Easter for Unbelievers

In the atheist blogosphere today, one finds a somewhat embarrassed acknowledgement of the feast of Easter. Thus for example Brian Leiter says, “Happy Easter… from the Antichrist,” namely himself, and John Loftus says, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

There are a number of problems with this attitude.

First, it is self-refuting. If Loftus thinks that Easter shouldn’t be treated as a special day, then he should not treat it as a special day, which means that he should not go out of his way to mention it.

Second, as I pointed out in an earlier post, whether you should treat the traditions of your ancestors with respect is a different question from the question of whether the beliefs of your ancestors were true. Loftus assumes that if you think the response to the latter question is negative, you should also think that response to the former question is negative. But this is an unjustified assumption, and is unlikely to be true. It is however typical of Loftus, who frequently attempts to justify his practice of ridiculing believers.

Third, there is a more basic point concerning the celebration of feasts and holidays in general. The meaning of the feast is never wholly exhausted by the historical particulars on which it is based. Francis Hunt says about the case of Easter,

In my own personal journey – for I was born and raised a Catholic – it was the realization that I did not, in fact, believe in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead which led me to stop referring to myself as a Christian, even before I was willing to admit to myself that I did not believe in God either. I still have great admiration for the figure of Jesus, for much of the message he preached, for his integrity, his courage, his gentleness, his insights into life and human nature, his radical message of how we could find a way to live as individuals and communally by following better, more noble ideals than those of competition with and dominance over each other. But none of this makes me a Christian, for I do not believe (have faith) that he was the son of God who died, was buried and on the third day rose from the dead.

All of this said, I do not believe that Easter is irrelevant, or that we should not celebrate it. One of the strengths of Christianity (as of all great religions) is its ability to take the most central human experiences and weave them into a narrative which gives us eternally sense-seeking humans some kinds of answers to the questions and mysteries which we constantly experience in living our lives. From our first emergence into (self-)consciousness hundreds of thousands of years ago up to the last handful or two of decades, our human experience has been existentially and immanently connected with the basic course of nature, the year, the seasons. Winter is that season where our survival, our very existence is acutely threatened – it is that time where it is often extremely difficult to find enough nourishment and shelter from the elements to just continue living. If spring does not come soon we will die. And when the days finally become longer and warmer, when nature finally produces enough new life to ensure that we will not starve, that is surely a reason for celebrating. Moreover, having survived a time where much of the world seemed cold and bare and lifeless, it is natural that our thoughts should turn to the cycle of dying and the birth of new life out of that death.

Although Christians like to think that their story is original, nearly all the memes which are gathered together in the Easter narrative are general human ones which can be found in many religions and philosophies; death and the triumph of life over death, the strength of weakness, the suffering of the righteous and their vindication, the belief that justice is ultimately stronger than human power constellations, the sacrifice of the gentle king for the good of the land and the people, even the incarnate god. What makes Christianity unique is its insistence on the essential historicity of its teaching and its consequent claim to universal validity and truth.

As a non-believer I can still be touched and moved by the powerful drama and deep insights into life and the human condition contained in the Easter story. I can find inspiration in a message which proclaims hope beyond hopelessness, vindication beyond failure, new joy beyond despair. Where I cannot journey with the Christians is their assertion that their narrative is a basically factual statement of a particular, explicit, essential intervention of an all-powerful, all-loving God into history with reality-transforming ontological consequences on a cosmic – and even para-cosmic eternal (beyond all space and time) – level. And, of course, it is precisely this assertion which is the heart of the message for Christians.

I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right. I can remember my own years as a believer (or, more accurately, as one who wanted to believe), I can remember the impression of desolation and emptiness I had when the sacrament was moved to a side-altar, the empty tabernacle door left heart-achingly open, the cross on the altar draped in a purple shroud. I remember the feeling of joy and lightness spreading through a darkened church during the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night as the Easter fire is kindled, the Easter candle lit from it and then the light springing from candle to candle in the church, accompanied by the thrice-repeated responsory, Lumen Christi – Deo Gratias. Much of this is, of course, wonderfully staged theatre, (holy) smoke and mirrors, but the feelings induced are none the less real for all that. There is a deep part of us which has a need for, and responds to ritual and solemnity and the only demand I would place on such ritual is that it should be honestly and well done.

