Note: While reading a book whenever I come across something interesting, I highlight it on my Kindle. Later I turn those highlights into a blogpost. It is not a complete summary of the book. These are my notes which I intend to go back to later. Let’s start!

  • Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move. “The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” writes the essayist Marilynne Robinson, who observes that many of us spend our lives “preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” Our struggle to stay on top of everything may serve someone’s interests; working longer hours—and using any extra income to buy more consumer goods—turns us into better cogs in the economic machine. But it doesn’t result in peace of mind, or lead us to spend more of our finite time on those people and things we care most deeply about ourselves.

  • The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. 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, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today. (It’s tempting to think of medieval life as moving slowly, but it’s more accurate to say that the concept of life “moving slowly” would have struck most people as meaningless. Slowly as compared with what?) In those days before clocks, when you did need to explain how long something might take, your only option was to compare it with some other concrete activity. Medieval people might speak of a task lasting a “Miserere whyle”—the approximate time it took to recite Psalm 50, known as the Miserere, from the Bible—or alternatively a “pissing whyle,” which should require no explanation.

  • Living this way, one can imagine that experience would have felt expansive and fluid, suffused with something it might not be an exaggeration to call a kind of magic. Notwithstanding the many real privations of his existence, our peasant farmer might have sensed a luminous, awe-inspiring dimension to the world around him. Untroubled by any notion of time “ticking away,” he might have experienced a heightened awareness of the vividness of things, the feeling of timelessness that Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan priest and author, calls “living in deep time.” At dusk, the medieval country-dweller might have sensed spirits whispering in the forest, along with the bears and wolves; plowing the fields, he might have felt himself one tiny part of a vast sweep of history, in which his distant ancestors were almost as alive to him as his own children. We can assert all this with some confidence because we still occasionally encounter islands of deep time today—in those moments when, to quote the writer Gary Eberle, we slip “into a realm where there is enough of everything, where we are not trying to fill a void in ourselves or the world.” The boundary separating the self from the rest of reality grows blurry, and time stands still. “The clock does not stop, of course,” Eberle writes, “but we do not hear it ticking.”

  • From thinking about time in the abstract, it’s natural to start treating it as a resource, something to be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible, like coal or iron or any other raw material. Previously, laborers had been paid for a vaguely defined “day’s work,” or on a piecework basis, receiving a given sum per bale of hay or per slaughtered pig. But gradually it became more common to be paid by the hour—and the factory owner who used his workers’ hours efficiently, squeezing as much labor as possible from each employee, stood to make a bigger profit than one who didn’t.

  • Before, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of. Afterward, once “time” and “life” had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used—and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today. Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer—as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution—instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.

  • The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough. Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.” Superficially, this seems like a sensible way to live, especially in a hypercompetitive economic climate, in which it feels as though you must constantly make the most judicious use of your time if you want to stay afloat. (It also reflects the manner in which most of us were raised: to prioritize future benefits over current enjoyments.) But ultimately it backfires. It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives. And it makes it all but impossible to experience “deep time,” that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead. As this modern mindset came to dominate, wrote Mumford, “Eternity ceased gradually to serve as the measure and focus of human actions.” In its place came the dictatorship of the clock, the schedule, and the Google Calendar alert; Marilynne Robinson’s “joyless urgency” and the constant feeling that you ought to be getting more done. The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.

  • The universal truth is that most of us invest a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves. We don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up. We don’t want to risk getting hurt in relationships or failing professionally; we don’t want to accept that we might never succeed in pleasing our parents or in changing certain things we don’t like about ourselves—and we certainly don’t want to get sick and die. The details differ from person to person, but the kernel is the same. We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at. Instead, we mentally fight against the way things are—so that, in the words of the psychotherapist Bruce Tift, “we don’t have to consciously participate in what it’s like to feel claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality.” This struggle against the distressing constraints of reality is what some old-school psychoanalysts call “neurosis,” and it takes countless forms, from workaholism and commitment-phobia to codependency and chronic shyness. Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance. After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required. Or we procrastinate, which is another means of maintaining the feeling of omnipotent control over life—because you needn’t risk the upsetting experience of failing at an intimidating project, obviously, if you never even start it. We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally.

  • Convenience makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context. Take those services—on which I’ve relied too much in recent years—that let you design and then remotely mail a birthday card, so you never see or touch the physical item yourself. Better than nothing, perhaps. But sender and recipient both know that it’s a poor substitute for purchasing a card in a shop, writing on it by hand, and then walking to a mailbox to mail it, because contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort—which is to say, the inconvenience. When you render the process more convenient, you drain it of its meaning. The venture capitalist and Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian has observed that we often “don’t even realize something is broken until someone else shows us a better way.” But the other reason we might not realize some everyday process is broken is that it isn’t broken to begin with—and that the inconvenience involved, which might look like brokenness from the outside, in fact embodies something essentially human.

  • Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results. Keesmaat chose building fires and growing food with her children. “How else are we to get to know this place where we have been set, apart from tending to it?” she writes. “Outside of planting the food we eat, how are we to learn the living character of soil, the various needs of peppers, lettuce, and kale?” You might make a very different choice, of course. But the undodgeable reality of a finite human life is that you are going to have to choose.

  • There’s another sense in which treating time as something that we own and get to control seems to make life worse. Inevitably, we become obsessed with “using it well,” whereupon we discover an unfortunate truth: the more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calmer, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives. The problem is one of instrumentalization. To use time, by definition, is to treat it instrumentally, as a means to an end, and of course we do this every day: you don’t boil the kettle out of a love of boiling kettles, or put your socks in the washing machine out of a love for operating washing machines, but because you want a cup of coffee or clean socks. Yet it turns out to be perilously easy to overinvest in this instrumental relationship to time—to focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are—with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the “real” value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached, and never will.

  • A fast-developing newborn baby makes it especially hard to ignore the fact that life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you’ll miss if you’re completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading. But the author and podcast host Sam Harris makes the disturbing observation that the same applies to everything: our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son—a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty—there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed there’s a sense in which every moment of life is a “last time.” It arrives; you’ll never get it again—and once it’s passed, your remaining supply of moments will be one smaller than before. To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.

  • Admittedly, it’s not entirely our own fault that we approach our finite time in such a perversely instrumental and future-focused way. Powerful external pressures push us in this direction, too, because we exist inside an economic system that is instrumentalist to its core. One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit. Seeing things this way helps explain the otherwise mysterious truth that rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase. This is also the kernel of truth in the cliché that people in less economically successful countries are better at enjoying life—which is another way of saying that they’re less fixated on instrumentalizing it for future profit, and are thus more able to participate in the pleasures of the present. Mexico, for example, has often outranked the United States in global indices of happiness. Hence the old parable about a vacationing New York businessman who gets talking to a Mexican fisherman, who tells him that he works only a few hours per day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled at the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him an unsolicited piece of advice: if the fisherman worked harder, he explains, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, then retire early. “And what would I do then?” the fisherman asks. “Ah, well, then,” the businessman replies, “you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.” One vivid example of how the capitalist pressure toward instrumentalizing your time saps meaning from life is the notorious case of corporate lawyers. The Catholic legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny has argued that the reason so many of them are so unhappy—despite being generally very well paid—is the convention of the “billable hour,” which obliges them to treat their time, and thus really themselves, as a commodity to be sold off in sixty-minute chunks to clients. An hour not sold is automatically an hour wasted. So when an outwardly successful, hard-charging attorney fails to show up for a family dinner, or his child’s school play, it’s not necessarily because he’s “too busy,” in the straightforward sense of having too much to do. It may also be because he’s no longer able to conceive of an activity that can’t be commodified as something worth doing at all. As Kaveny writes, “Lawyers imbued with the ethos of the billable hour have difficulty grasping a non-commodified understanding of the meaning of time that would allow them to appreciate the true value of such participation.” When an activity can’t be added to the running tally of billable hours, it begins to feel like an indulgence one can’t afford. There may be more of this ethos in most of us—even the nonlawyers—than we’d care to admit. And yet we’d be fooling ourselves to put all the blame on capitalism for the way in which modern life so often feels like a slog, to be “gotten through” en route to some better time in the future. The truth is that we collaborate with this state of affairs. We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives. As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future—that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems—you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived. Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now.

  • John Maynard Keynes saw the truth at the bottom of all this, which is that our fixation on what he called “purposiveness”—on using time well for future purposes, or on “personal productivity,” he might have said, had he been writing today—is ultimately motivated by the desire not to die. “The ‘purposive’ man,” Keynes wrote, “is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his actions by pushing his interests in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor in truth the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him, jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam tomorrow and never jam today. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.” Because he never has to “cash out” the meaningfulness of his actions in the here and now, the purposive man gets to imagine himself an omnipotent god, whose influence over reality extends infinitely off into the future; he gets to feel as though he’s truly the master of his time. But the price he pays is a steep one. He never gets to love an actual cat, in the present moment. Nor does he ever get to enjoy any actual jam. By trying too hard to make the most of his time, he misses his life.

  • De Graaf had put his finger on one of the sneakier problems with treating time solely as something to be used as well as possible, which is that we start to experience pressure to use our leisure time productively, too. Enjoying leisure for its own sake—which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure—comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough. It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off as an investment in your future. Sometimes this pressure takes the form of the explicit argument that you ought to think of your leisure hours as an opportunity to become a better worker (“Relax! You’ll Be More Productive,” reads the headline on one hugely popular New York Times piece). But a more surreptitious form of the same attitude has also infected your friend who always seems to be training for a 10K, yet who’s apparently incapable of just going for a run: she has convinced herself that running is a meaningful thing to do only insofar as it might lead toward a future accomplishment. And it infected me, too, during the years I spent attending meditation classes and retreats with the barely conscious goal that I might one day reach a condition of permanent calm. Even an undertaking as seemingly hedonistic as a year spent backpacking around the globe could fall victim to the same problem, if your purpose isn’t to explore the world but—a subtle distinction, this—to add to your mental storehouse of experiences, in the hope that you’ll feel, later on, that you’d used your life well. The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore—in other words, like work in the worst sense of that word.

