There once lived a King in a faraway land. A tyrant who was ruthless though successful in the eyes of the world. Commerce flourished even if heads rolled under his heavy-handed reign. Whatever he wanted was had at any price. Eventually the King was challenged to a task that even his might and confidence would prove no match for.
You see, the Gods weren’t happy with Mr. King flexing his ego. He obviously didn’t read Robert Green’s “Laws of Power” otherwise he would have known that outshining the master (or a Deity) is a terrible idea! As penance the King was set upon a mountain and tasked with carrying a large stone from the base to the very top. It was a bizarre Crossfit-style competition with existential stakes. Completing the task would appease the Gods. And who wouldn’t want to appease the Gods? What should have been a test of strength and endurance proved futile. Every time the King approached the top of the mountain, the stone would roll back to the bottom. Psyche, tricky Gods!
This King was none other than Sisyphus and he was doomed to be a slave to the rock as punishment for his braggadocio. I’m twisting the story slightly, but I’m assuming you catch my drift. Sisyphus is now commonly invoked when describing an impossible task or project. Like shoveling heaps of tailings out of the conveyor line at the world’s largest gold mine, the illusion of progress is crushed by the inevitable filling of time and space with more crud.
The same holds true for demands on one’s life and work. Too much work to do. Too little time to do it. Such a problem has given birth to an entire industry of writers, coaches and consultants who claim to have the answer to such a predicament. I’m no different. Most of my executive career coaching clients are technology professionals suffering under the back-breaking pressure and stress of not getting everything done. Better time management is seen as the logical solution to overwork and the resulting feelings of burnout.
The time management treadmill from hell
Approaching one’s work through the lens of time management is like stepping on a treadmill, where the speed and incline are not controlled by you. Lace-up your shoes. Get your water ready. Stretch your legs. Deal with the speed as best you can and when you think you are ready to quit, simply tell yourself to keep going.
If you approach failure, the solutions are sought after in hacks. Get better shoes, more caffeine, a mantra to repeat to override the governor in your mind, really anything to facilitate efficiency so you can push even harder. Then eat a banana. Maybe higher a running coach to fix your running form. Ditch your running shoes to improve your running economy – then buy Hoka’s when you change your mind. Take advantage of breaks when the treadmill slows down (remember, you don’t control the speed!) and if it stops, go to sleep!
These are metaphorical ways one would deal with a literal treadmill from hell. When it comes to time management for the working professional, there is a similar dynamic going on whereby the treadmill of time management is humming along and the response people look for is a better way to manage time so as find a prayed-for (even atheists will pray for this!) nirvana where everything gets done and the treadmill stops so life can be enjoyed.
The problem is this treadmill is not normal. It is hellish. In hell, treadmills never stop permanently! They only pause to get your hopes up, then crank up the speed. Ugh.
Life is designed to capture your mind, and that’s a good thing
The circumstances of life are inevitably infinite. There is never nothing going on. You can be in the middle of a glorious and lengthy holiday – or retired! – and feel the crushing weight of to-dos. You can also complete a complex project, to raving reviews, and feel the tension of needing to get your kid off to school the next morning and take the dog for a walk before emptying the dishwasher. Try going on a meditation retreat (I have!) and the same rule applies. You cannot escape the treadmill from hell without understanding one truth:
Life is designed to captivate your mind and get you engaged. It’s really good at it! The universe has had 14+ billion years of practice (that we know of). It’s so good at it that your senses get lit up by the very notion of your existence. This is what allows a feeling of overwhelm to creep in at the very glance at a project plan or sticky note of tasks. The hope that this will somehow end when you hit Inbox Zero, implement GTD, complete your tenth Pomodoro today or put your entire work-life into a Notion-backed second brain is somehow, well, ludicrous.
Good news is that all is not lost. There is a way out. Well, actually there are two! One is philosophical and battle-tested over thousands of years and another is quite practical and something I made up (and find helpful as a daily practice and metaphor).
See that your experience of life is generated from the inside —> out
Philosophically speaking, you can get off the treadmill right now using little effort. Just be willing to”Red-pill” yourself and understand that your experience of pressure and overwhelm is a construct of your mind and has zero bearing on the literal circumstances you are in or the depth of your task list. It sounds crazy to write it out – and more crazy to say it out loud (try it) that “you are living in the feeling of your thoughts, not the world as it is.” However this is exactly what is happening.
Wise sages have explored and exposed the illusory (and miraculous!) nature of the human experience for at least 5,000 years (as documented through the early Vedas and Upanishads for example). Modern science is beginning to realize the same. The meaning conveyed through your sense organs, emotions and thoughts have far less to do with your circumstances than you think. Start to realize this fact and life will begin to feel calmer – and your mind will be far more clear – regardless of external demands.
The implications of this understanding are beyond the scope of this particular article, but a few welcome effects are the clarity of decision-making and performance effectiveness that comes from a mind not bound by the pressure of tasks and circumstances.
See time as a magical moving walkway, not as a hellish out-of-control treadmill
There is a practical way to deal with the supposed time management problem. It is how I’ve increasingly been experiencing time and find it quite helpful. Choose not to see time as a problem at all. Instead, adopt the stance of experiencing time as flowing like a river, taking you to lands full of new vistas and experiences. It flows without effort. It carries with it the potential for creative ideas, synchronicities and solutions to the very problems that plague you. It’s less maniacal treadmill and more like one of those super-smooth and fast-moving automatic walkways in the airport.
You see, those moving walkways are great. You can stroll along and they will boost your speed without extra effort! Alternatively, you can relax and let it take you somewhere free of charge. They are handy and welcome to any weary traveler.
Perhaps an even more fun way of “metphoring” what I’m talking about is to see time like the conveyor belt at a sushi spot I used to frequent when I lived in Bellevue, Washington. Back in the day, I would drop in and just wait for something good to come by. It was effortless! …and fun. No stress; just let life (or in this case yummy Japanese food) come right at you. The only catch was you needed to present enough to grab the plate before it cruised past you out of sight!
Said differently, time is really on your side!
The illusion of the flow of time isn’t really a problem when you view it as carrying with it something incredibly potent – the full power of a fresh moment and everything that a new moment contains. While we might be best served by enlightening ourselves with the understanding that time (and the pressure that comes with it) is concocted by the mind, we don’t need to wait and hope for that insight.
In the hum-drum routines of daily life, when your boss is on your case about a project and clients are clamming for your time, you can rest on the magic walkway of time and feel less pressured to manage it. Instead, allow it to move you along to the next moment where you can focus on whatever task is most deserving of your precious attention.