Hunt is not using very precise language here, but his basic point is that Easter is not exhausted by the particular claim that Jesus rose from the dead, but the feast is also meant to express certain universal truths. And this would be a sufficient reason for a person to celebrate the feast of Easter, even if they do not believe the particular historical claim about Jesus.

The basic issue is that if a feast had no meaning apart from historical particulars, then there would no reason for us to celebrate it, just as I do not institute a feast to celebrate the fact that I ate breakfast on January 1st, 1990. In a similar way, in the second volume of his work Jesus of Nazareth, Joseph Ratzinger says about the resurrection of Jesus,

Now it must be acknowledged that if in Jesus’ Resurrection we were dealing simply with the miracle of a resuscitated corpse, it would ultimately be of no concern to us. For it would be no more important than the resuscitation of a clinically dead person through the art of doctors. For the world as such and for our human existence, nothing would have changed.

Ratzinger goes on to assert that the resurrection of Jesus changes the world in ways that are likely to be denied by unbelievers. And here there may be a real issue. Every feast and holiday is intended to celebrate universal truths, not merely historical particulars. But that does not necessarily imply that the purported universal truths are actually universal truths: they may be partial truths, or even complete falsehoods. And in that case, one might indeed question whether the feast should be celebrated at all.

One response is that the feast almost certainly has more than one meaning, and consequently one can concentrate on the true meanings. Thus Francis Hunt, in the quoted passage, gives his attention to things which will be likely to be accepted by unbelievers.

But I would argue instead that the principal meaning of Easter is actually true, even in a way which is accessible to unbelievers. Fr. Thomas Bolin, in a homily for one of the Sundays of Lent, explains the joy of Easter:

Today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, for the introit of today’s Mass, which begins with the words “Laetare, Jerusalem.” This day is similar to “Gaudete Sunday”, the third Sunday of Advent. For these two Sundays, we wear rose vestments instead of violet, and each Sunday is around the middle of the season. Therefore, today, in the heart of Lent, we begin to anticipate the joy of Easter.

The texts of today’s liturgy express this joy in particular with the image of the joy of the Jerusalem freed from her oppressors. Not only the introit, but also the gradual, “Laetatus sum”, the tract, “Qui confidunt”, which the schola sang before the Gospel, and also the chant for communion, “Jerusalem quae aedificatur ut civitas” (meaning, “Jerusalem, which is built as a city”); all these make reference to Jerusalem and the joy of living there in peace and freedom.

St. Paul, in the first reading, explains that Jerusalem, the physical city, is not such a perfect and happy place. Instead, he says that the physical Jerusalem is a slave, while only “that Jerusalem which is above, is free” (Gal 4:26). Therefore, the true joy of Jerusalem is the happiness of the heavenly city. This joy is the same as that of Easter, which we eagerly anticipate, because with His death and resurrection, Jesus opened the gates of Paradise.

I have been in Jerusalem and can testify that St. Paul’s claims remain true to this day. Even if it is not “a slave” to the Romans, it remains a rather unhappy city. However, an objection might arise at his point. I claimed above that the meaning of Easter is accessible to unbelievers. But if the joy of Easter is the joy of the heavenly city, then it seems to be inaccessible to unbelievers, or at least to those who do not believe in the existence of heaven.

But even this depends on how you understand the heavenly Jerusalem itself. It is possible to look at this in the sense of ideal form which we strive to imitate as perfectly as possible. In this way, in chapter 6 of his work On the Perfection of the Spiritual Life, St. Thomas says that one should strive for heavenly virtue even in this life:

When St. Paul had said, “Not as though I had already attained, or were already perfect,” and, “but I follow after, if I may by any means lay hold,” he added shortly afterwards, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, be thus minded.” From these words we can see that although the perfection of the blessed is not possible to us in this life, we ought, to strive to imitate it as far as we can. And it is in this that the perfection of this life consists to which we are invited by the counsels.