  • To the philosophers of the ancient world, leisure wasn’t the means to some other end; on the contrary, it was the end to which everything else worth doing was a means. Aristotle argued that true leisure—by which he meant self-reflection and philosophical contemplation—was among the very highest of virtues because it was worth choosing for its own sake, whereas other virtues, like courage in war, or noble behavior in government, were virtuous only because they led to something else. The Latin word for business, negotium, translates literally as “not-leisure,” reflecting the view that work was a deviation from the highest human calling. In this understanding of the situation, work might be an unavoidable necessity for certain people—above all, for the slaves whose toil made possible the leisure of the citizens of Athens and Rome—but it was fundamentally undignified, and certainly not the main point of being alive. This same essential idea remained intact across centuries of subsequent historical upheaval: that leisure was life’s center of gravity, the default state to which work was a sometimes inevitable interruption. Even the onerous lives of medieval English peasants were suffused with leisure: they unfolded according to a calendar that was dominated by religious holidays and saints’ days, along with multiday village festivals, known as “ales,” to mark momentous occasions such as marriages and deaths. (Or less momentous ones, like the annual lambing, the season when ewes give birth—any excuse to get drunk.) Some historians claim that the average country-dweller in the sixteenth century would have worked for only about 150 days each year, and while those figures are disputed, nobody doubts that leisure lay near the heart of almost every life. Apart from anything else, while all that recreation might have been fun, it wasn’t exactly optional.

  • But industrialization, catalyzed by the spread of the clock-time mentality, swept all that away. Factories and mills required the coordinated labor of hundreds of people, paid by the hour, and the result was that leisure became sharply delineated from work. Implicitly, workers were offered a deal: you could do whatever you liked with your time off, so long as it didn’t damage—and preferably enhanced—your usefulness on the job. (So there was a profit motive at play when the upper classes expressed horror at the lower classes’ enthusiasm for drinking gin: coming to work with a hangover, because you’d spent your leisure time getting wasted, was a violation of the deal.) In one narrow sense, this new situation left working people freer than before, since their leisure was more truly their own than when church and community had dictated almost everything they did with it. But at the same time, a new hierarchy had been established. Work, now, demanded to be seen as the real point of existence; leisure was merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment, for the purposes of further work. The problem was that for the average mill or factory worker, industrial work wasn’t sufficiently meaningful to be the point of existence: you did it for the money, not for its intrinsic satisfactions. So now the whole of life—work and leisure time alike—was to be valued for the sake of something else, in the future, rather than for itself. Ironically, the union leaders and labor reformers who campaigned for more time off, eventually securing the eight-hour workday and the two-day weekend, helped entrench this instrumental attitude toward leisure, according to which it could be justified only on the grounds of something other than pure enjoyment. They argued that workers would use any additional free time they might be given to improve themselves, through education and cultural pursuits—that they’d use it, in other words, for more than just relaxing. But there is something heartbreaking about the nineteenth-century Massachusetts textile workers who told one survey researcher what they actually longed to do with more free time: To “look around to see what is going on.” They yearned for true leisure, not a different kind of productivity.

  • We have inherited from all this a deeply bizarre idea of what it means to spend your time off “well”—and, conversely, what counts as wasting it. In this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. Rest is permissible, but only for the purposes of recuperation for work, or perhaps for some other form of self-improvement. It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for itself alone, without regard for any potential future benefits, because rest that has no instrumental value feels wasteful. The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully,” focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it—to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. From this perspective, idleness isn’t merely forgivable; it’s practically an obligation. “If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir, “then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.”

