Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
by Oliver Burkeman
Four Thousand Weeks puts everything else you read or learn about time management and productivity into a better, more meaningful context. Don’t read it; instead, experience it. Let it have the serious impact on your life that your life deserves.
After basking in the warm promises of ever so many other books on time management, this one felt like a plunge into the icy water. Shocking but clarifying at the same time. A leap from the warm, comforting pretense that, if we find just the right combination of tools, we can get it all done into the cold reality that we can’t. And by the way, here’s a reminder that life is absurdly short, so what will you do with it?
The title comes from the fact that if we live to age 80, we get about 4,000 weeks of life. A span of time that author Oliver Berkman calls outrageously brief in the grand scheme of things. And from there, the book continues to cast a cold, hard eye on the idea of productivity, beginning with our notions about time itself.
As a Guardian feature writer, Burkeman wrote a column, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” He’s also the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and several other books. Of course, the book is well crafted—repetitious in places, but I assume that’s for effect.
In the author’s words, “Four Thousand Weeks is written in the belief that time management as we know it has failed miserably and that we need to stop pretending otherwise. [It’s] an exploration of a saner way of relating to time and a toolbox of practical ideas for doing so, drawn from the work of philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers… to see if we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks. [It] sketches a kind of life that’s vastly more peaceful and meaningful—while also, it turns out, being better for sustained productivity over the long haul.”
This summary reflects my takeaways from a useful book I recommend to others. Reading a summary isn’t a substitute for reading the book. There’s much more than I can cover here. Plus, this is my interpretation. If these ideas resonate with you, I encourage you to get a copy from your favorite bookseller. Here are the Amazon links: eBook | Audiobook | Print
Unless otherwise noted, all quotes should be attributed to the book’s author.
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, within a century, people wouldn’t have to work over fifteen hours a week. Of course, that was ultimately off base because people find additional needs and new lifestyles to aspire to when they have enough money to cover their needs. As a result, we’re working longer and harder, turning that into a social status symbol.
Life feels like a conveyor belt. As we complete one set of assignments, another set appears. We get more efficient at answering emails, and we get more emails. We learn to speed through our to-do lists, and we find more to do. With all our technology, time should be plentiful, but life speeds up, and we become more impatient.
We’ve rebranded busyness as “hustle,” but it’s the same old problem pushed to the extreme. The stress of trying to fit more into the same time. As Marilynne Robinson put it, “the spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency…” The root of our problem is a set of beliefs we’ve inherited about how to spend our limited time that will only worsen our situation if left unchallenged.
So, let’s admit defeat. Clearing the decks speeds up the restocking process, making things more efficient makes you more rushed. There will never come a time when you have everything under control. And “work-life balance” is a myth. However, realizing this can be liberating.
Embracing Life’s Limits
With our current way of looking at time, we’ve forgotten that it’s just a way of thinking. And instead of living our lives as they unfold in time, we value each moment based on its usefulness for a future goal. Our inherited beliefs about time rig the game, so we can never feel successful.
In a world before clocks, life had a “task orientation” where the rhythms of life emerged organically from the seasons and tasks at hand. When time became separate from life, time became a thing you used and could be bought and sold. When time is a resource, you feel pressure to use it well.
The notion that we can achieve total control flies in the face of reality. Since what we want and what others want from us is limitless, it leaves us feeling out of control. Too many demands leave us feeling that we can never do enough or, worse, that we aren’t enough.
Once we face reality—that we won’t have time to do everything we want or what others want us to do—we can stop beating ourselves up for failing.
Our limited amount of time ultimately defines us. Most productivity strategies make things worse by avoiding the reality that tough choices are inevitable. A productive, meaningful life results when you face the facts of finitude and work with them rather than against them.
I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.
The Efficiency Trap
Parkinson’s Law: “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” This applies to everything that needs to be done. The definition of “what needs to be done” expands to fill the available time.
Existential overwhelm: The modern world offers infinite worthwhile things, creating an unbridgeable gap between what you want to do and what you can do.
The efficiency trap: There is no such thing as “enough time.” Increasing demands will offset any gains from implementing productivity techniques or pushing yourself harder. You create more work.
The worst part of the efficiency trap is that quantity displaces quality. The more you believe you can fit everything in, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask if an activity is the best use of your time. As a result, your days get filled with the trivial and the tedious, and essential tasks are further delayed.
