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How to stop trying to escape reality

I wrote a long piece for the Guardian last week about the alarming possibility that we don’t really have free will. I won’t rehash it here, but you can read the whole thing if you choose.


Actually, though, maybe you don't get to choose! That’s the free will sceptics’ point: since everything you ever do must be the result of prior causes (which all have their own prior causes, and so on) it looks like you never have any option but to do what you do. The philosopher Galen Strawson asks you to imagine arriving at a cake shop just before closing time, with a single £10/$10 note in your pocket. There’s one cake left, costing exactly £10/$10. It looks delicious. But there’s also someone shaking an Oxfam collection tin on the steps outside.


It seems obvious that you’re free to choose whether to buy the cake, donate the cash, or walk away. Yet everything about you – how much you like cake, how selfless you are, how hungry you happen to be right now, everything – must have been caused by some combination of your genes, your upbringing, your recent experiences, the quantum wobblings of the atoms in your environment, etcetera. Nobody makes themselves into who they are. So to be truly, radically free to choose (so the sceptics insist) you’d have to somehow step outside reality, to not be part of this vast interdependent web of causes and effects. Which you can’t. So from this viewpoint, the kind of freedom most of us instinctively believe we have must be an illusion.


No way out​

Whatever the truth about free will, it occurs to me that this same fantasy – the idea of somehow stepping outside reality, so as to control it – underlies many of the problematic approaches to time and productivity I write about here and elsewhere (and that I spent years trying to implement in my own life). It’s the desire to somehow lever yourself outside of the unfolding processes of life. To achieve a dominant position above and separate from things, like some kind of godlike air traffic controller – to be the master and commander of your time.


That’s the yearning behind the desire to “get on top of things” (note that metaphor), and behind the tendency to put important things off until you’ve “cleared the decks” of smaller tasks – or until some imaginary future point at which you’ll have got your life into proper working order and real real life can finally begin. It’s surely also the secret longing of the compulsive planner, who wants to scramble up to some vantage-point from which it might be possible to know how the future unfolds. And of the efficiency obsessive, striving to become so perfectly optimized that there’s no obligation or opportunity she’d ever have to fail at, or decline; she wants to step outside the constraints of her finite time. 


By the same token, the most fruitful and practical ways of thinking about time and productivity come down to realising that you’re already inescapably part of, and constrained by, reality – that your time is already running out, and that choosing to do anything with any given portion of it always means choosing not to do a million other things, many of which might have been equally worthwhile.


That’s why you should give up on trying to reach a phase of life that’s problem-free. It’s also why you should stop trying to clear the decks and instead just get on with doing stuff that matters, while tolerating the fact that the decks aren’t clear. And it’s why you should treat your pile of unread books and articles as a river instead of as a bucket you might one day manage to empty. 


All of which is deeply unpleasant, at first, for anyone who feels this desire to achieve mastery over life, because it means acknowledging how horribly limited and finite and ultimately mortal you really are. Still, compared to the alternative approach, it has the inestimable upside of not being completely impossible. And in the end, it’s a huge relief – and a spur to action and accomplishment – because it means giving up the futile quest to get on top of your time and seeing instead that you just are your time. (“Time is the substance I am made of,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”)


The reason you never feel on top of everything isn’t that you’re a particularly ill-disciplined loser. The reason you’ll never get on top of everything is because you’re inextricably enmeshed in the "everything" you’ve been struggling to get on top of. 


In this predicament, there’s never anything to be done but to try to spend the next few hours doing whatever seems most useful or meaningful, right now: the next most necessary thing. 


If you even have a choice, that is. 

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