  • It’s just after half past seven on a rainy morning in midsummer when I park my car beside the road, zip up my waterproof jacket, and set off by foot into the high moors of the northern Yorkshire Dales. There’s a splendor to this terrain that’s most powerful when you’re alone, and in no danger of being distracted from the barren drama of it all by pleasant conversation. So I’m happy to be solo as I head uphill, past a waterfall with a satisfyingly Satanic name—Hell Gill Force—and into open country, where the crunch of my walking boots sends startled grouse airborne from their hiding places in the heather. A mile or so farther on, far from any road, I stumble on a tiny disused stone church with an unlocked door. The silence inside feels settled, as if it hasn’t been disturbed in years, though in fact there were probably hikers here as recently as yesterday evening. Twenty minutes later, and I’m on the moor top, facing into the wind, savoring the bleakness I’ve always loved. I know there are people who’d prefer to be relaxing on a Caribbean beach, instead of getting drenched while trudging through gorse bushes under a glowering sky; but I’m not going to pretend I understand them. Of course, this is just a country walk, perhaps the most mundane of leisure activities—and yet, as a way of spending one’s time, it does have one or two features worth noting. For one thing, unlike almost everything else I do with my life, it’s not relevant to ask whether I’m any good at it: all I’m doing is walking, a skill at which I haven’t appreciably improved since around the age of four. Moreover, a country walk doesn’t have a purpose, in the sense of an outcome you’re trying to achieve or somewhere you’re trying to get. (Even a walk to the supermarket has a goal—getting to the supermarket—whereas on a hike, you either follow a loop or reach a given point before turning back, so the most efficient way to reach the endpoint would be never to leave in the first place.) There are positive side effects, like becoming more physically fit, but that’s not generally why people go on hikes. Taking a walk in the countryside, like listening to a favorite song or meeting friends for an evening of conversation, is thus a good example of what the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls an “atelic activity,” meaning that its value isn’t derived from its telos, or ultimate aim. You shouldn’t be aiming to get a walk “done”; nor are you likely to reach a point in life when you’ve accomplished all the walking you were aiming to do. “You can stop doing these things, and you eventually will, but you cannot complete them,” Setiya explains. They have “no outcome whose achievement exhausts them and therefore brings them to an end.” And so the only reason to do them is for themselves alone: “There is no more to going for a walk than what you are doing right now.” As Setiya recalls in his book Midlife, he was heading toward the age of forty when he first began to feel a creeping sense of emptiness, which he would later come to understand as the result of living a project-driven life, crammed not with atelic activities but telic ones, the primary purpose of which was to have them done, and to have achieved certain outcomes. He published papers in philosophy journals in order to speed his path to academic tenure; he sought tenure in order to achieve a solid professional reputation and financial security; he taught students in order to achieve those goals, and also in order to help them attain degrees and launch their own careers. In other words, he was suffering from the very problem we’ve been exploring: when your relationship with time is almost entirely instrumental, the present moment starts to lose its meaning. And it makes sense that this feeling might strike in the form of a midlife crisis, because midlife is when many of us first become consciously aware that mortality is approaching—and mortality makes it impossible to ignore the absurdity of living solely for the future. Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any “later” left? The most unsparingly pessimistic of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, seems to have seen the emptiness of this sort of life as an unavoidable result of how human desire functions. We spend our days pursuing various accomplishments that we desire to achieve; and yet for any given accomplishment—attaining tenure at your university, say—it’s always the case either that you haven’t achieved it yet (so you’re dissatisfied, because you don’t yet have what you desire) or that you’ve already attained it (so you’re dissatisfied, because you no longer have it as something to strive toward). As Schopenhauer puts it in his masterwork, The World as Will and Idea, it’s therefore inherently painful for humans to have “objects of willing”—things you want to do, or to have, in life—because not yet having them is bad, but getting them is arguably even worse: “If, on the other hand, [the human animal] lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom comes over it; in other words, its being and its existence become an intolerable burden for it. Hence it swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom.” But the notion of the atelic activity suggests there’s an alternative that Schopenhauer might have overlooked, one that hints at a partial solution to the problem of an overly instrumentalized life. We might seek to incorporate into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone—to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself.

  • There’s a less fancy term that covers many of the activities Setiya refers to as atelic: they are hobbies. His reluctance to use that word is understandable, since it’s come to signify something slightly pathetic; many of us tend to feel that the person who’s deeply involved in their hobby of, say, painting miniature fantasy figurines, or tending to their collection of rare cacti, is guilty of not participating in real life as energetically as they otherwise might. Yet it’s surely no coincidence that hobbies have acquired this embarrassing reputation in an era so committed to using time instrumentally. In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit. The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they’re truly happy in a way that the rest of us—pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment—are not. This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind. And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome. My respect for the rock star Rod Stewart increased a few years back when I learned—from newspaper coverage of an interview he’d given to Railway Modeler magazine—that he’d spent the last two decades at work on a vast and intricate model railway layout of a 1940s American city, a fantasy amalgam of New York and Chicago complete with skyscrapers, vintage automobiles, and grimy sidewalks, with the grime hand-painted by Sir Rod himself. (He brought the layout on tour with him, requesting an additional hotel room to accommodate it.) Compare Stewart’s hobby with, say, the kitesurfing antics of the entrepreneur Richard Branson. No doubt Branson sincerely finds kitesurfing enjoyable. But it’s difficult not to interpret his choice of recreational activity as a calculated effort to enhance his brand as a daredevil—whereas Stewart’s model train hobby is so at odds with his image as the leather-trousered, gravel-voiced singer of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” that it’s impossible to avoid the conclusion he must genuinely do it out of love.

