The book by Oliver Burkeman, titled, Four Thousand Weeks, is one of the best books that I have read this year. The message in the book is timeless and you might have come across the main idea in many places. However the author has gathered all the relevant examples and has made a compelling argument about the way to live 4000 weeks, that we are all bestowed on this planet.

The Limit-Embracing Life

The first chapter dwells on the main problem of time. It is not about our limited time, but how we live by, a troublesome set of ideas on how to use our limited time. Our ancestors never considered time as a separate abstract quantity that they have to measure up to. They were untroubled by the notion of time ticking away. However with the onset of industrial revolution, the rise of clocks, Internet and mobile devices, time and life had become separate in people’s minds, time became a thing that you used - and its this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today.

A few generations ago, our ancestors organized life based on tasks. The organization of a day was task based and hence activities naturally flowed in to the time passing by.

Do you organize your day’s work with task and time coalesced or separated ? Time as a medium in which life unfolds is a wonderful way to live, instead of trying to use up time in an efficient manner.

The effect of separating time with our tasks and daily lives is that we are forever conscious of an external ticking clock, we live our lives in “joyless urgency” Here is a quote from Marilynne Robinson

There’s a strange future orientation in contemporary thinking. We don’t know anything about the future; we probably know less than people have known at any given time, because everything is in flux. We know that huge technological innovations can permeate society very quickly, and yet they’re always saying that we have to prepare for the future – they use this word competition irritatingly frequently. At the same time, there’s no secure model of what it is that we have to do in order to become the societies that they see as being prosperous or as surviving as viable societies over even the next decade.

And meanwhile, the most interesting thing that could be imagined, which is to be a human consciousness on a beautiful planet, this is something that is completely bypassed; that only present experience and reflection can give us access to and allow us to enjoy the privilege of existing.

Meaningful productivity often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take, surrendering to the time inherent in the process. Perhaps most radically of all, seeing and accepting our limited powers over time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in the history.

The takeaways from this chapter are

  • Focus on the limits and accept for what they are, instead of fighting over fitting many items within those limits
  • One can never marshal enough efficiency, self-discipline and effort to a state when one can feel one is at the top of things
  • Organize life based on tasks and focus on a few tasks that matter to you, while distancing your mind from the hypothetical ticking clock

The Efficiency trap

We mistakenly believe that cramming up multiple items and doing all of them will make us a better person. By being busy and doing a lot of activities might appear as though we are living a productive life. However in reality as soon as you manage to clear your to-do list deck, there are other items that appear with increasing speed. It is like a conveyor belt where the faster we work, the more items start appearing on the conveyor belt. Whatever be the things that you set out to do, you can never be truly top on things. There will always be new stuff to work on, new books to read, new programming languages to learn, new frameworks to master. ‘What needs doing’ is constantly expanding. Hence if your focus is getting efficient at doing stuff with out regard to the number of items that you are doing, you might end up in a efficiency trap. The best way is to focus on few things and put in all your efforts to getting them done without any time pressure.

The best piece of advice in this chapter is to stop clearing the decks. If there is a bunch of stuff you keep on doing without pausing whether they need to be really done, then you are clearing the decks every day and doing nothing else apart from that activity.

What’s needed instead in such situations, I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges - to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing on instead of what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.

You will sometimes still decide to drive yourself hard in an effort to squeeze more in, when circumstances absolutely require it. But that won’t be your default mode, because you will no longer be operating under the illusion of one day making time for everything.

The last section of the chapter highlights a few pitfalls of seeking convenience, in our lives. Life is lived on edges and it is better to seek out those edges to learn better and live a rich life.

The takeaways from this chapter are

  • Stop cleaning the decks, Pause and evaluate the big things that you need to focus on
  • Don’t strive for convenience in everything. It is, rough edges, that matter
  • You will never be on top of things, whatever productivity hack that you follow, that is supposed to get through your to-do list quicker. The speed with which you go through your to-do list is only going to make a lot of more items appear on your to-do list. There is no end to it

Facing Finitude

This chapter highlights the work of Martin Heidegger who says that “finitude” is not one among those things that we have to cope with, but it is the one that defines us. So, if you think about it in this way, by choosing something, choosing anything, we are saying goodbye to other options. Whatever choices you make, be it projects you take up, the friendships you maintain or create, the books you read, the people whom you interact with, the companies you work at.. everything is a choice and it is a limitation that we have to let go of other options when we choose one option.