We need an “anti-skill” to deal with the stress of feeling too busy and stave off the impulse to do more. The skill to focus on what’s essential while “tolerating the discomfort” of knowing the decks are filling up with other things we may never get to.
Effective time management involves learning to procrastinate well, acknowledging our limitations, and deciding accordingly. Psychological freedom comes from giving up the fantasy of doing everything and concentrating on a few things that matter, and being okay with our choices.
Looking back at the end of your life, whatever captivated your attention from moment to moment will have defined your life.
One can waste years systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.
Rather than having a limited amount of time, from Heidegger’s perspective, we are a limited amount of time. Time and our limited amount of it aren’t just things we have to deal with; instead, they are the things that define us as humans before anything else. What Heidegger called “finitude.”
Most of us avoid confronting finitude by seeking distractions or losing ourselves in busyness. Living in denial that our limited time means nothing is at stake when we choose to do something with our time.
Heidegger argues that living a truly authentic life, being fully human, means facing up to the fact that finitude defines our lives. The only way to become genuinely present—to take full ownership of our limited time—is to confront the fact that our lives are finite.
If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being and on what a small amount of that being you get—you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.
Becoming a Better Procrastinator
Time management isn’t about how to get everything done; it’s about choosing what not to do and being at peace with the choice. The goal isn’t to eliminate procrastination, but to become better at choosing wisely so you can focus on what’s important.
The Art of Creative Neglect
1. Pay yourself first. You’ll be disappointed when you try to find time for your essential activities by trying to clear out your other obligations first. If a particular activity is important to you, do at least some today, no matter how little, and even if other things beckon for your attention.
2. Reduce your work in progress. When you start many projects at once, you may feel you are making progress on all fronts, but in reality, you make no progress since you can switch projects whenever one becomes difficult or tedious.
3. Resist the allure of middling priorities. These are the ambitions that aren’t important enough to form the core of your life but seductive enough to distract you from the ones that do. The moderately appealing projects can waste time in a world of so many significant projects.
The good procrastinator accepts they can’t do everything and chooses wisely what to ignore. Bad procrastinators are paralyzed by their inability to face their limitations. Every choice requires sacrificing countless alternatives, so there’s no point in avoiding commitments, hoping you can prevent losses.
Settling is inevitable. Even striving is settling.”You must settle, in a relatively enduring way, upon something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,” Robert Goodin writes in On Settling.
The proper measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
Paying with Your Attention
Attention is not a “resource.” Attention is life. Your experience of being alive consists of everything you pay attention to. Whatever captivates your attention from moment to moment defines your life. When you pay attention to something, you are literally paying with your life.
Our devices don’t just distract us from important things. They redefine “important things” because of the attention economy, which favors what is most compelling over what is most accurate or useful.
Both persuasive design and variable rewards are psychological techniques borrowed from slot machine designers to encourage compulsive behavior in social media. But, if Silicon Valley is an invading force in the war for our attention, we’re often willing corroborators in our seeking of distractions.
We Don’t “Have” Time
Hofstadter’s Law: Any task will always take longer than you expect, even when Hofstadter’s Law is considered. Thus, the conventional planning advice to give yourself twice as much time could make things worse.
The obsessive planner wants reassurances from the future that the future can’t provide. “We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command.” But, a plan is only a present-moment statement of intent—an expression of how we’d like to exert our influence over the future. The future doesn’t have to comply.
You Are Here
The instrumentalization of time: Too often, our focus is on where we’re going rather than where we are–everything we do is valuable only as far as it lays the groundwork for something else. But life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which we’ll miss if we’re just focused on the destination.
We live in an economy “that is instrumentalist to its core,” so it’s not entirely our fault that we approach our finite time this way. In some countries, people can enjoy life more fully because they are less interested in instrumentalizing life for future profit.
Treating time this way helps us maintain the illusion that we’re in control. But in our obsession with maximizing our future value, we miss that the moment of truth is always now. Alexander Herzen writes, “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up, but a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment… Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late.”
“Be here now” is not a choice. Trying to live in the moment implies that you are separate from it, so you can either succeed or fail. It’s yet another instrumentalist attempt to use the moment. When you recognize you don’t have any other choice but to be here now, you can live in the present more fully.
Between the Calvinists and the Industrial Revolution, work became the center of life, and leisure was relegated to a supporting role. This changed the social contract: You could do whatever you wanted with your time off if it improved or did not hurt your job performance. This gave rise to spending our time off “well.” Leisure is acceptable for work recovery or self-improvement, but any activity that doesn’t create future value is idleness.
