If you feel there aren't enough hours in the day, there are a million and one gurus and companies out there willing to sell you a solution. They've got scheduling hacks, project management tools, and relevant research to offer. Some of this stuff is even useful. But even if you implement every good idea in the bunch, I've got bad news for you: You're still going to feel endlessly overwhelmed.
Is there no way out of feeling overwhelmed? There is, according to a handful of wise commentators, but it involves facing up to a brutal truth most of us go to great pains to avoid: You're never, ever going to have time to do everything you want to do.
Your problem is "too many needles."
One of the most articulate explanations of this brutal truth comes from the excellent newsletter of author Oliver Burkeman. The latest edition kicks off by discussing a common problem in our content-mad age: You've accumulated so many books and articles and podcasts you want to consume that it is impossible to get through them all.
A never-ending to read list is stressful. It also tends to lead to a lot of guilt-filled flailing between options. "You can't keep up. There is no way. And trying to keep up will probably just make you dumber," cautions educator and author Kathy Sierra in a classic post on dealing with information overload.
Commentators such as Clay Shirky claim the root cause of this stress is "filter failure." You just need to find better ways of mining the nuggets of gold from the internet's infinite pile of possibilities. Burkeman disagrees.
The problem "isn't filter failure. It's filter success. In a world of effectively infinite information, the better you get at sifting the wheat from the chaff, the more you end up crushed beneath a never-ending avalanche of wheat," he writes. As media critic Nicholas Carr has put it, you're not struggling to find a needle in a haystack. You're staring at a haystack's worth of needles.
This isn't just true of content. It's also true of things to learn, professional opportunities to pursue, people to meet. Thanks in part to technology, we're now deluged by endless possibilities for how to spend our time, but this problem predates the internet. Our lives are fundamentally time constrained. We have a limited lifespan. Feeling like there are more things you want to do than you have time for is an eternal human problem. And no filter or trick is going to save you. Only acceptance will.
"The only way to deal with a too-many-needles problem is to confront the fact that it's insoluble -- that you definitely won't be fitting everything in," Burkeman concludes. "You have to take a stab at deciding what matters most, among your various creative passions/life goals/responsibilities -- and then do that, while acknowledging that you'll inevitably be neglecting many other things that matter too."
Giving up on getting it all done is liberating. "There's no point beating yourself up for failing to clear a backlog (of unread books, undone tasks, unrealized dreams) that it was always inherently unfeasible to clear in the first place," Burkeman notes. It is also terrifying. Like Steve Jobs looking himself in the mirror every morning and reminding himself of his own impending death, facing up to the hard limits on our time and energy is as terrifying as it is energizing.
Face this difficult truth, however, and you'll both free yourself from the franticness and guilt of not getting everything done and force yourself to make the hard, values-led choices that lead to a life well lived. And that beats every calendar hack and productivity app in the world.