The title is a quote from the stunningly sensational book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Mr. Burkeman is/was a self-professed productivity geek and writer of the – This Column Will Change Your Life – column for The Guardian.
His productivity world came to a head one day when, sitting on a park bench in the winter one morning in Brooklyn, NY, “feeling even more anxious than usual about the volume of undone tasks, and suddenly realizing that none of this was ever going to work.”
The parable of rocks, boulders, and sand is often used as a metaphor for how to prioritize things in one’s life. You have a jar, and you must fit all of the boulders, pebbles, and sand in it. To do so requires placing the boulders in first, followed by the pebbles, and then the sand. So the reasoning goes – for a meaningful life, put the boulders (the most important things to do) in first, followed by the pebbles (the next most important), and then the sand (all the little activities) that can suck up our time.
In premodern times, when lives revolved around the rhythms of the day, the options for things to do were far fewer, and the tyranny of the clock had yet to crack its existential whip, life was not filled with much existential angst. Of course, there was often profound angst over just continuing to exist, given all of the diseases and violence.
The problem in the modern world is that there are just too many boulders to choose from, and it is impossible to fit them into the container of our one life, which is just 4,000 weeks long if you live to 80. Yet we often try mightily to do so, and we end up like Albert Camus’ Sisyphus, pushing the boulder up the hill again and again until we die.
There are many tactical things one can do to help with this situation, but the starting gate is that moment Mr. Burkeman experienced on the park bench: acceptance. As he says: “Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”
The in-your-bones acceptance is a liberation from the miasma of modern pressure we are swimming in, so unaware of, like fish in water who don’t know they are in the water. It is just how it is. And in that liberated feeling of defeat, our choices on what boulders to commit fully to become more personal and potentially fulfilling.
Compliment the book Four Thousand Weeks with the book The Long Game by Dorie Clark. In this must-read book, Dorie takes us on the specific tactics and strategies to use once we admit defeat and start choosing our boulders more wisely. One perfect example is to use 20% of our time that we “optimize for interest,” which will lead to growth in an area of our lives that is intrinsically satisfying and meaningful to us.
Finally, I recommend reading this short piece by Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, A Pastor Embraces Slowness. The last line was particularly stunning to me: “Time management is a spiritual practice.”
Ultimately, it comes down to living a filled-up life, or a fulfilled life.