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The Paradox of Limitation
When efficient isn't actually productive
There is no shortage of self-help books on the market that claim to help you find your purpose and become a more efficient and productive human being. While the aims of these works are unquestionably admirable and the guidance they offer generally helpful, they all suffer from the same fundamental flaw: they fail to recognize our limits, including the limits of our own mortality.
Rocks In A Jar
Perhaps the most famous parable taught by self-improvement gurus is the now infamous “rocks in a jar” lesson. The lesson goes like this: a teacher presents an empty jar to a class of students. He then takes some large stones and places them into the jar. He asks the class if the jar is full, to which the students reply “yes.”
The teacher then takes out some small pebbles, places them into the jar between the stones, and again asks the students if the jar is full. Of course, again they reply yes. Finally, he takes a bag of sand and pours yet more into the jar, filling in the remaining space between the stones and the pebbles. Finally, the jar is truly full.
The lesson, as the teacher explains, is that the jar represents the limits of our time, the large stones are the important things in our lives, and the pebbles and sand are everything else that vies for our attention. If one had put the sand in the jar first, the stones wouldn’t have fit. Thus, to make the most use of our time, we had better place the big stones in the jar first. That is, we must direct our attention, first and foremost, to the “important” objectives at hand. Ostensibly, this is a lesson in prioritization and time management.
A Flawed Metaphor
But the Rocks In A Jar metaphor is fatally flawed. As Oliver Burkeman notes in his book Four Thousand Weeks, the metaphor incorrectly assumes that there are a limited number of stones, pebbles, and sand to begin with. This is clearly not the case in reality.
In our lives, there are virtually limitless possibilities of things to do and direct attention to. Do we go to the movies and enjoy that latest film or do we stay home and do our taxes? Do we take up the piano or focus on writing? Do we go back to school for a higher-paying job? Respond to that tweet? Write a lengthy email or a short one? It’s not always obvious what is necessary and what is not.
Self-improvement gurus advocate getting all tasks done more quickly, coming up with all kinds of life hacks, from speed reading to time boxing, to four-hour focused work sessions, to planning each day in five-minute increments. In the end, the goal is the same; to be efficient and productive so that we may take on more. This approach to productivity and meaning is a trap.
It is not that these lessons are not useful, they are. But in the scramble for efficiency, they fail to ask what is truly worthy of our time and attention. The more productive and efficient we become, the more activities with which cram into our day, filling the surplus time that was created. On the surface, this is the goal. But peering beneath, all this really does is serve to distract from the core meaning of life, leaving it empty and hollow.
The Hamster Wheel
Instead of getting things done, it’s akin to running on a hamster wheel that inevitably eventually overpowers us when something goes awry or off-plan. Maximizing your productivity and output, and planning every minute of your day, sets you up for failure each and every time.
Instead of placing a few stones in a jar, it’s trying to siphon off an entire beach, attempting to fit every grain of sand, pebble, and stone into it. It’s not possible, the jar will break. Those who try to do everything will end up doing nothing. Their lives will be devoid of meaning, unable to get off the hampster wheel they have built, lest everything come crashing down around them.
Meaning comes from focusing on that which is most important. This concept is not far removed from the Stoic notion of the Dichotomy of Control, which I explored here. The key to a fulfilling life is identifying what really matters, is within your control, and learning the wisdom to let everything else go. At the end of the day, everything else is merely noise.
For many, this is incredibly difficult. We are told that a productive and successful person is a busy person. It’s one who maximizes output. But that output is not fulfilling if it is not meaningful. Instead, the wise person chooses a few things worthy of their time, a few important stones, and ignores most everything else. By isolating the noise, it throws everything in sharp relief, making the important truly meaningful.
As the Pareto Principle tells us, roughly 80 percent of your output, your success as a person, will come from 20 percent of your inputs. Paradoxically then, by focusing your attention on the meaningful 20 percent, by limiting yourself, you can become more productive, more successful, and with time to spare. As the Stoic philosopher Seneca proclaimed, “Life is long if you know how to use it.”