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Art and Time Management

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An hourglass
Photo by Aron Visuals on Unsplash

I know it’s late January, but I haven’t quite finished planning the year. So I wanted to talk a bit about writing as art and time management while also reviewing a book I read in December called, intriguingly, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

I’ll start with the book review. TL;DR: we’re all gonna die.

This book is actually not a time management book, which is why I had so many issues with it. The book doesn’t provide a system that promises you’ll get everything done. In fact, right from the beginning, Burkeman says there’s no way you can get everything done, and basically, the only way to think about time management is to assume you will never get everything done.

What is it if not a time management book? It’s actually a philosophy book. And as such, there are several places where Burkeman took some creative freedom, which I didn’t like. For instance, he talks about the medieval farmer in a romanticised way that is misleading. “Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk… there was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime…” (p. 20). This, according to Burkeman, means that the medieval farmer didn’t have a to-do list which is nonsense. Anyone who has been to a farm or spoken to a farmer would be able to tell you that there are days when you have to stay late to finish harvesting because otherwise, you’ll lose crops. Sure, there are days when you have nothing or very little to do. Those are the days you prepare for harvest. Besides, romanticising the “wholesome” way of life neglects the fact that today it’s simply not an option. Sure, some people move to a cabin in the woods, but a) there are eight billion people in the world, we can’t all do it, and b) progress is made by people who don’t have to grow their own food. I’m sorry, but it’s true. If you grow your own food, you have precious little time to do anything else.

But this is a minor point that doesn’t, in my opinion, negate the general point: we won’t get everything done. We have a limited time, and by nature, we are a curious and imaginative species, so there’s always something more we want to do, which is, I think, part of the human condition.

Burkeman mocks the fable of the teacher who comes into class with a jar and rocks, pebbles and sand. The only way to fit everything into the jar is to start with the rocks and then fill the spaces between the rocks with pebbles and sand. But, Burkeman says, this only works if the number of rocks you have fits into the jar. If, say, the jar is big enough to fit four rocks (which symbolise big, important things like “writing a book”), and you have fifty rocks you would like to fit into the jar, that’s obviously not going to work. That is why, according to the book, every time management system is bound to fail.

He says you must pick which “rocks” are essential to you. That’s fine, but he gives very little by way of how to know what to choose. Besides, the metaphor of rocks is nice, but when you see a rock, you have some idea as to how much space it takes. For some projects, like writing a book, you can’t accurately estimate how long it’ll take. As the famous adage goes, you can’t hurry a Cholent. But, unlike a cholent which takes roughly the same amount of time every time you make it, ideas take a varying amount of time to percolate.

And that’s one reason I’m still not quite done planning my year. I’m writing my book, but I don’t know precisely how long it’ll take me to finish it. My solution to this is a variation of what Burkeman suggests. He suggests we “adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity” (p. 235). This approach is helpful for to-do lists, but I’m adopting a “fixed time” approach in the context of writing. I’m writing for at least half an hour three or more days a week. It’s not much, I know. But sometimes I write for as long as two hours—that really depends on the mood of the muse. I also have a planned writing retreat, for which I sure hope the muse will show up. So, sure, I’m hoping I’ll have a finished first draft by half term (February 13th), but it could be by Easter break (April 1st), just because I can’t hurry the muse.

For everything else, my intentions are on my to-do list. And one of the first things on my to-do list is to organise my to-do list, which is an interesting conundrum.


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