For it is manifest that the human heart is more intensely drawn to one thing, to the degree that it is drawn back from many things. Thus the more a man is freed from the affection for temporal things, the more perfectly his mind will be borne to loving God. Hence St. Augustine says that “the desire of temporal things is the poison of charity; the growth of charity is the diminishment of cupidity, and the perfection of charity is no cupidity.” (Eighty-Three Questions, Book 83, Quest. 1). Therefore all the counsels, which invite us to perfection, aim at this, that man’s mind be turned away from affection to temporal objects, so that his mind may tend more freely to God, by contemplating him, loving him, and fulfilling his will.

It is possible to strive for perfection in this way whether or not “the perfection of the blessed” is something that exists in the real world. And it is possible for someone to view the perfection of the heavenly Jerusalem in a similar way, namely as an ideal form that the world strives for, but that it actually achieves only to a limited degree.

There are of course unbelievers who would deny even this sort of perfection, except as something that human beings invent for themselves. Richard Dawkins is a good example, since he asserts that reality is intrinsically “indifferent,” rather than ordered towards good. Someone who consistently holds such a position would indeed have no reason to celebrate Easter. But such a person equally would have no reason to do anything at all, since as I said in the linked post, if there is no purpose to life “at bottom,” there would likely be no purpose worth pursuing, even on the surface.

But in fact the world is ordered towards good, and tends to achieve it, although not perfectly, and it also tends to get better, as I have argued elsewhere. This implies that the joy of Easter has a meaning which is accessible to unbelievers, and can be a reason for them to celebrate the feast, much as Francis Hunt argues, although his argument is a bit vaguer. Of course, a believer is likely to respond that this would be a vastly diminished understanding of Easter. And this is true: as Hunt says, “I am aware that many believers may see my position as impoverished. If their belief should be true, then they are right.” But this is hardly a reason for the believer to say, “You aren’t allowed to celebrate Easter unless you believe all of it,” nor for the unbeliever to say, “Since I don’t think anything significant happened on Easter I’m not treating it as a special day.”

This is why, despite my personal opinions, I attended an Easter Vigil liturgy last night; why I just finished listening to a rendering of the Exultet; and why in general I am not embarrassed at all by the celebration of Easter.

In that spirit, happy Easter to all!


Eliezer Yudkowsky on AlphaGo

On his Facebook page, during the Go match between AlphaGo and Lee Sedol, Eliezer Yudkowsky writes:

At this point it seems likely that Sedol is actually far outclassed by a superhuman player. The suspicion is that since AlphaGo plays purely for *probability of long-term victory* rather than playing for points, the fight against Sedol generates boards that can falsely appear to a human to be balanced even as Sedol’s probability of victory diminishes. The 8p and 9p pros who analyzed games 1 and 2 and thought the flow of a seemingly Sedol-favoring game ‘eventually’ shifted to AlphaGo later, may simply have failed to read the board’s true state. The reality may be a slow, steady diminishment of Sedol’s win probability as the game goes on and Sedol makes subtly imperfect moves that *humans* think result in even-looking boards. (E.g., the analysis in https://gogameguru.com/alphago-shows-true-strength-3rd-vic…/ )

For all we know from what we’ve seen, AlphaGo could win even if Sedol were allowed a one-stone handicap. But AlphaGo’s strength isn’t visible to us – because human pros don’t understand the meaning of AlphaGo’s moves; and because AlphaGo doesn’t care how many points it wins by, it just wants to be utterly certain of winning by at least 0.5 points.

IF that’s what was happening in those 3 games – and we’ll know for sure in a few years, when there’s multiple superhuman machine Go players to analyze the play – then the case of AlphaGo is a helpful concrete illustration of these concepts:

He proceeds to suggest that AlphaGo’s victories confirm his various philosophical positions concerning the nature and consequences of AI. Among other things, he says,

Since Deepmind picked a particular challenge time in advance, rather than challenging at a point where their AI seemed just barely good enough, it was improbable that they’d make *exactly* enough progress to give Sedol a nearly even fight.

AI is either overwhelmingly stupider or overwhelmingly smarter than you. The more other AI progress and the greater the hardware overhang, the less time you spend in the narrow space between these regions. There was a time when AIs were roughly as good as the best human Go-players, and it was a week in late January.