  • There’s a second sense in which hobbies pose a challenge to our reigning culture of productivity and performance: it’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them. Stewart confessed to Railway Modeler that he isn’t actually all that good at building model train layouts. (He paid someone else to do the fiddly electrical wiring.) But that might be part of why he enjoys it so much: to pursue an activity in which you have no hope of becoming exceptional is to put aside, for a while, the anxious need to “use time well,” which in Stewart’s case presumably involves the need to keep on pleasing audiences, selling out stadiums, showing the world he’s still got it. My other favorite pastime besides hiking—banging out the songs of Elton John on my electric piano—is so uplifting and absorbing, at least in part precisely because there’s zero danger of my chimpanzee-level musicianship ever being rewarded with money or critical acclaim. By contrast, writing is a far more stressful undertaking, one in which it’s harder to remain completely absorbed, because I can’t eradicate the hope that I might accomplish it brilliantly, meeting with high praise or great commercial success, or at least do it well enough to shore up my sense of self-worth. The publisher and editor Karen Rinaldi feels about surfing the same way that I do about cheesy piano rock, only more so: she dedicates every spare moment she can to it, and even wiped out her savings on a plot of land in Costa Rica for better access to the ocean. Yet she readily admits that she remains an appalling surfer to this day. (It took her five years of attempting to catch a wave before she first managed to do so.) But “in the process of trying to attain a few moments of bliss,” Rinaldi explains, “I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.” Results aren’t everything. Indeed, they’d better not be, because results always come later—and later is always too late.

  • Though it’s a hard thing to establish scientifically, we’re almost certainly much more impatient than we used to be. Our decreasing tolerance for delay is reflected in statistics on everything from road rage and the length of politicians’ sound bites to the number of seconds the average web user is prepared to wait for a slow-loading page. (It has been calculated that if Amazon’s front page loaded one second more slowly, the company would lose $1.6 billion in annual sales.) And yet at first glance, as I mentioned in the introduction, this seems exceedingly strange. Virtually every new technology, from the steam engine to mobile broadband, has permitted us to get things done more quickly than before. Shouldn’t this therefore have reduced our impatience, by allowing us to live at something closer to the speed we’d prefer? Yet since the beginning of the modern era of acceleration, people have been responding not with satisfaction at all the time saved but with increasing agitation that they can’t make things move faster still. This is another mystery, though, that’s illuminated when you understand it as a form of resistance to our built-in human limitations. The reason that technological progress exacerbates our feelings of impatience is that each new advance seems to bring us closer to the point of transcending our limits; it seems to promise that this time, finally, we might be able to make things go fast enough for us to feel completely in control of our unfolding time. And so every reminder that in fact we can’t achieve such a level of control starts to feel more unpleasant as a result. Once you can heat your dinner in the microwave in sixty seconds, it begins to seem genuinely realistic that you might be able to do so instantaneously, in zero seconds—and thus all the more maddeningly frustrating that you still have to wait an entire minute instead. (You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.) Nor will it make much difference, unfortunately, if you personally manage to muster the inner serenity to avoid this kind of reaction, because you’ll still end up suffering from societal impatience—that is, from the wider culture’s rising expectations about how quickly things ought to happen. Once most people believe that one ought to be able to answer forty emails in the space of an hour, your continued employment may become dependent on being able to do so, regardless of your feelings on the matter.

  • Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatizes this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinki’s main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each one—and for the first part of its journey, each bus leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Think of each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students. You pick an artistic direction—perhaps you start working on platinum studies of nudes—and you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But you’re dismayed to be told that your pictures aren’t as original as you thought, because they look like knockoffs of the work of the photographer Irving Penn; Penn’s bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody else’s path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialize. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: you’re informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own. What’s the solution? “It’s simple,” Minkkinen says. “Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.” A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience. The implications of this insight aren’t confined to creative work. In many areas of life, there’s strong cultural pressure to strike out in a unique direction—to spurn the conventional options of getting married, or having kids, or remaining in your hometown, or taking an office job, in favor of something apparently more exciting and original. Yet if you always pursue the unconventional in this way, you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing those other, richer forms of uniqueness that are reserved for those with the patience to travel the well-trodden path first. As in Jennifer Roberts’s three-hour painting-viewing exercise, this begins with the willingness to stop and be where you are—to engage with that part of the journey, too, instead of always badgering reality to hurry up. To experience the profound mutual understanding of the long-married couple, you have to stay married to one person; to know what it’s like to be deeply rooted in a particular community and place, you have to stop moving around. Those are the kinds of meaningful and singular accomplishments that just take the time they take.

