Talking to Lao Tzu About Time Management

What if Lao Tzu — purported author of the Tao te Ching — came back to life and we tried to explain time management and goal setting to him?

How would he respond?

It’s easy to dismiss this thought experiment. After all, Lao Tzu died over two millennia ago. We’d have to catch him up on centuries of human history and teach him a few things about our technology besides.

Impossible, right?

But consider how much about our species has not changed since Lao Tzu lived.

We’re still dealing with same primordial human problems, after all — our longing for sex, success, and material comfort.

Our interpersonal conflicts and struggles to coexist with people who differ from us.

Our attachment to pleasure and our aversion to pain (especially in the midst of a global pandemic).

And, above all, our coming to terms with death.

Lao Tzu looked deeply into all of these issues and spoke directly to them in the Tao te Ching.

So let me imagine the impossibly old man smiling enigmatically at my questions. Instead of answering them directly, however, he’d ask for a pencil and paper to put his response in writing.

Perhaps — in the spirit of the Tao te Ching — he’d compose something along the following lines.


What is most real cannot be named.
What is closest to us and most ordinary is the greatest mystery.
Time is like this and defies every attempt to control it.
Even the most finely honed effort will not expand or contract it.

When we stop trying to explain time, we know what it is.
When we stop trying to control it, time opens into eternity
And our burdens are lifted.

Acting without intention, we accomplish all our plans.


People place great faith in planning and doing.
In setting and achieving goals, they seek fulfillment.

Instead of wealth, they seek money.
Instead of honor, they seek fame.
Instead of loving, they seek lovers.
In restless activity, they seek stillness.
In impermanent things, they seek permanent happiness.
In acquiring things that decay, they seek immortality.

All this effort burdens us with complexity.
The means are all we know, and the ends elude us.


People forget that every solution creates a new problem.
Every success creates a fear of its loss.
Every completion gives birth to something unfinished.
Every goal achieved creates a condition that changes.
Every achievement points to an area where we are still lacking.


Moments of joy are timeless, but people seek them in time.
Happiness comes uninvited, but people try to control it.
Peace comes by releasing struggle, but people try to force it with willpower.
Serenity comes when we relax the body-mind, but people grasp at it by redoubling their efforts.


When people sit in stillness and wait for what comes from silence,
They see that time does not exist and there is nothing to do.
From that same stillness they enter the marketplace and do their work.
They make friends, make love, pay taxes, and cultivate gardens,
Understanding that activity proceeds from prior fulfillment.


Nothing that I have to say is new.
Fulfillment is full feeling — pleasant or unpleasant — without resistance.
Happiness is immediate.
Peace is already present.
If you can’t awaken where you’re already standing
Then where will you go to do it?

What keeps people from seeing this is their belief
That nothing simple can be true
That nothing worthwhile can come from relaxing effort
Even for one moment.


What if this is all there is
And it never gets any better than this?
Can you live with that?

Is the present moment really so difficult
When you relax into it with no resistance?

Get rid of your problems in one stroke, right now.
Either do something about them or stop dwelling on them.


When teachers present their personal preferences with the force of law,
Their tools and techniques sound like prescriptions,
Though they are merely options that you can take or leave.

Tools and techniques are not the point.
Simplicity is.

Productive people are divinely lazy.
They create the desired result with the least possible effort.

If you want to change your behavior, then take it easy
And don’t ever try.
Don’t attempt anything that depends on motivation or willpower.
The minute that you step on the exercise mat
Celebrate the act of showing up.
Anything that happens after that
Is beside the point.


Contemplate death daily.
Focus on people as well as projects.
Life is only relationship.
Nothing else matters.


Planning means choosing what not to do.
Release is peace.

When we pay attention to what’s happening right now,
Life changes in ways that we cannot explain or predict.
We cannot force a new quality of life to appear.
We cannot schedule transformation
Or make an appointment with paradise.

Paradise can only be recognized, not created.
Fulfillment takes place outside of effort, outside of seeking, outside of time.
We can only act with exquisite attention and release our preferences.
We can open ourselves and wait
While God and grace do the rest.