Note: The following are excerpts from Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life.
But the crucial point isn’t that it’s wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on BuzzFeed. It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart. The proper response to this situation, we’re often told today, is to render ourselves indistractible in the face of interruptions: to learn the secrets of “relentless focus”—usually involving meditation, web-blocking apps, expensive noise-canceling headphones, and more meditation—so as to win the attentional struggle once and for all. But this is a trap. When you aim for this degree of control over your attention, you’re making the mistake of addressing one truth about human limitation—your limited time, and the consequent need to use it well—by denying another truth about human limitation, which is that achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible. In any case, it would be highly undesirable to be able to do exactly as you wished with your attention. If outside forces couldn’t commandeer at least some of it against your will, you’d be unable to step out of the path of oncoming buses, or hear that your baby was in distress. Nor are the benefits confined to emergencies; the same phenomenon is what allows your attention to be seized by a beautiful sunset, or your eye to be caught by a stranger’s across a room. But it’s the obvious survival advantages of this kind of distractibility that explain why we evolved that way. The Paleolithic hunter-gatherer whose attention was alerted by a rustling in the bushes, whether he liked it or not, would have been far more likely to flourish than one who heard such rustlings only after first making the conscious decision to listen out for them.
Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: It’s not usually that you’re sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief.
We’re told that there’s a “war for our attention,” with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy. Mary Oliver calls this inner urge toward distraction ‘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’s unfolding one browser tab away.
This also makes it easier to see why the strategies generally recommended for defeating distraction—digital detoxes, personal rules about when you’ll allow yourself to check your inbox, and so forth—rarely work, or at least not for long. They involve limiting your access to the things you use to assuage your urge toward distraction, and in the case of the most addictive forms of technology, that’s surely a sensible idea. But they don’t address the urge itself. Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or—the preferred option of the productivity geek—redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.
The overarching point is that what we think of as ‘distractions’ aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation. The reason it’s hard to focus on a conversation with your spouse isn’t that you’re surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table. On the contrary, ‘surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table’ is what you do because it’s hard to focus on the conversation—because listening takes effort and patience and a spirit of surrender, and because what you hear might upset you, so checking your phone is naturally more pleasant. Even if you place your phone out of reach, therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself seeking some other way to avoid paying attention. In the case of conversation, this generally takes the form of mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, as soon as the other person has finished making sounds with their mouth.
What’s far less widely appreciated than all that, though, is how deep the distraction goes, and how radically it undermines our efforts to spend our finite time as we’d like. As you surface from an hour inadvertently frittered away on Facebook, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the damage, in terms of wasted time, was limited to that single misspent hour. But you’d be wrong. Because the attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling—instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful—it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things—and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. If social media convinces you, for example, that violent crime is a far bigger problem in your city than it really is, you might find yourself walking the streets with unwarranted fear, staying home instead of venturing out, and avoiding interactions with strangers—and voting for a demagogue with a tough-on-crime platform. If all you ever see of your ideological opponents online is their very worst behavior, you’re liable to assume that even family members who differ from you politically must be similarly, irredeemably bad, making relationships with them hard to maintain. So it’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining “important matters” in the first place. In the words of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want.”
The only faculty you can use to see what’s happening to your attention is your attention, the very thing that’s already been commandeered. This means that once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like. In T. S. Eliot’s words, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
Research shows that this feeling [of busyness] arises on every rung of the economic ladder. If you’re working two minimum-wage jobs to put food in your children’s stomachs, there’s a good chance you’ll feel overstretched. But if you’re better off, you’ll find yourself feeling overstretched for reasons that seem, to you, no less compelling: because you have a nicer house with higher mortgage payments, or because the demands of your (interesting, well-paid) job conflict with your longing to spend time with your aging parents, or to be more involved in your children’s lives, or to dedicate your life to fighting climate change. As the law professor Daniel Markovits has shown, even the winners in our achievement-obsessed culture—the ones who make it to the elite universities, then reap the highest salaries—find that their reward is the unending pressure to work with “crushing intensity” in order to maintain the income and status that have come to seem like prerequisites for the lives they want to lead.
It’s not just that this situation feels impossible; in strictly logical terms, it really is impossible. It can’t be the case that you must do more than you can do. That notion doesn’t make any sense: if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time—no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations. We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.
But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory. Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. (Your boss isn’t stupid: Why would she give the extra work to someone slower?) Figure out how to spend enough time with your kids and at the office, so you don’t feel guilty about either, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure: to spend more time exercising or to join the parent-teacher association—oh, and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate? Get around to launching the side business you’ve dreamed of for years, and if it succeeds, it won’t be long before you’re no longer satisfied with keeping it small. The same goes for chores: in her book More Work for Mother, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to “labor-saving” devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of “what needs doing” that expands to fill the time available.
Perhaps it goes without saying that the internet makes this all much more agonizing, because it promises to help you make better use of your time, while simultaneously exposing you to vastly more potential uses for your time—so that the very tool you’re using to get the most out of life makes you feel as though you’re missing out on even more of it.
The technologies we use to try to “get on top of everything” always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the “everything” of which we’re trying to get on top.
Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.
The exhilaration that sometimes arises when you grasp this truth about finitude has been called the “joy of missing out,” by way of a deliberate contrast with the idea of the “fear of missing out.” It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything. In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.
There is a story attributed to Warren Buffett—although probably only in the apocryphal way in which wise insights get attributed to Albert Einstein or the Buddha, regardless of their real source—in which the famously shrewd investor is asked by his personal pilot about how to set priorities. I’d be tempted to respond, “Just focus on flying the plane!” But apparently this didn’t take place midflight, because Buffett’s advice is different: he tells the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs—because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.