  • Whenever I’m feeling resentful about deadlines, or the toddler’s unpredictable sleep patterns, or other incursions upon my temporal sovereignty, I try to remember the cautionary tale of Mario Salcedo, a Cuban American financial consultant who almost certainly holds the record for the number of nights spent aboard cruise ships. There’s little question that Super Mario—as he’s known to the staff of Royal Caribbean Cruises, the firm to which he’s been loyal for most of his two decades, as a resident of the oceans, with the 2020 coronavirus pandemic the only major interruption—is in full control of his time. “I don’t have to take out the garbage, I don’t have to clean, I don’t have to do laundry—I’ve eliminated all those non-value-added activities, and just have all the time in the world to enjoy what I like to do,” he once told the filmmaker Lance Oppenheim, poolside on board the Enchantment of the Seas. But it’ll come as no surprise, presumably, to learn that he doesn’t seem all that happy. In Oppenheim’s short film, The Happiest Guy in the World, Salcedo prowls the decks, cocktail in hand, staring out to sea, eliciting tight-lipped smiles and reluctant pecks on the cheek from the people he refers to as his “friends”—the employees of Royal Caribbean Cruises—and complaining that he can’t get Fox News on the television in his cabin. “I’m probably the happiest guy in the world!” he informs random groups of other passengers, rather too insistently; and they smile and nod, and politely pretend that they envy him. Of course, it’s not my place to assert that Salcedo isn’t as happy as he claims. Perhaps he is. But I do know that I wouldn’t be, were I living his life. The problem, I think, is that his lifestyle is predicated on a misunderstanding about the value of time. To borrow from the language of economics, Salcedo sees time as a regular kind of “good”—a resource that’s more valuable to you the more of it you command. (Money is the classic example: it’s better to control more of it than less.) Yet the truth is that time is also a “network good,” one that derives its value from how many other people have access to it, too, and how well their portion is coordinated with yours. Telephone networks are the obvious example here: telephones are valuable to the extent that others also have them. (The more people who own phones, the more beneficial it is for you to own one; and unlike money, there’s little point in accumulating as many phones as possible for your personal use.) Social media platforms follow the same logic. What matters isn’t how many Facebook profiles you have, but that others have them, too, and that they’re linked to yours. As with money, it’s good to have plenty of time, all else being equal. But having all the time in the world isn’t much use if you’re forced to experience it all on your own. To do countless important things with time—to socialize, go on dates, raise children, launch businesses, build political movements, make technological advances—it has to be synchronized with other people’s. In fact, having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively isn’t just useless but actively unpleasant—which is why, for premodern people, the worst of all punishments was to be physically ostracized, abandoned in some remote location where you couldn’t fall in with the rhythms of the tribe. And yet in achieving so much dominion over his time, Super Mario seems to have imposed a slightly milder version of the same fate on himself.

  • Synchronized movement, along with synchronized singing, has been a vastly underappreciated force in world history, fostering cohesion among groups as diverse as the builders of the pyramids, the armies of the Ottoman Empire, and the Japanese office workers who rise from their desks to perform group calisthenics at the start of each workday. Roman generals were among the first to discover that soldiers marching in synchrony could be made to travel for far longer distances before they succumbed to fatigue. And some evolutionary biologists speculate that music itself—a phenomenon that has proved difficult to account for in terms of Darwinian natural selection, except as a pleasurable by-product of more important mechanisms—might have emerged as a way of coordinating large groups of tribal warriors, who could move in unison by following rhythms and melodies, where other forms of communication would have proved too cumbersome for the job. In daily life, as well, we fall into synchrony all the time, usually without realizing it: at the theater, applause gradually organizes itself into a rhythm; and if you walk down the street alongside a friend, or even a stranger, you’ll soon find your paces starting to match. This subliminal urge toward coordinated action is so powerful that even sworn rivals can’t resist it. It would be difficult to imagine two men more committed to defeating each other—on a conscious level, at least—than the sprinters Usain Bolt and Tyson Gay, competing for the men’s hundred-meter title at the World Athletics Championships in 2009. But a study based on a frame-by-frame analysis of the race shows that despite presumably being consumed by the desire to win, Bolt couldn’t help falling into line with Gay’s steps. And Bolt almost certainly benefited as a result: other research has indicated that conforming to an external rhythm renders one’s gait imperceptibly more efficient. So it’s likely that Gay, in spite of himself, helped his opponent to reach a new world record.

  • Like our other troubles with time, our loss of synchrony obviously can’t be solved exclusively at the level of the individual or the family. (Good luck persuading everyone in your neighborhood to take the same day off work each week.) But we do each get to decide whether to collaborate with the ethos of individual time sovereignty or to resist it. You can push your life a little further in the direction of the second, communal sort of freedom. For one thing, you can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations. You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week. You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own.

  • We don’t get or have time at all—that instead we are time. We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments. To “master” them would first entail getting outside of them, splitting off from them. But where would we go? “Time is the substance I am made of,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.” There’s no scrambling up to the safety of the riverbank when the river is you. And so insecurity and vulnerability are the default state—because in each of the moments that you inescapably are, anything could happen, from an urgent email that scuppers your plans for the morning to a bereavement that shakes your world to its foundations. A life spent focused on achieving security with respect to time, when in fact such security is unattainable, can only ever end up feeling provisional—as if the point of your having been born still lies in the future, just over the horizon, and your life in all its fullness can begin as soon as you’ve gotten it, in Arnold Bennett’s phrase, “into proper working order.” Once you’ve cleared the decks, you tell yourself; or once you’ve implemented a better system of personal organization, or got your degree, or invested a sufficient number of years in honing your craft; or once you’ve found your soulmate or had kids, or once the kids have left home, or once the revolution comes and social justice is established—that’s when you’ll feel in control at last, you’ll be able to relax a bit, and true meaningfulness will be found. Until then, life necessarily feels like a struggle: sometimes an exciting one, sometimes exhausting, but always in the service of some moment of truth that’s still in the future.