In other words, according to his account, it was basically certain that AlphaGo would either be much better than Lee Sedol, or much worse than him. After Eliezer’s post, of course, AlphaGo lost the fourth game.

Eliezer responded on his Facebook page:

That doesn’t mean AlphaGo is only slightly above Lee Sedol, though. It probably means it’s “superhuman with bugs”.

We might ask what “superhuman with bugs” is supposed to mean. Deepmind explains their program:

We train the neural networks using a pipeline consisting of several stages of machine learning (Figure 1). We begin by training a supervised learning (SL) policy network, pσ, directly from expert human moves. This provides fast, efficient learning updates with immediate feedback and high quality gradients. Similar to prior work, we also train a fast policy pπ that can rapidly sample actions during rollouts. Next, we train a reinforcement learning (RL) policy network, pρ, that improves the SL policy network by optimising the final outcome of games of self-play. This adjusts the policy towards the correct goal of winning games, rather than maximizing predictive accuracy. Finally, we train a value network vθ that predicts the winner of games played by the RL policy network against itself. Our program AlphaGo efficiently combines the policy and value networks with MCTS.

In essence, like all such programs, AlphaGo is approximating a function. Deepmind describes the function being approximated, “All games of perfect information have an optimal value function, v ∗ (s), which determines the outcome of the game, from every board position or state s, under perfect play by all players.”

What would a “bug” in a program like this be? It would not be a bug simply because the program does not play perfectly, since no program will play perfectly. One could only reasonably describe the program as having bugs if it does not actually play the move recommended by its approximation.

And it is easy to see that it is quite unlikely that this is the case for AlphaGo. All programs have bugs, surely including AlphaGo. So there might be bugs that would crash the program under certain circumstances, or bugs that cause it to move more slowly than it should, or the like. But that it would randomly perform moves that are not recommended by its approximation function is quite unlikely. If there were such a bug, it would likely apply all the time, and thus the program would play consistently worse. And so it would not be “superhuman” at all.

In fact, Deepmind has explained how AlphaGo lost the fourth game:

To everyone’s surprise, including ours, AlphaGo won four of the five games. Commentators noted that AlphaGo played many unprecedented, creative, and even“beautiful” moves. Based on our data, AlphaGo’s bold move 37 in Game 2 had a 1 in 10,000 chance of being played by a human. Lee countered with innovative moves of his own, such as his move 78 against AlphaGo in Game 4—again, a 1 in 10,000 chance of being played—which ultimately resulted in a win.

In other words, the computer lost because it did not expect Lee Sedol’s move, and thus did not sufficiently consider the situation that would follow. AlphaGo proceeded to play a number of fairly bad moves in the remainder of the game. This does not require any special explanation implying that it was not following the recommendations of its usual strategy. As David Wu comments on Eliezer’s page:

The “weird” play of MCTS bots when ahead or behind is not special to AlphaGo, and indeed appears to have little to do with instrumental efficiency or such. The observed weirdness is shared by all MCTS Go bots and has been well-known ever since they first came on to the scene back in 2007.

In particular, Eliezer may not understand the meaning of the statement that AlphaGo plays to maximize its probability of victory. This does not mean maximizing an overall rational estimate of the its chances of winning, giving all of the circumstances, the board position, and its opponent. The program does not have such an estimate, and if it did, it would not change much from move to move. For example, with this kind of estimate, if Lee Sedol played a move apparently worse than it expected, rather than changing this estimate much, it would change its estimate of the probability that the move was a good one, and the probability of victory would remain relatively constant. Of course it would change slowly as the game went on, but it would be unlikely to change much after an individual move.

The actual “probability of victory” that the machine estimates is somewhat different. It is a learned estimate based on playing itself. This can change somewhat more easily, and is independent of the fact that it is playing a particular opponent; it is based on the board position alone. In its self-training, it may have rarely won starting from an apparently losing position, and this may have happened mainly by “luck,” not by good play. If this is the case, it is reasonable that its moves would be worse in a losing position than in a winning position, without any need to say that there are bugs in the algorithm. Psychologically, one might compare this to the case of a man in love with a woman who continues to attempt to maximize his chances of marrying her, after she has already indicated her unwillingness: he may engage in very bad behavior indeed.

