Time Budgets

March 6 2021

Re-reading Essentialism.

(This also synthesizes much of the current literature on productivity, etc.)

He talks about the pressures in the modern world to say “yes” to everything. As piling on more and more, now that we have Internet etc., and then in cultures of achievers, they are most likely to say yes to lots of things, and before you know it, they have undermined their own effectiveness! (In other words, the work culture that wants to foster successful behavior, becomes one of its unwitting downfalls.)

One of the biggest ways that we can feel we can just keep piling things on is by telling ourselves that we can just go a little harder, push a little longer. Stay at the office a little longer, have a little less sleep. (“Sleep is for wimps” type of attitude encourages this.)

But of course, sleep research, which has become more and more widely circulated of late, shows that you can’t really “cheat” sleep. That for the vast majority of us, you face immediate trade-offs when you deprive yourself of the 7-9 hours of sleep you need.1 You pay for it somewhere, so it becomes another way in which our culture wants to live on credit.2

So, the upshot is this:

  • We try to live on too little sleep, as a way of pretending we have more time than we do, rather than have to face up to the finality of time. We still pay for it, but we don’t have to confront the costs we are facing.
  • This is very similar to the way our culture pushes us to spend the same money several times, by living on credit—we still pay for it, be we don’t have to confront the costs we are facing.
  • We merely push the decision out of our conscious sphere.
  • But because everyone around us might be doing the same thing, we can’t see it. What cannot be seen cannot be dealt with, and so we are awash in denial.

Conversely, what can be seen can be dealt with—and so, we can put the reality squarely in front of us:

  • We have a limited time budget
  • We will probably want to spend it wisely
  • We can do it!

We are tasked with having the self-awareness and personal rigor to do this, and make the choices squarely.

So essentialism in this sense is saying two things at once:

  1. Let’s be honest about the amount of time/effort/attention something is likely to take
  2. Let’s eliminate all of our pointless time wasting

Those are two different things that work together. The first is to be realistic about the budget in front of us to do important things. The second is to create more space by eliminating the trivial. …OR, more challengingly, the less important! This is where prioritizing can be very hard!

It is interesting to see how these are choices I have to make.

The mindset of making a choice is the key thing here. There could be an incredible number of things that are possible to create in one lifetime. But my instinct is that by being clear that it is finite, somehow, the result will be much better. The idea that there’s “all the time in the world” often seems to lead to the idea of being unfocused, and this never seems to be a helpful one.


  1. Actually, according to one book I recently read about naps (by a sleep researcher), we are actually biphasic by our very nature. We are really meant to have one period of nocturnal sleep—yes, around 8 hours; and then to have a serious nap, somewhere in the middle of the day. I have begun to experiment with this, and my initial results are that I can easily regain 2 hours of highly productive, focused time in the evening, by being willing to have two waking phases per day. ↩︎

  2. Has anyone done research or written about the relationship between living on credit and living on too little sleep? They are obviously related, just as the way we think about time and the way we think about the money are closely related. ↩︎

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© Alexander Feller 2018