What’s really morbid is what most of us do, most of the time, instead of confronting our finitude, which is to indulge in avoidance and denial, we seek out distractions, or lose ourselves in busyness and the daily grind, so as to try to forget out real predicament. We try to avoid the intimidating responsibility of having to decide what to do with our finite time by telling ourselves that we don’t get to choose at all.

Indeed, how many times do we pause in a day or a week and think about finitude/death and more importantly make choices so that we take the finitude in to consideration. To be truly present means we confront the certainty of death. In my case, I think I have spent years honing a specific skill-set and probably preparing myself for a future. Does that mean I was not doing the right thing ? May be, May be not. I have always tried to use a skillset in creating something, be it a demo, be it a workable project, be it a POC. So, I was in some sense anchored to the present. I can’t say the same about everything I have done so far. There have been times where I was preparing for something, instead of going headlong and learning on the job.

Each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with. And it stops making sense to pity yourself for having been cheated of all the other options.

One of the beautiful ways to get our minds to concentrate on the present, is to believe that every aspect we are experiencing life is on borrowed time. Indeed the very fact that I am alive today is a result of umpteen idiosyncratic events of my life, the absence of any of those events or presence of any other event would have resulted in a different life trajectory. Parents, spouse, kids, friends, colleagues, relatives, books, projects, programming languages, music and arts, whatever that one gets to experience in a life is a celebration. In that sense, all good, bad, ugly, unpleasant, joyous moments are just that, moments, that make our lives richer. It is only by experiencing the moments viscerally, that we appreciate this life better. “Appreciation of the present” is an area that I massively fall short of. There are many instances when my mind is thinking about past or future. I guess in all such instances I am not truly living in the present.

The takeaways from this chapter are:

  • Life is not a dress rehearsal. Stop preparing for some future event and do something today, whatever small step that might be
  • Develop a sense of “sober joy” towards life, knowing that everything is transient and the only way to truly enjoy life is focusing on the “finite”
  • Celebrate the fact that you are even getting to make a choice, instead of fretting over the fact that you do not have an option to choose a lot of options
  • Everything is borrowed time
  • Experience the joy of missing out. There is a certain joy that can be derived by saying NO to things in life. Once you start experiencing that joy, you will want to extend to many areas of life.

Becoming a Better Procrastinator

emacs has been my TODO list manager for many years. I use orgmode to keep track of urgent tasks, repetitive tasks, someday tasks etc. Reading this chapter was helpful in reinforcing some of the ways that I have been using time management in orgmode

At any point in time, there are a ton of interesting things to learn, implement and work on. Also there are a ton of promising technologies to get familiarized with. However if you start working on all the areas, it is likely that you will have a broad idea of all the disciplines but do not have a good idea about any specific discipline. The problem with spreading your bets thin is that it is likely that your payoff might be just an average payoff. It is only by combining a few of these skills, areas and working on them for a considerable period of time that you can get something significant out.

In that sense, procrastination should help you neglect the right things. You might want to design a website, learn a math concept, create a piece of art, etc. The list could be endless and by dipping in to each of the items, will not force you to acknowledge the “finitude” of life. Only when one pares down the list and starts to work on the most important items in the list, on a daily basis, does one starts seeing improvements.

The chapter talks about limiting your work in progress. Fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. Your list gets an addition only when something is taken off from the list. This strategy is useful as it will not clutter your todo list and make you distract. Let’s say you think that there are 8 things that you are interesting in learning, working, implementing. Putting all the 8 things on a to-do list and working on it in a unstructured way is what I end up doing. Instead actively choosing 2 or 3 projects, working on them until you complete them, is a far better strategy as you would have fought the distraction demon, fought the human tendency to neglect “finitude”. It also enables you to resist the allure of middling priorities. Yes there are 5 other projects that are important but they might not be the most important NOW.

There is also another kind of procrastination called finitude-avoiding procrastination. We might be forever doing dress rehearsal for the event, forever cleaning the decks, forever preparing for the events that we really do not step up and experience the event. Even though you might say that you are getting prepared and it might justify your time, it is often better to dive in and get a real world experience of the event rather than be on side lines preparing for it. I have been plagued with this problem many times in my life. Instead of going headlong and working on it real time, I have spent enormous of time in preparing for the work that I would love to do. This is a sort of procrastination too.

When we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we are usually in some version of this same mindset. We fail to see, or refuse to accept, that any attempt to bring our ideas into concrete reality must inevitably fall short of our dreams, no matter how brilliantly we success in carrying things off - because reality, unlike fantasy, is a realm in which we don’t have limitless control ,and can’t possibly hope to meet our perfectionist standards.