Eliezer’s claim that AlphaGo is “superhuman with bugs” is simply a normal human attempt to rationalize evidence against his position. The truth is that, contrary to his expectations, AlphaGo is indeed in the same playing range as Lee Sedol, although apparently somewhat better. But not a lot better, and not superhuman. Eliezer in fact seems to have realized this after thinking about it for a while, and says:

It does seem that what we might call the Kasparov Window (the AI is mostly superhuman but has systematic flaws a human can learn and exploit) is wide enough that AlphaGo landed inside it as well. The timescale still looks compressed compared to computer chess, but not as much as I thought. I did update on the width of the Kasparov window and am now accordingly more nervous about similar phenomena in ‘weakly’ superhuman, non-self-improving AGIs trying to do large-scale things.

As I said here, people change their minds more often than they say that they do. They frequently describe the change as having more agreement with their previous position than it actually has. Yudkowsky is doing this here, by talking about AlphaGo as “mostly superhuman” but saying it “has systematic flaws.” This is just a roundabout way of admitting that AlphaGo is better than Lee Sedol, but not by much, the original possibility that he thought extremely unlikely.

The moral here is clear. Don’t assume that the facts will confirm your philosophical theories before this actually happens, because it may not happen at all.


2:42 PM

It is 2:42 PM. The sky is overcast and it is raining lightly outside my window. I am sitting here at my computer pondering how to phrase this sentence and how to complete it, as well as the rest of the post. Should I explain the meaning of the story? Or I should I tell it and allow the readers to interpret it for themselves?

I am feeling a bit lazy, and I have other things to do this afternoon besides writing blog posts. This strongly inclines me to the second possibility. Yes, I am skeptical of people’s ability to interpret it. But I can always write a post later making explicit the moral of the story, if I should choose to do so.

On the other hand, it occurs to me that people are likely to adopt wildly false interpretations. This consideration certainly stands against leaving it without interpretation, but it is not decisive.

I have just been sitting here for five more minutes, trying to make up my mind. That’s settled, then. I’ll take the second path. No use wasting any more time.


Do It Tomorrow

While this title seems to promote procrastination, rightly understood it is the complete opposite. It is actually the name of a book by Mark Forster on time management which presents a response to Arnold Bennett’s question on how one can live on twenty-four hours a day.

Even before the beginning of chapter 1, Forster presents a summary of his method:

Quick Start Guide

How to get everything done by doing it tomorrow

  1. Put all the work that you are behind on in backlog folders (email, paper, etc.) and put it where you can’t see it.
  2. Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day. Group together similar activities like email, paper, phone calls and tasks. Aim to clear the lot every day.
  3. If anything is too urgent to leave to the following day, write it down on a separate list and action it at a convenient time during the day. Never take even the simplest action without writing it down first.
  4. Spend some time on clearing the contents of the backlog folder( s) first thing every day. When you’ve finally cleared them, find something else you want to get sorted and start doing that first thing every day instead.If you follow this simple process you will be totally on top of new work by tomorrow and you will be well on your way to clearing your backlog.

    This book will tell you much more about how to do this, but the method essentially consists of these four steps.

Forster’s first step is to collect together all the work where you are behind and to “put it where you can’t see it.” While there is obviously a sort of psychological motive for this, we can understand it better by looking again at a passage from Bennett’s essay:

Philosophers have explained space. They have not explained time. It is the inexplicable raw material of everything. With it, all is possible; without it, nothing. The supply of time is truly a daily miracle, an affair genuinely astonishing when one examines it. You wake up in the morning, and lo! your purse is magically filled with twenty-four hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours. It is the most precious of possessions. A highly singular commodity, showered upon you in a manner as singular as the commodity itself!

For remark! No one can take it from you. It is unstealable. And no one receives either more or less than you receive.

Talk about an ideal democracy! In the realm of time there is no aristocracy of wealth, and no aristocracy of intellect. Genius is never rewarded by even an extra hour a day. And there is no punishment. Waste your infinitely precious commodity as much as you will, and the supply will never be withheld from you. No mysterious power will say:—”This man is a fool, if not a knave. He does not deserve time; he shall be cut off at the meter.” It is more certain than consols, and payment of income is not affected by Sundays. Moreover, you cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste to-morrow; it is kept for you. You cannot waste the next hour; it is kept for you.

