Like most academics, I worry a good bit about time management. I’m easily distracted, over extended, and generally prefer to dabble than to really “get stuck into a project.” This probably accounts for my somewhat discursive writing style and my lack of forensic or, to be honest, conventional academic rigor. To make matters worse, I prefer whenever possible to work collaboratively with other scholars who not only often have their own time constraints, but also their own priorities, agendas, and styles.
There’s another complication, of course, is my deep appreciation of “slow archaeology” which eschews conventional expectations of efficiency in the name of more patient ways of knowing, thinking, and writing. These commitments, as lukewarm as they sometimes are in practice, lead me into constant temptation, distraction, and periodic bouts of professional ambivalence.
Finally, there was the pandemic which gave me greater control over my day-to-day, but also incubated a kind of malaise that I’m still finding it hard to tamp down despite our collective efforts to pretend things are normal.
The results of this situation is a perfect storm of inefficiency that regularly leaves me worried that I’m either not keeping up with my own expectations or letting someone else down. It’s… not great.
This weekend, on the advice of a buddy, I read Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021). It’s pretty good and it’s the kind of book that doesn’t require more than a few hours, a good cup of coffee, and comfortable chair. Burkeman encourages us to realize that human life is “insulting short” and usually amounts to around 4000 weeks. Of course, some of those weeks fly by (as I can attest being on spring break!) and some of those weeks drag interminably (as I could down the days before the end of the semester).
This rather fatalistic reckoning of time taught me 10 things that were both sobering and useful:
1. Am I really that busy? First, it pushed me to realize that even on my worst days, I’m nowhere near as busy hat Burkeman’s target audience. I still live in the happy space between time enough to get stuff done and not being bored. In other words, I suspect that I was not the intended audience for this book. That said, I still learned things.
2. Value process over product. I think over the last few years, I’ve started to privilege the rush of getting things done over the long term growth that comes from daily discipline. This is disappointing because most academic tasks are the kinds of things that are unlikely ever to be resolved. Even a brilliant article will ultimately be challenged, the best book always has flaws, and field work can always be extended, and there’s never a sense that one is done reading, teaching, or learning to be a good writer. Academic work is process.
3. Dulling the pain of finitude. One of the most clever arguments that Burkeman makes is boredom happens because it forces us to confront our finitude. In other words, we dislike boredom because it forces us to realize that our time on earth is finite and when we are doing nothing (or not enjoying what we’re doing) we can feel time slipping away. Burkeman encourages us to embrace — selectively, of course — boredom, and instead of attempting to resist its painful snares, savor the moment realizing that bored mind is attention to the passage of time makes those experiences all the more precious.
4. Infinite experiences. As a counterpoint, Burkeman seems to suggest (and here I struggled a bit to follow his reasoning) that our every experience is unique. This means that every experience is the last time (and the first time!) that we have a particular encounter. He proposes, if I follow, that internalizing this should mitigate our “fear of missing out” by reminding us that we’re always missing out. It’s unavoidable. We’re always only ever half way in the river.
5. Worry less about the future. When we recognize that every experience that we have is unique, it allows us to worry less about the future and find pleasure in encountering an ever proliferating number of presents. In some ways, the uniqueness of each experience reminds us that at least some of our efforts to prepare for the future are unlikely yield results because the present itself if so unpredictable.
6. Patience. In many ways, this is a book about patience. Burkeman stresses that it takes time to achieve something significant but only this realization only occurs if you see significance as something worth achieving. We don’t necessarily control the outcomes of our efforts, but we do have some control over how we experience them. Learn to enjoy the range of experiences!!
6. Defining work and leisure. Burkeman acknowledge that savoring the present sometimes makes it harder to stop working and this can make it more difficult to relax. That said, he acknowledged that by blurring the line between work and leisure, there are opportunities for us to regroup and recharge in moments traditionally associated with work and to develop stamina during times traditionally associated with leisure. He noted that hobbies serve a bridge between work and leisure in the modern world. Hobbies can help us pay attention to the present because many hobbies are process oriented. In this way, I think academics are fortunate in that it is easier to regard one’s professional life as a kind of hobby and I’ve found great pleasure in embracing a sense of amateurism.
9. Social regulation of time. One of the great observations that Burkeman makes is that time is socially regulated. Starting with our experiences in school as children and continuing into adulthood, we experience time through the structures of everyday experience. One of the reasons, I suspect, that academia feels nature for many of us is that it follows a pattern of time that we internalize early on. While most academics no longer get summer or weekends “off” in the same way that we did in school, the regular professional rhythm of time of heightened structure followed by times with less externally imposed structures feels familiar and comfortable for many people. Moreover, there is a community who all experience this same structure (with obvious variations) together creating a work community. This creates opportunities for collective rest (e.g. a Friday happy hour) and produces shared expectations for the character of work. We know, for example, that many of us grade on weekends or do research in the summer and that helps us manage the stress associated with this kind of solitary, deadline intensive work.
7. Rock bottom. Just after the start of the year, I experienced what my buddies and I colloquially call “blow out.” This is the feeling of mental (and sometimes physical) exhaustion that comes from spending too long doing intensive work. Typically, a few weeks of rest and recovery and the blow out abates. Unfortunately, that is not possible during the semester and with deadlines looming. In a misguided experiment, I decided to try to push through the blow out and see what would happen. Burkeman refers to this experience as discovering “rock bottom” and realizing that there is not way out but through. I’m not sure that I’ve found the other side yet, but reading books like Burkeman and taking time to really experience the exhaustion that I’m feeling is likely a start.
10. “Now is all you ever get.” (p. 219). Finally, my favorite thing about this book is that it doesn’t give a set of pat answers to the complicated problems of time management. In fact, the list of recommendations at the end feels like a half-hearted concession to a publisher’s demand to offer something pithy and marketable. Burkeman’s real conclusion, it seems to me, is now is all you get. By recognizing and savoring the present, embracing the blurry and unpredictable borders between work and leisure, and even recognizing in boredom and patience opportunities to detach from our misguided commitments to getting stuff done, productivity, and in some ways the future.
This was really helpful advice to me. As someone who has the capacity to savor the grind, this book resonated with me and pushed me to remember that I didn’t embark upon a career as a amateur historian, amateur archaeologist, and amateur teacher because I wanted to finish this or that article, complete that book, or achieve that measurable goal, but because I enjoyed the process of reading, thinking, writing, and doing work.