If you are procrastinating on something because you are worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax - because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start

The final section of the chapter talks about importance of settling in, i.e. take steps in which one cannot go back. By keeping our options too open, we might be forever evaluating options and would have lost valuable time in experiencing the outcome of one of the options. By going headlong with one of the options, you might be able to experience far more peace and serenity that you might not have imagined.

The takeaways are:

  • Be a good procrastinator by selecting the tasks that you should not be doing. These are tasks that you want to do, but are middling priories and are not on the top of your priority list
  • Be aware of being a bad procrastinator: May be you are working on several things in the false hope that one day you are ready to do the actual task that you have set for yourself. May be you do not want to face the harsh reality that you will inevitably fall short in doing the task based on your ideal benchmark standards
  • Commit to a thing one at a time and start working on it, as though there is no recourse or alternative path once you have committed.

The Watermelon Problem

The problem mentioned in the chapter title refers to a silly watermelon event that was reported by BuzzFeed. The entire event was so worthless and pointless. But that didn’t stop 3 million people spent their valuable time watching the event. What made 3 million people stop their work and watch this event ? Distraction attacks us in many ways and make us weaker in doing the task at hand. Distraction can be internal or external. External distractions might depend on how we have structured the environment around us. If you have not paid attention to sanitizing your work environment, in one sense, it might interrupt the way you work on things. Constant email alerts, sms alerts, interruptions from colleagues - all these make you distract from the work you are doing. There are also internal distractions, i.e. mind keeps vacillating between future and past and tries to interfere your mind that is focusing on getting the current task done.

Life is all about what we pay attention to. By recognizing this aspect, it becomes easier to step away from digital distractions. By paying attention to the distractions, you are allowing more external parties to control your attention

The takeaway from this chapter is to consciously realize what you paying attention to, every minute of the day. By keeping a hawkish eye on your attention, it will be a matter of time when you can control a significant amount of voluntary attention power. Of course, there are other players in the game who will seek our attention. By spotting these attention seekers, you can then prioritize and attend to the most important ones, while ignoring the rest.

What are the “watermelon” episodes that you are using your attention on ? What are the attention drainers in your life ? Can you consciously cut them ? These are important aspects that one must track, so that one can embrace “finitude” of our lives with peace.

The takeaways are:

  • Pay attention to what you paying attention to. Life is nothing but a sum total of all your attentions. You become what you pay attention to

The Intimate Interrupter

Any tough assignment, project, book, concept will demand a lot of time. It is usually a series of unpleasant experiences that will necessitate mastering the work. However it is a common attitude that we might distract ourselves from pain and try not to pay attention to the pain. In a way this sounds a sensible strategy. But this is precisely what one should not do. By viscerally going thorough the unpleasant experiences, the pain, the hardships, one grows intimately familiar with the matter. Let’s say you are working on understanding some mathematical principle and you find that the going is rather tough. What would you do ? One of the hacks would be divert your attention away from hardships and take a break, do something else that relaxes you and then come back to tackling the math. May be go over a few twitter feeds, go over a few youtube videos etc. This might be effective strategy for some, but the chapter argues that it might be an ineffective approach. By focusing on the present while experiencing hard intellectual, physical experiences, one develops a more refined way of experiencing tasks in different areas, let’s say playing an instrument.

The inner urge to get distracted to convenient pleasures is termed as “the intimate interrupter” - that “self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels,” promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever unfolding one browser tab away.

This has happened many times when I am focusing on something difficult, I feel an immense urge to move away from it and indulge myself in a few minutes of distraction, in a possibly different task that is easier. I might justify the switching. A closer look at the situation reveals that I am unable to face boredom head on, I am unable to come to terms with finitude of the task and instead indulge in browsing, emailing, reading tweets, switching to a different task. These tasks might make me feel unconstrained - imagine randomly looking for videos on YouTube, imagine browsing tweets etc. They give an illusion that the world outside is unconstrained and takes you away from the finitude of life.

The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise - to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.

Yet there’s a sense in which accepting this lack of any solution is the solution. The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.

The key takeaway of the chapter is that one has to experience the unpleasantness involved in doing any hard project in a visceral way. That is the only way one has a reasonable chance of getting the project done. By constantly giving in to our distractions and allowing our minds to take periodic dopamine, is going to make it difficult to see the project through.