  • It’s tempting to imagine that ending or at least easing the struggle with time might also make you happy, most or all of the time. But I’ve no reason to believe that’s true. Our finite lives are filled with all the painful problems of finitude, from overfilled inboxes to death, and confronting them doesn’t stop them from feeling like problems—or not exactly, anyway. The peace of mind on offer here is of a higher order: it lies in the recognition that being unable to escape from the problems of finitude is not, in itself, a problem. The human disease is often painful, but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure. Accept the inevitability of the affliction, and freedom ensues: you can get on with living at last. The same realization that struck me on that park bench in Brooklyn struck the French poet Christian Bobin, he recalls, at a similarly mundane moment: “I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought an ocean of profound peace entered my heart.”

  • James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” The question circumvents the urge to make decisions in the service of alleviating anxiety and instead helps you make contact with your deeper intentions for your time. If you’re trying to decide whether to leave a given job or relationship, say, or to redouble your commitment to it, asking what would make you happiest is likely to lure you toward the most comfortable option, or else leave you paralyzed by indecision. But you usually know, intuitively, whether remaining in a relationship or job would present the kind of challenges that will help you grow as a person (enlargement) or the kind that will cause your soul to shrivel with every passing week (diminishment). Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.

Ten techniques for implementing limit-embracing philosophy in daily life:

  1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity. Much advice on getting things done implicitly promises that it’ll help you get everything important done—but that’s impossible, and struggling to get there will only make you busier. It’s better to begin from the assumption that tough choices are inevitable and to focus on making them consciously and well. Any strategy for limiting your work in progress will help here (here), but perhaps the simplest is to keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.) You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list—but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you’ll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about. A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. To whatever extent your job situation permits, decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work—you might resolve to start by 8:30 a.m., and finish no later than 5:30 p.m., say—then make all other time-related decisions in light of those predetermined limits. “You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work,” writes Cal Newport, who explores this approach in his book Deep Work. But if your primary goal is to do what’s required in order to be finished by 5:30, you’ll be aware of the constraints on your time, and more motivated to use it wisely.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. Following the same logic, focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one nonwork project) and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next. It’s alluring to try to alleviate the anxiety of having too many responsibilities or ambitions by getting started on them all at once, but you’ll make little progress that way; instead, train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing. Soon, the satisfaction of completing important projects will make the anxiety seem worthwhile—and since you’ll be finishing more and more of them, you’ll have less to feel anxious about anyway. Naturally, it won’t be possible to postpone absolutely everything—you can’t stop paying the bills, or answering email, or taking the kids to school—but this approach will ensure that the only tasks you don’t postpone, while addressing your current handful of big projects, are the truly essential ones, rather than those you’re dipping into solely to quell your anxiety.
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at. You’ll inevitably end up underachieving at something, simply because your time and energy are finite. But the great benefit of strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself—is that you focus that time and energy more effectively. Nor will you be dismayed when you fail at what you’d planned to fail at all along. “When you can’t do it all, you feel ashamed and give up,” notes the author Jon Acuff, but when you “decide in advance what things you’re going to bomb … you remove the sting of shame.” A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected “lawn care” or “kitchen tidiness” as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy. As with serializing your projects, there’ll be plenty you can’t choose to “bomb” if you’re to earn a living, stay healthy, be a decent partner and parent, and so forth. But even in these essential domains, there’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting. To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.

  4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete. Since the quest to get everything done is interminable by definition (here), it’s easy to grow despondent and self-reproachful: you can’t feel good about yourself until it’s all finished—but it’s never finished, so you never get to feel good about yourself. Part of the problem here is an unhelpful assumption that you begin each morning in a sort of “productivity debt,” which you must struggle to pay off through hard work, in the hope that you might reach a zero balance by the evening. As a counterstrategy, keep a “done list,” which starts empty first thing in the morning, and which you then gradually fill with whatever you accomplish through the day. Each entry is another cheering reminder that you could, after all, have spent the day doing nothing remotely constructive—and look what you did instead! (If you’re in a serious psychological rut, lower the bar for what gets to count as an accomplishment: nobody else need ever know that you added “brushed teeth” or “made coffee” to the list.) Yet this is no mere exercise in consolation: there’s good evidence for the motivating power of “small wins,” so the likely consequence of commemorating your minor achievements in this fashion is that you’ll achieve more of them, and less-minor ones besides.
  5. Consolidate your caring. Social media is a giant machine for getting you to spend your time caring about the wrong things (here), but for the same reason, it’s also a machine for getting you to care about too many things, even if they’re each indisputably worthwhile. We’re exposed, these days, to an unending stream of atrocities and injustice—each of which might have a legitimate claim on our time and our charitable donations, but which in aggregate are more than any one human could ever effectively address. (Worse, the logic of the attention economy obliges campaigners to present whatever crisis they’re addressing as uniquely urgent. No modern fundraising organization would dream of describing its cause as the fourth- or fifth-most important of the day.) Once you grasp the mechanisms operating here, it becomes easier to consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry—not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology. Digital distractions are so seductive because they seem to offer the chance of escape to a realm where painful human limitations don’t apply: you need never feel bored or constrained in your freedom of action, which isn’t the case when it comes to work that matters (here). You can combat this problem by making your devices as boring as possible—first by removing social media apps, even email if you dare, and then by switching the screen from color to grayscale. (At the time of writing, on the iPhone, this option can be found under Settings > Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters.) “After going to grayscale, I’m not a different person all of a sudden, but I feel more in control of my phone, which now looks like a tool rather than a toy,” the technology journalist Nellie Bowles writes in The New York Times. Meanwhile, as far as possible, choose devices with only one purpose, such as the Kindle ereader, on which it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read. If streaming music and social media lurk only a click or swipe away, they’ll prove impossible to resist when the first twinge of boredom or difficulty arises in the activity on which you’re attempting to focus.

