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Life Kit: How to better manage your time


It's probably safe to say that you wish you had more hours in the day, and it seems there's an endless number of resources out there proffering easy solutions for time mastery and ultra-efficiency. But the real answer might involve changing our relationship with the clock. Life Kit's Andee Tagle has more.

ANDEE TAGLE, BYLINE: Good time management begins with accepting your mortality. Stay with me. It's not the only step in the process, of course, but according to author Oliver Burkeman, it's an essential element that many an efficiency-minded or optimization-inclined individual often forgets. As a self-described productivity geek in recovery, Burkeman says it's easy to be seduced by the allure of time management tools - color-coded planners, to-do list apps.

OLIVER BURKEMAN: These are all ways that we are helped to feel as though we're, like, just on the verge of conquering time, being perfectly in control. But of course, we never quite get that because I think humans can't get there.

TAGLE: The other problem with efficiency tools, he says, is that they often work in the wrong ways. Email just begets more email, and getting better at email only creates an even bigger inbox problem. You see where we're headed with this. Burkeman's book "Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals" is all about how and why to reevaluate your relationship with time, starting with the startling brevity of the average human lifespan, which gave the book its title. He doesn't pull any punches from there.

BURKEMAN: Any degree to which you can sort of see the truth that our time is limited, that we can't do everything, that you can imagine far more goals than you could ever achieve - any degree to which you can see that, feel the discomfort of it but be OK with that is another degree to which you have taken ownership of your life and started to build a meaningful one.

TAGLE: Coming to grips with our finitude can make it easier to spend our time on what actually matters most to us. How do we figure out what that really is? Burkeman offers a good starting point.

BURKEMAN: I write about a question from James Hollis (ph), who suggests that we should ask of our lives or big decisions in our lives not is this making me happy but does this path enlarge me or diminish me?

TAGLE: He says while research shows people are generally bad predictors of future happiness, we're usually pretty good about knowing what paths will lead us to growth, if not always ease or contentment. Is this person challenging me or reinforcing bad habits? Is this new job an opportunity or just a means to an end? Once you figure that out, Burkeman suggests making the most of your time through strategic underachievement or...

BURKEMAN: Choosing in advance what to fail at.

TAGLE: When you understand you can't possibly do everything you hope to do, it can be easier to focus your energies on big projects that matter most and to level with other tasks falling to the periphery.

BURKEMAN: If you in your own mind can at least decide, look, you know, for the next six months, I'm not going to be the kind of person who keeps a tidy home, instead of constantly feeling bad about yourself when you fail to do an impossible amount, when you realize that, in fact, you were going to have to fail at something, you decide it in advance. It's a lot more pleasant.

TAGLE: These techniques can help you feel less hounded by time. And then from there, Burkeman says, take notice of where your attention goes because at the end of the day, that's really all we've got.

BURKEMAN: When you get to the end of your life, the sum total of all the things you paid attention to will have been your life. If there are some friendships there that you never actually paid any attention to, well, you didn't really have those friendships, right? So it really matters what we're paying attention to because it just is - it just adds up to a life. If you're paying attention to things that, on some level, you don't want to be paying attention to, you're just giving away the only precious thing you have - right? - which is the time of your life.

TAGLE: For NPR News, I'm Andee Tagle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andee Tagle
Andee Tagle (she/her) is an associate producer and now-and-then host for NPR's Life Kit podcast.