  • Do not indulge in digital distractions as a way to move away from unpleasantness or boredom that will arise in doing any genuinely important task
  • Not to fool oneself that a few minutes of escape will rejuvenate and hence can concentrate better
  • Remember that you have been fortunate enough to have granted the option to make a choice amongst a menu of options. Once you pick an option, there is no point in feeling guilty that you have not picked the other option. Life is finite and hence by definition, picking one means avoiding the other one.

We Never Really Have Time

This chapter tackles the topic of “planning”. Indeed to coordinate a set of activities from many people, we need to have a plan in place. However when applied to individual lives, we tend to overplan in many situations. One of the subtle aspects that we need to keep in mind is that, sometimes we are planning under the impression that we somehow we know how things are going to turn out and hence giving time chunks in our lives to get those things done. In life, events happen at their own pace.

This planning robs you of experiencing moments in our life. It might come as a relief for some people that planning at the core reflects our mindset that we can somehow control time and interlink with the events in our lives

A surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied- no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport? You can’t know that things will turn out alright. The struggle for certainty is intrinsically hopeless one - which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.

The truth about the fact that past cannot be controlled and future cannot be known, gives rise to one simple advice

We should aspire to confine our attentions to the only portion of time that really is any of our business - this one, here in the present

The chapter ends by unpacking the wonderful philosophy of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s terse statement

I don’t mind what happens

A life spent “not minding what happens” is one lived without the inner demand to know that the future will confirm to your desires for it - and thus without having to be constantly on edge as you wait to discover whether or not things will unfold as expected. None of that means we can’t act wisely in the present to reduce the changes of bad developments later on. We can stop demanding certainty that things will go our way later on.

The takeaway from this chapter is:

  • Do not demand that you know the future with certainty, just because you have created a plan for it or have scheduled some elaborate time chunks for the steps that you will do to realize the future. The future might not turn the way you want it. As long as you don’t demand that the future turns the way you had imagined, as long as you maintain, I don’t mind what happens, life becomes much more peaceful and anxiety free one

You are Here

We tend to instrumentalize “time”, i.e. use time as a means to get to something. This is often the case when we are clearing the decks, doing prep work for some event. It is often needed that you prepare in life for certain tasks. But there is a tendency to take it to the extreme. This mindset is called “when-i-finally”, where we are doing things that are supposedly meant to take us to a destination. We do the tasks with the intention of completing it and always have an eye on the “time” aspect instead of paying attention to the “task”.

The author gives a good example from a ton of literature on “baby training”. The way to raise children is divided. Some believe that one has to inculcate strict time table like discipline so that they in turn become a disciplined person in the future. The other opinion is to let the children behave in their natural self so that they evolve in to personalities that are more at ease with whatever the environment is. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of the approaches, except that both the approaches focus on “future” self, “when-someone-finally” mentality. Instead of focusing on the present and taking an approach that comes naturally based on the situation, one is always in a dress-rehearsal for a world that we might never see.

If you are forever living in a world where you are endlessly treating your life in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel towards a future state of happiness, then the present is sapped of its meaning. Instead you can have a broad goal, work towards it, assuming that your goals might change midway, you might develop interest in something different, your environment might change. There could be umpteen reasons why things do not turn out the way you want them to turn out. By instrumentalising the time, we become more and more invested in a certain type of future panning out. This is probably the reason for anxiety as things will never turn out the way you want to be, how many hours you plan and prepare for the event.

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 payoff 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 our 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 in to the future, and throw yourself into life now.

The author also gives a word of caution

Trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from the “the moment” and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.

The takeaways from the chapter are

  • Don’t instrumentalize time in every aspect of your life. It will sap you from living the very moment that defines a life
  • If you stop thinking about the “tick tock” that happens in any task that we do and instead let the task flow naturally with the time, one tends to be at ease with whatever the task outcome turns out to be

Rediscovering Rest

The author talks about the problem that plagues most of us, while looking at leisure activities. We start looking at leisure as a means to accomplish something, or as a means of its usefulness. We are frowned upon, when we talk about hobbies but others are fine when we mention about our side hustles.

The author mentions about atelic activities, meaning that its value isn’t derived from its telos, or ultimate aim. One must get in to the habit of doing atelic activities else we start treating time in an instrumentalist fashion and present moment starts losing its meaning. We might seek to incorporate into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone - to spend some of our time, on activities in which the only thong we are trying to get from this is doing itself.