As we noted in the last post, Bennett is comparing time and money. Here he points out a difference: you can borrow money, spending it in advance, so that money you receive later will be already owed to another. You can get into debt. You cannot do this with time. There is no way to borrow time and spend it in advance; you can only spend the time you have now. Each day you receive anew 24 hours to spend as you will, just as everyone else does. In this sense, it is impossible to “get behind” on anything. No matter how much work you have neglected in the past, your day today is just as intact as everyone else’s.

Forster is taking advantage of this fact in order to relieve people of the burdensome feeling of “being behind.” There is a sense in which the feeling does not correspond to anything real, and consequently it is not helpful. Drop the feeling, Forster advises, and just take today as it is. This is somewhat analogous to Jesus’s advice, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Just as it is better not to worry about tomorrow, so it is better not to worry about yesterday.

As a second step, Forster says, “Collect all your incoming work during the day and deal with it in one batch the following day.” Wait a minute, you might say. What about today? If you’re going to take care of all of your incoming work tomorrow, what work will you do today?

And indeed, if you are just beginning to follow Forster’s advice, there is no need to do any work today. All you need to do is gather your “incoming” work so that you can do it tomorrow. If you receive some emails, do not answer them. Leave them for tomorrow. If people ask you to do some things for them, do not do those things. Leave them for tomorrow.

On the second day, however, you will have some work to do. You will have all of that work that you collected yesterday and did not do. Do this work, and insofar as possible, no other. Anything else that you are asked to do, collect together to be done the next day. So each day you do one day’s worth of work, and collect the next day’s work for the next day.

Why do this? Basically it a method of budgeting, of living within one’s means in terms of time. At the beginning of each day, you will have a list of work gathered yesterday. This is all the work you need to do today, more or less. If it is impossible to get that list done today, and if that happens regularly, then do not say, “I don’t have enough time to finish my work, so I will just have to leave it for later. I’ll do it when I have more time.” As Bennett said, you will never have more time, because you already have all of the time there is, and there will never be more. If each day, you are being asked to do more than a day’s worth of work, you will not do it later: you will not do it at all, because no one will ever have more than a day of time within a day. If this is happening to you, therefore, you are not living within your means, and the only thing to do is to cut your expenditure of time. Do not save those emails and say that you will answer them someday; delete them, or save them if you wish, but admit that you will not answer them at all. You will only be living within your means when you stop accepting more than a day’s worth of work within a day.

By saving today’s incoming work for tomorrow, this kind of budgeting becomes much easier, simply because it is perfectly clear at the beginning of the day how much work you plan to do. If you simply respond to things as they come up, on the same day, it will not be clear whether you are accepting more or less work than you can actually accomplish in a day, and this budgeting process becomes far more difficult.

Forster’s third step concerns things which actually cannot be put off until tomorrow; incoming work that actually must be done the same day. He suggests that you write it down on a separate list. The idea is that the list you wrote yesterday is only allowed to diminish today, not to increase, to ensure that you can finish it. Additionally, he says, before you do that extra thing for today, make sure that you write it down. By doing this, at the end of the day you will have a specific list of the “urgent” things that you did during the day. If that list is very long, and if this is typical, there is a problem, because you will likely be unable to live within your budget of time. Also, you will be able to look at the list and consider, “Is it truly urgent, or is it possible to put it on tomorrow’s list, as is the norm for work coming in today?” Writing it down presents an additional opportunity for reflection.

The last point concerns the areas where one was “behind.” You started out with this “backlog”, as Forster calls it. From now on you are not allowed to add anything to that backlog. Each day you do all of yesterday’s work: each day you are doing one day of work, and consequently that backlog cannot increase. And so you consider the act of spending a bit of time taking care of a bit of that backlog as just one of your daily tasks. Thus the backlog will only decrease, and soon it will vanish. In fact, Forster points out later in the book, “Even if you don’t make any effort to deal with the backlog it will tend to get smaller of its own accord.” Of course this is not true in a physical sense, but the idea is that the contents of the backlog will become less and less relevant over time. Suppose you receive 500 emails during the next week, and never do anything with them for the next 10 years. It will surely be pointless by that time to attempt to answer those emails. As long as you are not adding anything to your backlog, it can only diminish, and even if you do nothing about it, it can only become less relevant to your life.

