As we headed into the depths of lockdown, last year, I began encountering a Twitter meme so annoying it made me long to catapult its creator into the molten core of the sun. “If you don’t come out of this quarantine with a new skill, your side hustle launched, and more knowledge,” it read, “you never lacked time. You lacked discipline.”
As the parent of a three-year-old whose nursery school had shut down, juggling childcare with household chores while attempting to squeeze in a few hours’ work, I found it slightly exasperating – let’s put it that way – to be informed by some grinning life-coach on social media that in fact I had more time than before.
Then again, to judge from the reactions online, the meme was no less annoying to the many people who did find themselves with more time on their hands, but who found themselves strangely unable to use it.
Lost without their normal routines, they reported the feeling of drifting, unmoored and unmotivated, through what one psychiatrist called “a new kind of everlasting present”.
What united us all, though – even the originator of that irksome meme – was a sudden heightened awareness of time, and how much it mattered to use ours well. Against the backdrop of so much death, the shortness and preciousness of life became far harder to ignore. And despite all the grief, it became common to hear people express a sort of bittersweet gratitude about what they were experiencing – that even though they were furloughed and losing sleep about their job security, it was a genuine joy to see more of their children, or to rediscover the pleasures of gardening, or baking bread.
Now, as Britain stumbles out of the pandemic, a question arises. As the virus subsides, might we find some way to hang on to that sense of preciousness, to use it to build more fulfilling, less overwhelmed and scattered lives, more focused on the things that truly matter?
The historical record suggests… well, maybe. The difference between knowing intellectually how precious time is, and actually managing to do anything about it, is a very old one indeed. More than two thousand years ago, in a letter later given the title On the Shortness of Life, the philosopher Seneca berated his fellow ancient Romans for complaining endlessly about how the years raced by – while simultaneously frittering away their time on political careers they didn’t value, grand banquets they didn’t enjoy, or just “baking their bodies in the sun”. When they contemplated death, they felt afraid, like the mortal humans they were. But when it came to their daily schedules, they acted like immortals – little gods who had all the time in the world, and who could thus afford to waste it.
Modernity makes this all rather worse, because numerous forces conspire to encourage us to try to deny our limitations – to avoid the truth about the shortness of life, rather than to get over ourselves and confront it.
The busyness of contemporary life, stemming from our individualistic and hyper-competitive economic system, makes us feel as though we need to achieve impossible quantities of tasks – that is, more than any human ever could achieve – merely to stay afloat. Meanwhile, the world offers us a seemingly unlimited array of places to travel, experiences to have, people to date, and so on; time management gurus promise to help us find ways to get everything done, and “time-saving” technologies purport to help us cram more and more in (although, research shows, they often save us no time at all).
And so instead of facing the truth about time, and making our choices accordingly, we find ourselves on a treadmill, racing toward some hypothetical future moment when we’ll be “on top of things”, when we’ll have figured out the perfect work-life balance (despite never having met anyone who’s already done so) and our lives will be in working order at last. In the words of the essayist Marilynne Robinson, “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency”, spent racing toward a vision of a calm and fulfilling future that never actually arrives.
Consider the archetypal 21st century problem – in pre-pandemic times, anyway – of the “fear of missing out”, or FOMO. Suppose you logged on to Facebook one weekend in order to find out about social events you could attend. You’d certainly find them: Facebook is an excellent tool for discovering such information. But it’s also a guaranteed way to find out about more alluring events than you ever possibly could attend – leading to a life spent wondering if the party down the road, or the other book you could be reading, might have proved more absorbing than the one you’re presently focused on.
And yet of course the truth, for any finite human being, is that “missing out” isn’t just a possibility but an inevitability: if you live to be 80, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks, and it’s a mathematical certainty that you’ll have missed out on almost everything you could, in principle, have done. After all, every decision to do anything at all with a given hour, or month, or lifetime, is automatically a decision not to do a million other things with the same portion of time. (Indeed the Latin root of the word “decide” refers to cutting away, as in cutting away alternative possibilities; it’s a close cousin of words like “suicide” and “homicide”.)
The good news, though, is that this isn’t actually a problem, as the Swedish-American philosopher Martin Hägglund explains in his book This Life. Hägglund describes the annual holiday he takes with his extended family on Sweden’s wind-battered Baltic coast, and points out that if he were guaranteed an infinity of these holidays, there wouldn’t be much worth valuing about any one of them.
It’s only the fact that they’re finite – and that he has to choose to forgo other things in order to undertake them – that makes them meaningful. Eternal life would be deathly dull, Hägglund insists, because nothing would ever be at stake when it came to time: whenever you had to decide whether or not to do something with your day, the answer would always be: who cares? There’s always tomorrow, and the next day, and the next…
From this perspective, it might make more sense to speak not of the fear but rather the joy of missing out. The decision to do anything at all – to work on your novel, prune the rose bushes, cook a meal – becomes a kind of affirmation, a positive statement that you chose this to do with your finite time, as opposed to all the alternatives.