The takeaways from the chapter are:

  • Have hobbies that are an end in itself. Do not try to pursue hobby as a way to further some other goal in mind. It is easier said than done. Unconsciously we might be pursuing activities that are not an end in itself. I think it is better we start to recognize these activities.
  • Are you thinking of making rest in to a productivity enhancing task ? Rethink about the way you are thinking about rest

The Impatience Spiral

The author mentions about a behaviour that we are all familiar with, our growing impatience with anything that is not fast. We want the traffic to move quicker, the pages to load quicker, quick summaries of the book, prefer tweets to long articles, short videos to long videos, short interactive quizzes to those that require deliberate thought and work. Technological advances are making devices faster and ironically instead of indulging leisurely in the time given to us, we start expecting the same kind of quick response times from other domains of our life - we can’t stand to wait until the oven heats up the food (we usually stop it a few seconds before the timer rings), we often find it difficult to read chapter, books and mind wants to check email, tweet, random video or anything that takes away from a task that requires patience.

The author provides an analogy of an alcoholic who uses alcohol as a relief or escape from the current emotional turmoil, only to realize that his dependency on alcohol has created an additional problem - addiction. Comparing alcoholics to people who prefer speed, might seem outrageous. But the way one escapes from the reality, be it an alcoholic or an impatient man seems to be the same. You are escaping from the reality and indulging in activities that take you away from meeting the problems head on.

The takeaway from this chapter is

  • World being fast paced has made up more impatient as we start having unreasonable expectations for everything we do. Our choices in life start reflecting the same. The sooner we realize and start doing things that teach us patience, the better we are at peace with ourselves, the better we live our lives in a meaningful way

Staying on the Bus

In more and more contexts, patience becomes a form of power. In a world geared for hurry, the capacity to resist the urge to hurry- to allow things to take the time they take - is a way to gain purchase on the world, to do the work that counts, and to derive satisfaction from the doing itself, instead of deferring all your fulfillment to the future.

The chapter talks about Jennifer Roberts, a art history teacher Harvard, who is famous for giving her students a peculiar assignment - visit a art gallery and stare a statue for three hours with no break - no email, social media, starbucks. Many of her students realize that doing the assignment is very painful as it makes them slow down. It takes a lot of effort to slow down and do something for three hours without any digital distraction.

The author narrates his own experience of going through the above exercise. At first there is discomfort, then there is massive discomfort. Only when on lets go of the discomfort of time passing slowly, one starts noticing things that hitherto has never been noticed and it becomes a wonderful experience from there on.

We are made so uneasy by the experience of allowing reality to unfold at its own speed that when we are faced with a problem, it feels better to race towards a resolution - any resolution, really, so long as we can tell ourselves we’re dealing with the situation, thereby maintaining the feeling of being in control.

The chapter then goes on to talk about three principles of patience

  1. Develop a taste for having problems
  2. Embrace radical incrementalism: Do small progress each day. Cultivate the patience to tolerate the fact that you would not be producing very much on any individual day
  3. Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality - Fantastic parable that drives home this point

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 above parable is a fantastic way to think about, when you are to make choices in a life. Only by sticking around long enough in something, you can really understand the way something works. In any area of endeavour the first few weeks, months, years might be very tedious. I have experienced this feeling in multiple places in my life. Slogging through a hard technical book to understand measure theory was painful. But the slog gives you a richer understanding of the principles of probability and will make you appreciate stochastic calculus better. Playing elementary scales or paltas in Sitar might seem repetitive and boring, but that is the only way one can create beautiful taans as one progresses. In all endeavors, it goes without saying that patience pays and it does not pay to jump around stuff.

The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad

In most of the productivity seminars, books and talks, one often gets to hear that we need to take back our time, say no to certain tasks so that we can get time to ourselves to pursue meaningful activities. All these have one common underlying assumption - using time for collaborative activities encroaches on the personal freedom and should be minimized as much as possible. Taken to an extreme, in the world of free lancers and gig economy where you get to decide your own schedules, you get to decide your work, it might appear fantastic. The flip side to this is that

Every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people

We tend to assume that individual time, i.e. the time we have for ourselves is somehow superior to the time we spend with others(network time). The chapter makes a case for considering how we are living our lives in the context of network time. Once we understand that network time also could make our lives richer - it derives its value from how many other people have access to it and how well their portion is coordinated with 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.

The point is that in order to live a meaningful and contribute something to the society, you have to ask yourself - what are you contributing to the world ? Often that starts with giving something that you have ? And to have something to give, especially in the world of tech, you need to spend sometime developing these skills. So, in a way this comes down to spending time and honing your skills. But that does not mean that you are forever honing skills, clearing your decks. The real progress comes from practice - practicing in the real world, practicing in the simulated world, getting feedback on the way you are doing things.

