What if you didn't need to do anything to justify being alive?
British columnist says it’s time to let go of your to-do list
Oliver Burkeman did the math for himself and what he found was appalling. The average human lifespan, in a matter of weeks, works out to be about 4,000. Burkeman is the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which draws on the work of philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers on how to properly spend your time.
He spoke to Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the benefits of replacing your "to-do" list with a "done" list, and asked how you would feel if you knew there wasn't anything you needed to do to justify your existence?
You've suggested that the real dilemma isn't our lack of time. Even if we're lucky enough to get 4000 weeks, but it's more our warped ideas about time. What are some of the ideas about the time we have? Ideas that maybe aren't entirely helpful?
I think the most, sort of, basic warped idea is that it's up to us to determine how much we can get done in that time and that more self-discipline and cleverer efficiency techniques and better ways of organizing our day will get us all the way there. You know, it's like this idea that we get to exert that kind of control, also the kind of control where we can sort of know what is coming up, how the future is going to unfold.
It's pretty obvious why we want that kind of control because it's sort of functionally equivalent to immortality, right? We all know we're going to have to die, but if we could sort of do everything before we died, then in a way that would be a bit like never having to die. It's achieving the same end by different means.
And so confronting the fact not only we're going to die, but that we definitely won't have time for everything that feels like it matters. That we'll always be able to think of more things that seem like good things to do with our time than we'll ever be able to do with our time. I mean, this is painful.
I think it's a pain that is well worth going through. But it's not exactly surprising that we want to avoid it by any means possible. And I think "busyness" is one of the ways we used to avoid it, right?
There is a very persistent spiritual teaching that goes: "The universe has a purpose for you and you really need to find that purpose why you were put on this Earth." Why does that view rub you the wrong way?
The idea that there's one specific thing out there for you to find — that you ought to be living in a specific country doing a specific job. There's no reason to believe that. And then it's something that's going to narrow your field of vision, close you off to serendipitous sources of fulfillment that might be arising in other places.
But also, I think for a lot of us, there is this very strange, extraordinarily grandiose background thought that the reason we're so stressed out by big decisions that we face about where to live or what career to pursue, or whether to leave a job that we're in for a different one, or whatever it might be — that they kind of, really, really, really matter in a way that does sort of imply that the universe cares.
I think it can be very freeing to realize that there's certainly a sense in which the universe does not care that you are a tiny little pinprick of life in the middle of cosmic time, stretching off in each direction that most of the decisions we make 100 years from now will be of no consequence to anybody else. Some people think this is a recipe for nihilism but what I want to say is that you might as well take that risk. You might as well pursue that bold idea. You might as well risk that something is not going to work out because it doesn't actually quite matter.
So you don't need to attach so much weight to it. And that sort of goes hand-in-hand with this idea that you don't need to define a meaningful life as one in which you, to quote Steve Jobs, put a dent in the universe. You don't need to define a meaningful life as one in which you write books or make art that's going to be remembered for thousands of years.
You can use a definition of a meaningful life that includes helping a handful of people in your moment in history. That includes, cooking nutritious meals for your children or looking after elderly relatives, right? These are not fashionable, but you don't want a definition of meaning that rules them out.
So I think scaling down in this way, it's not a recipe for despair or for mediocrity. It's a recipe for getting rid of this sort of unnecessary, paralysing burden.
You've suggested that it's a good idea to keep a list. Not so much a "to-do" list but a "done" list. Here are the things I have done, and I'm wondering whether you keep on. Do you find this an encouraging practice?
I think so many of us wake up in the morning feeling like we're in some kind of productivity debt. You've got to get through a certain amount of activity by the end of the day or you haven't really justified your existence on the planet or something. And what I love about the idea of recording what you have done is that it slightly sort of shifts the default there and says, "Well, what if you thought that when you woke up in the morning, there wasn't anything you needed to do in order to justify your existence?"
There may be things you need to do in order to keep drawing your salary, but there's nothing that you need to do in order to sort of be enough as a human being. And then everything you do is extra on top of that. A list of all the things that you absolutely didn't need to have done — I think it's a very powerful intervention.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Arman Aghbali. Written by Rosie Fernandez.