions as they did for Seneca:

Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.

Final Thoughts

“Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.” Kierkegaard

  • Becoming more productive with your time is not the goal. The point is to spend your time on the tasks that truly matter.
  • Our lives are short; let that focus your attention on the present moment. As Seneca wrote, what hangs on tomorrow loses today.
  • By embracing our mortality, we can begin to live in the uncertainty of life.

To quote Arthur Schopenhauer, “Ordinary people think merely of spending time, great people think of using it.”

How can you start using your time today?

Thank you for reading; I hope you found something useful.

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