Once you start looking in to ways to contribute - you inevitably reach the conclusion that you inevitable add value, derive value by letting other people use your time

The author mentions several instances in countries such as Switzerland, USSR where studies have shown that there is a positive effect of spending time with community ( be it by will or by force). The story about USSR is more relevant in today’s world where each person has different slots of free time and hence it becomes difficult for sets of people to spend time in a productive way. Soviet story reveals the ill effects of creating a situation where people have different sets of holiday slots. Found it very interesting

The takeaway from the chapter is :

  • You can try to experience life in the second kind of freedom - communal sort of freedom
  • Make 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

Cosmic Insignificance Theory

The author highlights that our human lives in one sense are extremely tiny in time scale as compared to evolution of cosmos. The oldest known civilization, the Sumerians, existed 6000 years ago. Imaging putting 60 of your friends in a room and then lining them up in a straight line so that each person represents 100 years; if you start with the front of the chain and land at the end of the chain, in a time sense, you would be in the Sumerian civilization. In the sense, we are really living in a speck of time interval as far as the world is concerned which is 4.5 billion years old

Also the pandemic has caused a big pause in everyone’s life. It has caused everyone to reconsider their priorities. One might reconsider many defaults in their lives and start to question them. In the process, one might consider doing radically different things. Good to do that, but, one must always not let oneself pursue something grandiose to justify their life’s purpose. Whatever your life purpose is, it is not going to be matter much in the grand scheme of things. That is a liberating thought that might allow you to focus on only those things that are give meaning to you.

No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: its the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization 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 freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time.

The takeaway from the chapter is

  • My life is pretty insignificant as compared to march of the cosmos. It is better we stop taking this life seriously and drive crazily to achieve some goals that are set by others, or unconsciously set by others
  • Consider doing things if it interests you, even if you think they might not fetch monetary returns. At the end of it, it might be a great experience to have a life lived moment by moment. There could be risk in it. It could cause a lot of heartache when it fails because you have sacrificed a sure and safe path and landed up in a soup. But come to think of it, if one were to look back on the failure, one might not regret it, whatever be the outcome.
  • Lately I have had this strong feeling to move away from what I have always been doing and try to walk on a different path that involves finance, math, algorithms, programming and fun. My friend keeps saying that all these elements are present in crypto world. May be one of these days, I should seriously consider learning and doing something in the crypto world.

The Human Disease

This dream of somehow one day getting the upper hand in our relationship with time is the most forgivable of human delusions because the alternative is so unsettling. But unfortunately, its the alternative that is true: the struggle is doomed to fail. Because your quantity of time is so limited, you’ll never reach the commanding position of being able to handle every demand that might be through at you or pursue every ambition that feels important; you will be obliged to make tough choices instead. And because you can’t dictate, or even accurately predict, so much of what happens with the finite portion of time you do get, you’ll never feel that you’re securely in charge of events, immune from suffering, primed and ready for whatever comes down the pike.

The chapter lists down five questions to ponder

  1. Where in you life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
    • James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me or enlarge me ?”. This 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. Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet ?
  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be ?
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition ?

The individual’s path is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one fort in front of the other. Quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

Fortunately, precisely because that’s all you can do, do the next right thing, it’s also all that you ever have to do. If you can face the truth about time in this way - if you can step more fully into the condition of being limited human - you will reach the greatest heights of productivity, accomplishment, service and fulfillment that were ever in the cards for you to begin with. And the life you will see incrementally taking shape, in the rear view mirror, will be one that meets the only definitive measure of what it means to have used your weeks well: not how many people you helped, or how much you got done; but that working within the limits of your moment in history, and your finite time and talents, you actually got around to doing - and made life more luminous for the rest of us by doing - whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was that you came here for.

The takeaway from the chapter is:

  • Do not analyze too much. Take the next best step and see what you have got to learn and offer

Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude

  1. Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at
  4. Focus on what you have already completed, not just on what’s left to complete
  5. Consolidate your caring
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology
  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane
  8. Be a ‘researcher’ in relationships
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity
  10. Practice doing nothing


This has been one of the best books that I have read this year. It resonated with me at many levels and have enjoyed reading the book. Embrace “finitude” is the key message of the book. In a way, it is a liberating feeling to have and life one’s life as though it doesn’t matter, at the end.