Of course this simple summary does not explain everything, and the rest of the book is not useless. For example, this summary appears to say nothing about dealing with large projects that do not seem like “incoming work” from day to day.

Most people seem reluctant to try following such a system. It cannot work, they say, or at least not for me. There is simply too much that is actually urgent. Or, the book assumes that I am organizing my own day, and I am not. I spend all day at a cash register. Or I spend all day taking care of my children. These are immediate tasks that take my current attention, so I can’t be carrying out a list of things from yesterday. Or, they say, “I have too much to think about right now.” Forster explains:

The methods that I am going to be teaching are very simple. They don’t require years of learning or practice. They are the sort of things you can put into use during the course of an afternoon and find them having an immediate effect. In fact, I will give you a challenge – you can be completely organised twenty-four hours after reading this book! Does that sound possible? Well, I can assure you that it is in the sense that you can be completely on top of all your current work and have a workable plan for dealing with any backlogs of work that you may have.

Some people listen to my methods and their reaction is to say, ‘That sounds great – I’ll put it into practice just as soon as I’ve caught up with my work.’ That’s the wrong way to go about it. Put my methods into practice, and then you will be in a position to catch up with your work!

Much of the work that you consider urgent is probably less urgent than you think it is. But even if it is true that your work is truly immediate, like the work of the cashier or of the mother, this does not change the fact that you must live within your means. You have no other option, because as Bennett points out, you will never have any more or less time than you actually have. If every moment of your day is immediate in this way, then stop worrying about being “behind.” You are already doing everything you can, and nothing more can be asked of you. More likely, in reality you do have some time for yourself, some time where you can decide what you are going to do. In fact, it is perfectly obvious that this is the case, since you are currently reading this blog post. Suppose that time comes to 90 minutes each day. Then everything which does not fall into the “immediate” category is going to have to be done within that 90 minutes. Even in this situation, getting “behind” doesn’t make any sense: you simply have to reduce your commitments until you are only accepting 90 minutes worth of such commitments each day, and carrying out 90 minutes worth of such commitments.

There is another reason people fear putting this system into practice: the fear that it might actually work. The “work” that you have before you is basically a set of commitments. If you carry out the things that you have committed to do, this will affect other people, often with the result that you will receive new work. If you answer your mail or your email, you may receive responses. If you finish a project, you may be asked to start a new one.

On the other hand, if you get nothing done, after a while people will begin to stop asking you to do things, because they will see that asking is ineffective. So doing your work generates more work, and avoiding your work prevents new work from being generated. At some level people understand this, and so they fear getting too much done.

This fear is not entirely mistaken. If you do follow a system like this, one thing that must be avoided is the attempt to “get ahead.” Suppose you are working on yesterday’s list, and you finish at 3:00 PM. There is still more time in the day, so you may be tempted to start doing the work that came in today, namely so that you are working on the list that is actually meant for tomorrow. You might think this is a good idea: “This way, I’ll be totally on top of things, in fact I won’t even have any work that I need to do tomorrow!”

You will find that the opposite happens, unless you typically finish that list at 3:00 PM. It may be that things went really well and so you finished unusually early. If so, if you do more work, in essence you have done more than one day’s work in a day. And since work generates work, this will likely generate more than one day’s worth of work. And so the next day, or anyway the day after that, you will find yourself busier than ever. Instead of doing this, you should limit yourself to one day’s worth of work in a day. And if you finish unusually early one day, the rest of that day is free: do not use it for things which will simply generate more work.

Neglecting to set limits on incoming work is also a reason why someone might end up giving up this system even after putting it into practice and seeing its benefits. If you tell yourself that you will always get everything done that anyone asks you to do, the more successful you are, the more people will ask you to do, until accomplishing everything becomes physically impossible. So the setting of limits is an absolutely necessary part of the deal here.