Image via Oliver Burkeman’s new book (linked below)
It’s a new year. Time for intricate morning routines and streamlined weekly agendas. Lamenting the lost days (weeks? months?) of the previous year, we resolve to use our time with newfound efficiency moving forward. In 2022, every day will be meticulously organised and productive. We will glide seamlessly though our schedules, moving from exercise class to meeting to meal prep without the slightest fumble. Never will we freeze with self-doubt; never will we find ourselves stuck in the mud of procrastination. This year, time will feel different. This year, we won’t waste a drop.
Or at least, that’s the way I used to think about the new year. Back in the days when I was known to make time management worksheets for a living (some of which I still think are pretty good!) a new year was mostly a chance to ‘do time better’. But then I changed, and the world changed, and time itself - to me, at least - started to feel different.
Over the holidays, I read Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You? and spent some of that delicious ‘dead’ time between Christmas and the New Year reflecting on her razor sharp social and cultural observations. Most of these thoughts are embedded in emails between the book’s two female protagonists, who exchange (almost implausibly astute) missives on Capitalism, beauty, sexuality, love – and of course, the meaning of time itself.
In one email, Rooney’s character writes:
At the moment I think it’s fair to say we’re living in a period of historical crisis, and this idea seems to be generally accepted by most of the population…I believe studies show in the last couple of years, people have been spending a lot more time reading the news and learning about current affairs. As a consequence, each day has now become a new and unique informational unit, interrupting and replacing the informational world of the day before.
We’re used to engaging with cultural works ‘set in the present.’ But this sense of the continuous present is no longer a feature of our lives. The present has become discontinuous. Each day, even each hour of each day, replaces and makes irrelevant the time before, and the events of our lives make sense only in relation to a perpetually updating timeline of news content… There is no longer a neutral setting. There is only the timeline.
A week after reading this passage, I listened to an episode of On Being with the writer Oliver Burkeman (I interviewed him myself a couple of years ago), who has just published a new book titled ‘Four Thousands Weeks: Time and How To Use It’. In the course of this (excellent) interview, he echoed Rooney’s thoughts almost exactly:
I really started to notice this just a few years ago…the way that more and more people I knew, and certainly people I observed on social media and, to some extent, myself — they’d sort of shifted the centre of gravity. You had the sense that they saw themselves as primarily existing sort of in the news cycle. And then things like what they did in their house, and their family or where they worked and the street they lived on, were kind of somehow secondary and that they sort of fundamentally lived in the drama of the news.
On Rooney’s part, the concern primarily lies in the effect that living in ‘the timeline’ might have on art and culture: “So when we watch characters in films sit at dinner tables or drive around in cars, plotting to carry out murders or feeling sad about their love affairs, we naturally want to know at what exact point they are doing these things, relative to the cataclysmic historic events that structure our present sense of reality… I don’t know whether this will give rise to new forms in the arts or just mean the end of the arts altogether, at least as we know them.”
For Burkeman, the bigger problem is our sense of unspoken moral obligation to be tuned into current affairs at all times–even when (as is mostly the case) it’s at the cost of our own time management capacities: “Nobody who is spending their whole day distracted by celebrity gossip is under any illusions that this is somehow some high duty of citizenship in a democracy that they’re performing. But I think you very easily can think that when the substance is the drama of national and international news.”
While I don’t particularly relate to Burkeman or Rooney’s avid consumption of the news, I think their reflections are applicable to the deluge of content of all kinds that we collectively navigate on a daily basis. Never does this informational obstacle course feel more acute than in the frenzied, goal-setting and resolution-making days of the start of the year. It’s now that one’s plans - be they personal or professional - feel most easily derailed by reading about the superior-sounding projects or routines of a wildly successful peer–or indeed, by the stomach-churning twists and turns of life in a global pandemic.
In their respective books, both Rooney and Burkeman seek philosophical resolutions to the challenge of building a personally meaningful life in an era of TMI. Both land in pretty much the same ballpark. Burkeman advises embracing the reality that - contrary to the popular cultural narrative - you will never be able to achieve all your dreams in a single lifetime, so it’s best to just focus on a few. It can be useful, he writes, to keep a healthy check on your ego when assessing the time you see as ‘wasted’ because it might just be as well-spent as the hours in which you were being ‘highly productive’, if not more so:
“It comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance. It’s the feeling of realising that you’d been holding yourself all this time to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realisation isn’t merely calming, but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a life well spent, you’re free to consider the possibility that many more things than you’d previously imagined might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time.
You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them on the grounds that they weren’t ‘significant’ enough. From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards, or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy, or that virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life, if it makes things slightly better for those it serves.”
Or, as Rooney - who is, after all, a novelist and not a time management expert - puts it:
“Maybe we're just born to love and worry about the people we know, and to go on loving and worrying even when there are more important things we should be doing.”
The world still needs people who are willing to devote their time to the ‘Important Things’, now probably more than ever. But if you’re already buckling under the pressure of your self-imposed 2022 regime, I hope these ideas might provide a soothing antidote.
Wishing you a happy and healthy 2022.
Sally Rooney: Beautiful World, Where Are You?
Oliver Burkeman: Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How To Use It*
Oliver Burkeman: How The News Took Over Reality (The Guardian, 2019)
*Burkeman states that ‘four thousand weeks’ is approximately the length of a lifetime. 49 weeks and 4 days - the title of this newsletter - refers to the amount of time left in 2022 :)