An illustration of a woman being blown away by schedule obligations (tick marks, phones, and Xs) in shades of pink, blue and red
An illustration of a woman being blown away by schedule obligations (tick marks, phones, and Xs) in shades of pink, blue and red

There will always be too much to do.

Perhaps your first reaction to reading those words is to feel anxiety, or despair, or to reproach yourself for your lack of self-discipline. That would be understandable: those used to be my feelings too, whenever I looked at my to-do list and confronted the possibility that I wouldn’t get through it today, this week, or perhaps ever.

And yet when you reflect upon it deeply, the fact that there will always be too much to do is a reason for relief. We are finite creatures, with radically limited time. But we live in a world of ‘infinite inputs’: there’s no meaningful limit to the number of emails you could receive, the number of demands your boss could make, or the number of family obligations you might feel weighing on you, nor the number of exotic locales you might long to visit or creative projects you might wish to pursue. So of course there’s too much. And beating yourself up for not being able to do it all is like beating yourself up for not being able to jump a mile in the air. These are things that human beings simply can’t do.

Obviously, that doesn’t mean there isn’t lots you have to do, or might want to do. (More on that in a moment.) But spending your time wisely begins by understanding that doing it all is off the table from the start.

Indeed, it’s not merely that there’s too much to do. It’s worse than that: the truth is that getting things done actually generates more to-dos. If you get really efficient at processing your email, you’ll find that what happens is that you get more email – because you’ll send replies that will trigger their own replies, and because you’ll get a reputation as someone who’s responsive to email, and thus worth emailing. If you get through your work faster than anyone else at the office, your reward will be more work. (Your boss isn’t stupid: why would she give the extra work to someone slower?)

As the historian Ruth Cowan has shown, something similar occurred when supposedly ‘labour-saving’ devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners were first introduced: in fact, little labour was really saved at all, because societal standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits. Now that you could keep your floors entirely spotless, you began to feel as though you should.

Because of this state of affairs – unable to do everything, yet feeling as though we ought to be able to do everything – we end up struggling through life in the belief that any day now, perhaps when we’ve discovered the right time management techniques, we’ll finally get ‘on top of everything’, in the driver’s seat, with our lives in full working order. But that never happens, and so we spend our lives leaning into the future, treating the present moment as merely some kind of rehearsal for the real thing. Which is absurd, when you think about it; the present moment is the only one it ever actually is.

What’s the alternative? Few of us are in a position to just walk away from our inboxes, our jobs, or the housework. And most of us have plenty of ambitions for the rest of our lives. But the point isn’t to give up on any of that. Indeed, it’s the opposite: once you admit defeat in the impossible struggle to get everything done, you’re in a far better position to devote your limited time, energy and attention to doing a handful of things that really count.

Full disclosure: this isn’t an entirely comfortable way to live. That’s because it entails dropping certain balls; disappointing certain people; giving up on certain cherished goals. But because you’re finite human in a world of infinite inputs, the truth is that all of that was inevitable anyway. The only difference now is that you’re more conscious of it. Now that you realise that neglecting certain things is unavoidable, you can make better decisions about what to neglect – and what to focus on.

That said, you needn’t rip up your to-do list either. All you need to do is to begin relating to it differently: not as a collection of tasks you absolutely must complete in order to justify your existence on the planet, but as a menu of possibilities for using your limited time here.

Pick something from it that really matters (and don’t worry about making the perfect decision, either). Do that thing. Then repeat. You won’t get to the end of the list. But that was out of the question to begin with.

Now, instead of chasing but never reaching the impossible goal of infinite productivity, you’ll be spending your days – far more satisfyingly – on what’s gloriously possible instead.

What did you think of this article? Email editor@penguinrandomhouse.co.uk and let us know.

Image: Ryan MacEachern / Penguin

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