We must stop spending every minute instrumentally to live our only life to the fullest. To experience authentic leisure, we have to spend a bit of our time “wastefully” focused on the pleasure of the experience.
For the Calvinists, hard work and thrift would prove to themselves and others that they belong to the “elect,” those destined to spend eternity in heaven, and idleness might indicate that you were already damned.
We think we’re beyond such superstitions, but a form of “eternal salvation” is behind our distaste for time-wasting. We fill every hour of the day with some form of striving in the belief that it’s leading us somewhere—to an imagined future state in which everything runs smoothly and we don’t need to justify our existence. The more you put a future value on each moment—as opposed to experiencing them for what they are—the more you erode the value of your precious four thousand weeks.
We are the sum of all the moments in our lives—all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it. ― Thomas Wolfe
Sabbath Serves a Purpose
The Sabbath is a time for rest and reflection, but it’s not as simple as not working. We don’t downshift easily. The Jewish and Puritan Sabbath rules recognized it takes determination and preparation bolstered by habit and social sanction to take a break from striving and use the time to rest and reflect.
The Sabbath says that whatever you have accomplished by Friday night (or Saturday night) is enough. On this day of rest and reflection, you don’t have to do anything else to justify yourself.
The Impatience Spiral
We make ourselves miserable when we feel entitled to make the world move at our preferred speed. The faster we move, the clearer it becomes that we will never get ourselves or the world moving at the pace we believe is needed.
We also suffer the effects of a culture with an ever-increasing expectation about how quickly things should move. Rather than letting reality unfold at its own pace, we feel the pressure to race toward a solution—any solution, so long as it assures us we’re in control.
Patience is a powerful tool that can help you gain a sense of ownership over your life and experiences. When you accept things take the time they take and that working faster won’t calm your worries, you can dive into life with clear-eyed awareness of your limitations. Psychotherapists call it a “second-order change” because it reframes everything.
Three Principles of Patience
1. Get comfortable having problems. Besides the specific problem we’re facing, we believe we shouldn’t have any problems, if only subconsciously. Life is never going to be problem-free and would be meaningless without problems. “The presence of problems in your life isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence, but the very substance of one.”
2. Adopt radical incrementalism. Know when to stop working, even when you’re buzzing with energy and think you could accomplish much more. Get up and walk away when you have worked on a project for the allocated time. Your patience will be strengthened by stopping and returning to the task later.
3. Recognize that originality lies beyond the mundane. Pursuing the unconventional right out of the gate can keep you from learning the ropes first. Patience is required. On the other hand, getting stuck in the conventional leads to banal work.
Experiencing Time Together
Time is also a “network good” whose value depends on how well your schedules sync with others. Some things, like time with loved ones, the ability to plan events, and even the sense of community that’s in the air on holidays, depend on shared schedules. This means we have to give up some of our freedom.
What kind of freedom do we really want when it comes to time? There’s the culturally celebrated goal of individual time sovereignty—the freedom to make your own choices, set your own schedule, and avoid interference from others. But falling in line with your surrounding world’s rhythms is sometimes necessary and can give you a profound sense of meaning: taking part in worthwhile collaborative endeavors requires some sacrifices of your control.
Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
It can be unsettling to question the point of your life’s work. But it shows that something has changed. You can only consider such questions if you accept you can’t rely on future fulfillment. From this new vantage point, you can finally ask the most fundamental time management question: “What would it mean to spend the only time I’ll ever get in a way that truly feels like I am making it count?”
A life devoted to achieving mastery over time will always feel provisional. Because we are nothing more than the moments of our lives, we can never dominate them. There will always be too much to do and problems to face. Accepting this can help us be in the present moment, which is the only place we can make the most of what we have.
Five Questions to Get Started
- Where are you pursuing comfort when discomfort would serve you better?
- Are you holding yourself to impossible standards of productivity and performance?
- In what ways are you still struggling to accept yourself for who you are rather than what you think you should be?
- Where are you holding back until you feel you know what to do?
- How would you spend your days if you didn’t care about seeing the outcomes of your actions?
To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying.
“You could think of this book as an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope. Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it—that this is just a dress rehearsal, and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.”
Book details and where to buy it:
Amazon rating: 4.6 of 5 stars
Goodreads rating: 4.3 of 5 stars
Page count: 290
Publication date: Aug. 10, 2021
Author website: https://www.oliverburkeman.com
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