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For productivity geeks, futility is a relief and a starting point


Consciously deciding what not to do, and more importantly, what categories of things you're not going to do, is liberating.

I am not going to design my own programming language, or cryptography, or likely write my own sci-fi epic, despite what my teenage self considered. And that's okay, I'm doing things I didn't know I could do then.

Prioritise, and accept limitation.


This isn't absolute though.

It is often the case one regrets more things they haven't done, than things they've attempted which then failed.

Saying effective "No"s implies the ability to then erase that No from your mind completely. This minute you have even the slightest "but what if", you haven't really prioritised anything. You've just added another daily guilt.

There are some things that I was genuinely invested in that I've eventually said "No" to with extreme ease, and have never looked back. But there are others that still haunt me to this day.

There must be more to the "No" recipe to make it effective, and I wouldn't be able to tell you what it is. But I know for a fact it's not "as simple as saying no".

PS. I think one of the pieces of that puzzle would be simple "I would like to be able to do X" where you eventually realise the new you doesn't really care about X that much after all, vs "I promise to myself to do X", where not doing it then feels like a broken promise, and letting yourself down.


IMHO: in order to say yes you are usually saying at least one or more no's. Otherwise the lack of those other no's will eat you alive.

Oddly enough, though, all those things you listed are possible if you reduce the scope and scale of the projects. Its a matter of saying no to massive undertakings and be pragmatic about it.

A "programming language" doesn't have to compete with C or rust or something equally huge. It could be a little DSL instead. "Cryptography" could be a key store or other simple encryption tool. The "sci-fi epic" could be a novella or even a short story.

But at the same time, even those undertakings might still be too large a bite to take out of your weeks.

So, as you say, prioritise and accept your own limitations.


> IMHO: in order to say yes you are usually saying at least one or more no's. Otherwise the lack of those other no's will eat you alive.

You are absolutely, 100% correct. Preach, brother!

Saying "no" kicked-off a series of events in my life that made everything so much better. It all started when my tech lead said he should say more "no"s at a scrum retrospective, and I it fit like a glove for me as well, I just didn't notice before.

I was able to move countries and actually enjoy life a little bit. I'm not saying you should do the same, but saying no to things made me focus so much better on things I say "yes" to. I feel like I'm actually living right now, not just passing by, which is ironic given the fact I've stopped doing so much shit daily.


> accept limitation

Relinquishing omnipotence isn't just liberating, it's essential. People who don't go through that developmental stage end up having breakdowns (or often break-throughs to a happier life).

Herbert Lui's reflections on Oliver Burkeman's article are well put. The key word I took was "promises". The age of individualism has made us many promises that we know in our hearts cannot be fulfilled.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his later works, went through a reversal on existential freedoms, a journey from "hell is other people" to (paraphrased) "solidarity is the only progress"

That's not an argument to reject the ideal of personal power and freedom towards a rich and well lived life, but without sensible limits it's a curse. You can't "Have it all", as the message of the 1980s poisoned us with.

Closer to home, I'll make two observations. First is that some aspects of digital technology, smart-everything, convergence, cybernetic/algorithmic control etc are also omnipotent and ultimately empty promises. At some point we will have to acknowledge "the limits to technology". We can't "know it all". Total Information Awareness is a fool's errand.

The second is equally concerning, but more subtle. Erich Fromm explains much better than can I the phenomenon of reification. This is where we objectify and abuse ourselves as exploitable commodities. This goes to the root of the whole "productivity" movement. Not setting limits on our expectations of ourselves is what Lui's interpretation of Burkeman's piece pivots on, but in a capitalist society this isn't solely our choice. We are pressured by society (work) to make that distortion of self-perception. Recognising and overcoming that is the first step, and I think that may have something to do with the "great resignation".


Good point. Yes, I personally feel like when you're fresh, anything seems possible (and it likely is) and it can be overwhelming until, like you said, you just settle on things you're not going to do. I may dip my toes into those things just for the hell of it, but I go into it knowing by the next day or three, I'm going to back out again.


Thanks for sharing this. The post turned me onto the “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” by Oliver Burkeman, which was quite a sobering eye-opener.

For those interested, I found a great summary[1] by Matt Swain of the material covered in the book



How are you going to test the gas to make sure they delivered refrigerant and not just a cheap bottle of propane or other gas. How does the agency issuing the carbon credits verify that you were in possession of the refrigerant and it was indeed destroyed? Why don’t you recycle it rather than destroy it?


These words feel like someone who took the productive path, got burned out and now this book that the author mentions is an antidote to be able to accept its own laziness and procastination.