And perhaps this helps explain the unexpected, slightly guilty relief that many of us felt, in the midst of lockdown, when so many possibilities for how to spend our days were suddenly closed down. We were temporarily denied the luxury of imagining that we might have time to look in on three different social events next Saturday night (because there were no social events); or that we might finally get round to a long-neglected DIY project later this week (because home-schooling was sure to dominate instead). All we could do was the very next thing that seemed most worthwhile, then the next, then the next. Which is, in fact, all you can ever do anyway, in lockdown or otherwise.
Start thinking this way, and you’re liable to experience a palpable shift in perspective about your limited time that can feel deeply liberating. Think of it this way: it’s normal to consider the shortness of life as an outrageous insult: there you were, planning to live on forever – as the old Woody Allen line has it, not in the hearts of your countrymen, but in your apartment – and now here comes death, to steal away the time that was rightfully yours.
But as the philosopher Martin Heidegger and many others understood, there’s something curiously entitled about this view. We’re so accustomed to existing that we’re liable to overlook how extraordinary it is that we’re here in the first place. It would have been much simpler for the universe never to have gone to the bother of coming into being. And yet here it is. Here you are. Maybe it’s not that life is outrageously short, but that it’s an utterly bizarre miracle to get to experience any of it at all.
In lockdown in New York City in 2020, a writer and director named Julio Vincent Gambuto coined the phrase “the Great Pause” to describe the unprecedented opportunity the pandemic presented to consciously see what we were doing with our limited time, and to make different decisions where we could. Could it be time to look for work that didn’t require such a dispiriting commute; to abandon some stale friendships; or to redesign our lives so as to spend more time in nature? “We get to Marie Kondo
the s**t out of it all,” Gambuto wrote. It was a golden chance to retain the activities that sparked joy, and dispense with many of the others.
It’s easy to confuse this with the anxiety-inducing advice to ‘seize the day’ – to go through life with a panicky awareness of how short it is, desperately trying to squeeze as many amazing experiences as possible out of every second. But none of this requires you to take up base-jumping, or get a prominent tattoo, or move to a tropical island (unless of course you want to, and you can).
Instead it’s a question of letting go, an invitation to give up the futile struggle to get round to everything you feel you’d like to do, or that others are badgering you to do. You get to relax back into the reality of being a finite human, and spend your time getting stuck in to a handful of things that really count.
FIVE TOOLS FOR MAKING THE MOST OF YOUR PRECIOUS TIME
Take up an ‘atelic activity’: More commonly known as a hobby. Our problem, argues the philosopher Kieran Setiya, is that we’re exclusively focused on projects that have some kind of end purpose or “telos” (getting a promotion, raising good kids, paying the mortgage). So we end up living mentally in the future, waiting for some moment of truth, and never feeling fulfilled right now. “Atelic” activities are those where the only point of doing them is the activity itself: a country hike, for example, or singing in a choir when you harbour no ambitions of ever becoming a professional musician.
Use a ‘closed’ to-do list: A to-do list often fuels the illusion that there’ll be time for everything, because you can always add another item, even if there’s no chance you’ll actually get round to doing it. So use two lists. On one, write down everything you like, but then move just five of those to-dos to a “closed list”. The rule is: you can’t add another item until you’ve freed up one of the five slots by completing something. This way, you’re forced to confront your finitude – and thus to make better decisions about time.
Decide in advance what to fail at: We feel intense pressure, both from ourselves and from external forces, to excel in more areas than most humans ever could – as perfect workers, parents, exercisers, homemakers and more. (Even the exhortation to make time for ‘self-care’ usually ends up as yet another thing to do.) Instead, suggests the author Jon Acuff, pre-select certain domains in which you’ll resign yourself to being useless for now: keeping a tidy home, say, or staying on top of the latest books or TV. That way, you won’t be dismayed when you don’t find the time: it’s a strategic decision, taken in order to prioritise things that matter to you more.
‘Pay yourself first’ with time: The delusion that there’ll always be more time leads us to put off the things we care about, until we’ve ‘cleared the decks’, or dealt with our various responsibilities first. But as the creativity coach Jessica Abel points out, that’s equivalent to spending your monthly pay on groceries and restaurant meals and just hoping there’ll be some money left over to squirrel away into savings at the end. Instead (and this applies to both money and time) put some aside first, then use what’s left over for the rest. So if there’s a project or relationship you care about deeply, put a little time into it now. Vacuuming the living-room can wait.
Remember your cosmic insignificance: The preciousness of time too easily becomes a recipe for stress: since life’s so short, it feels like every decision really counts, so there’s a risk of deer-in-the-headlights paralysis. In such times it’s useful to consider a Stoic exercise, updated by the philosopher Massimo Pigliucci. Mentally – or even visually, using Google Earth – zoom out from your home to your town to your continent and the planet as a whole, to remember how inconsequential your choices are, and how little your worries will matter a century from now. The result needn’t be nihilism, but rather liberation: the freedom to take interesting risks without worrying that they matter all that much.
Oliver Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. His latest book, Four Thousand Weeks, is out in August and is now available for pre-order