  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane. It turns out that there may be a way to lessen, or even reverse, the dispiriting manner in which time seems to speed up as we age, so that the fewer weeks we have left, the faster we seem to lose them (here). The likeliest explanation for this phenomenon is that our brains encode the passage of years on the basis of how much information we process in any given interval. Childhood involves plentiful novel experiences, so we remember it as having lasted forever; but as we get older, life gets routinized—we stick to the same few places of residence, the same few relationships and jobs—and the novelty tapers off. “As each passing year converts … experience into automatic routine,” wrote William James, soon “the days and the weeks smooth themselves out in recollection to contentless units, and the years grow hollow and collapse.” The standard advice for counteracting this is to cram your life with novel experiences, and this does work. But it’s liable to worsen another problem, “existential overwhelm” (here). Moreover, it’s impractical: if you have a job or children, much of life will necessarily be somewhat routine, and opportunities for exotic travel may be limited. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long. Meditation helps here. But so does going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or journaling, playing “I Spy” with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you’re doing in the present.
  8. Be a “researcher” in relationships. The desire to feel securely in control of how our time unfolds causes numerous problems in relationships, where it manifests not just in overtly “controlling” behavior but in commitment-phobia, the inability to listen, boredom, and the desire for so much personal sovereignty over your time that you miss out on enriching experiences of communality. One useful approach for loosening your grip comes from the preschool education expert Tom Hobson, though, as he points out, its value is hardly limited to interactions with small children: when presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.” Curiosity is a stance well suited to the inherent unpredictability of life with others, because it can be satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike—whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way. Indeed, you could try taking this attitude toward everything, as the self-help writer Susan Jeffers suggests in her book Embracing Uncertainty. Not knowing what’s coming next—which is the situation you’re always in, with regard to the future—presents an ideal opportunity for choosing curiosity (wondering what might happen next) over worry (hoping that a certain specific thing will happen next, and fearing it might not) whenever you can.
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity. I’m definitely still working on the habit proposed (and practiced) by the meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind—to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work—act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later. When we fail to act on such urges, it’s rarely out of mean-spiritedness, or because we have second thoughts about whether the prospective recipient deserves it. More often, it’s because of some attitude stemming from our efforts to feel in control of our time. We tell ourselves we’ll turn to it when our urgent work is out of the way, or when we have enough spare time to do it really well; or that we ought first to spend a bit longer researching the best recipients for our charitable donations before making any, et cetera. But the only donations that count are the ones you actually get around to making. And while your colleague might appreciate a nicely worded message of praise more than a hastily worded one, the latter is vastly preferable to what’s truly most likely to happen if you put it off, which is that you’ll never get around to sending that message. All this takes some initial effort, but as Goldstein observes, the more selfish rewards are immediate, because generous action reliably makes you feel much happier.
  10. Practice doing nothing. “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber,” Blaise Pascal wrote. When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable, because if you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting—choices such as stressfully trying to hurry activities that won’t be rushed or feeling you ought to spend every moment being productive in the service of future goals, thereby postponing fulfillment to a time that never arrives. Technically, it’s impossible to do nothing at all: as long as you remain alive, you’re always breathing, adopting some physical posture, and so forth. So training yourself to “do nothing” really means training yourself to resist the urge to manipulate your experience or the people and things in the world around you—to let things be as they are. Young teaches “Do Nothing” meditation, for which the instructions are to simply set a timer, probably only for five or ten minutes at first; sit down in a chair; and then stop trying to do anything. Every time you notice you’re doing something—including thinking, or focusing on your breathing, or anything else—stop doing it. (If you notice you’re criticizing yourself inwardly for doing things, well, that’s a thought, too, so stop doing that.) Keep on stopping until the timer goes off. “Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” remarks the author and artist Jenny Odell. But to get better at it is to begin to regain your autonomy—to stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.