An antidote to hustle culture: a better way to manage your time

8 minute read

Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks” is already one of the best books I’ve ever read

A rant about “hustle culture”

For all of my 20s, I was obsessed with optimising my life. I was a keen listener of the Tim Ferriss Show. I’d read “The 4-Hour Workweek”. I had experimented with different sleep cycles to squeeze an extra few productive hours out of each day. I wanted to craft the most efficient morning routine to set myself up for a productive day.

At the same time, I was keenly aware of the fact that my time on this planet is short. Everyone I cared about around me was growing older by the day. My dad had died and my mum was growing older. My dog, Milo (RIP old boy), was starting to go grey. I became focused on maximising my time with them in order to avoid any future regret I might have by not spending my time with them. The thought of them one day dying filled me with dread.

In hindsight, that was all so stupid!

All of these things reduced my happiness and satisfaction with my life. My mind would be focused on whether I was living life to the fullest instead of just enjoying it.

I’m sure you’re all aware of the cultural phenomenon called “hustle culture”. My opinion is that hustle culture is toxic. Here’s a hilarious video that’ll give you a taste of the sort of behaviour it glorifies:

To put it kindly, I think hustle culture is “silly”. Sleeping less to fit more “crap” into your day? That’s ridiculous! Sleep is so important for your health and well-being:

Waking up at 4:00 AM just to do more stuff? Go back to sleep if that’s not how your body works or if you don’t have a good reason to wake up at that time.

Listening to your audiobook at 300% speed to absorb ideas “TO THE MAX”? Bleugh! Just enjoy the damn book!

Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks”

This book has, so far, been amazing. It’ll help you live a more fulfilling life. The key ideas have so far been these:

  • We try to manage our time to get the most out of our days in the hope that once we get through the tasks on our ever-growing-to-do lists, we will finally get what is truly important to us.
  • The paradox is that the more efficient we get at clearing our lists and our inboxes, the more stuff appears to fill it.
  • We avoid facing the reality that our time on this earth is frighteningly short by fooling ourselves that we have time to work on everything because this means that we don’t have to make difficult trade-offs as to how we choose to use our time. We fool ourselves by thinking that with enough hard work, we can make all of our dreams come true and that we’re capable of doing everything.
  • Others can make impossible demands on your time by asking you to do so many things that it’s simply not possible to do them all. You might be the one making these impossible demands on your time. Once you accept that these demands are in fact impossible, you empower yourself to resist them.
  • We should embrace our own limits. We simply don’t have the time to do all of the things we want to do. We might not have the talent required to do some things. We also don’t have the time to do all the things others want us to do. So we shouldn’t beat ourselves up over it!
  • Making a choice to spend your time on something inevitably means that you’re choosing not to spend your time doing something else. The important thing is that you’re making a conscious choice and not letting others make that choice for you.

One of my favourite quotes so far is this one from page 30:

Every decision to use a portion of time on anything represents the sacrifice of all the other ways in which you could have spent that time, but didn’t—and to willingly make that sacrifice is to take a stand, without reservation, on what matters most to you.

How am I applying what I’ve learned so far to my own life?

This book has allowed me to reflect on a few aspects of my life:

  • I probably will never finish my Master’s in computing because it takes up too much of my time and energy. I really love learning about computers, networking, algorithms etc. But I don’t need to go to uni to learn these things. Formal studies detract from my ability to do the things I love, like spending time with my family, hiking and learning and writing about random things just because they’ve captivated my imagination.
  • As a result, I will probably never get a PhD in computing or AI. This would mean subjecting myself to years of hard work and taking a big pay cut, which will detract from my ability to take care of my aging mum and build a life of adventure together with my wife (who I love very much).
  • I will probably never live and work in Silicon Valley. Making this dream come true would mean trading off a lot of things: time spent with my loved ones in Australia and working my ass off in the Mecca of hustle culture.

Choosing not to do the above means I choose to spend my time on the things that mean a lot to me:

  • Hiking with my wife
  • Spending time with my mum
  • Reading books because I want to and not because I need to read a prescribed textbook for uni
  • Saying “yes” to more social engagements, and not saying “no” because I need to study for an upcoming exam
  • Living in another country for a few months whenever we choose to because I don’t have to be back in the country to take an exam

The above choices feel good and I will have to remind myself to reassess the things that matter to me most again a few years down the track.

Some choice quotes

From page 11:

It follows from this that time management, broadly defined, should be everyone’s chief concern. Arguably, time management is all life is. Yet the modern discipline known as time management—like its hipper cousin, productivity—is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.

From page 14:

In the modern world, the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall once pointed out, time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new tasks as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming “more productive” just seems to cause the belt to speed up.

From page 16:

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

From page 17:

Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.”

From page 24:

Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it. When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer—as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution—instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.

From pages 24-25:

The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough. Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time—instead of just being time, you might say—it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally “out of the way.”

From page 28:

After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required. Or we procrastinate, which is another means of maintaining the feeling of omnipotent control over life—because you needn’t risk the upsetting experience of failing at an intimidating project, obviously, if you never even start it.

From page 30:

In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all.

Take the antidote

There’s a lot to ponder here. Take the antidote and count yourself out of the “rise and grind” culture. Read the book!