I just read this interesting book (Four Thousand Weeks) that’s ostensibly about time management but is really a philosophy about spending time. It includes this story (possibly apocryphal) attributed to Warren Buffett, where he’s asked how to set personal priorities and I’ve been thinking about it for days.

Buffett allegedly says to make a list of the top 25 things you want out of life and arrange them in order, from most important to least. The top 5 are the ones around which you should organize your time. But contrary to expectation, the remaining 20 aren’t the ones you should get to when you have the opportunity. Instead, they’re the ones you should *actively avoid at all costs*. These end up being goals that aren’t important enough to form the core of your life, but they’re seductive enough to distract from the things that matter most.

Man, I’ve been thinking about that a lot. I think there’s truth to it, and it relates to the basic thesis of the book: there is not enough time to do everything, so we need to be intentional about what we don’t do, not just what we do. It’s easy to try to eliminate things that seem like an obvious waste of time (although the book questions this premise a bit also – being “productive” frequently means pushing out the life you want to live to the future, and some things that in a production-based society seem wasteful are actually what life is about, being fully in the present). But what’s really required is eliminating things that are ostensibly good, in favor of things that are better or more personally important.

Kind of coincidentally, I read this book right after reading another fascinating book – The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han. I can never recall where I get book recs so I have no idea how I found out about either, and reading them back to back was not intentional, but they share a bit of a common theme. The Burnout Society is curious because the author is South-Korean born and educated, but he’s a philosopher who lives and teaches in Germany. That’s a unique story. Anyway, it’s a philosophy tract written in German and it reads like it – dense and difficult language. But it has some interesting ideas.

The main question it considers is why modern society is so depressed and burnt out. His thesis is that it reflects a shift in society itself, from a negative society (based on rules of what you should and should not do) to a positive society (you can do anything you want). The pathology of a negative society is things like neuroses and criminality, the pressure of societal expectation. But in a positive society, what drives us is internal – if we can do anything, there’s a sense that we must do as much with ourselves as we can. And this internal drive to maximize what we do leads to depression (when our lives don’t measure up to what it seems it should be) and burnout (when we can’t keep up).

I have some quibbles with the book but I do think there’s insight in that idea. At the very least, if you think about it, burnout is a really odd phenomenon. It’s not like everyone who’s being burnt out is forced to work that hard. Perhaps superficially their job requirements seem that way. But there are other job options. And as both books point out, it’s frequently the most successful and wealthy that drive themselves the most, are most susceptible to burnout. It has to be that something is driving us internally. Which is weird. As Han writes repeatedly, we have become our own oppressors.

The combined advice would seem to be that if you feel overwhelmed, recognize that it’s largely based on unreasonable internal expectations so adjust those. If you can’t do everything (and you can’t) then logically you must fail to do some things so choose what to fail at or ignore intentionally and chill out.

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