🧮 Notes on Four Thousand Weeks
Jan 25, 2022 • 10 min • Reading
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals from Oliver Burkeman is yet another way to frame productivity and time management. There are a million books out there on this subject. I know I've consumed quite a few. This one takes a refreshing approach.
Instead of stressing and hacking and systematizing your life to fit in the time you have — Accept that you have a finite amount of time. Come to terms with it. Then prioritize the things that matter. You almost definitely have too much on your plate. Quit trying to always “do more” and enjoy the things you care about most. This message resonated with me in a big way. These are the quotes that I highlighted throughout.
- Scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.
- We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.
- In the modern world, the American anthropologist Edward T. Hall once pointed out, time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new tasks as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming “more productive” just seems to cause the belt to speed up.
- Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.” The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.
- There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.
- It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required.
- The more you believe you might succeed in “fitting everything in,” the more commitments you naturally take on, and the less you feel the need to ask whether each new commitment is truly worth a portion of your time—and so your days inevitably fill with more activities you don’t especially value. The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks (or toddlers) that won’t be hurried; the more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty. And the more individual sovereignty you achieve over your time, the lonelier you get.
- All of this illustrates what might be termed the paradox of limitation, which runs through everything that follows: the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.
- In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing.
- That notion doesn’t make any sense: if you truly don’t have time for everything you want to do, or feel you ought to do, or that others are badgering you to do, then, well, you don’t have time—no matter how grave the consequences of failing to do it all might prove to be. So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken.
- We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations. We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at. Maybe you can’t keep your current job while also seeing enough of your children; maybe making sufficient time in the week for your creative calling means you’ll never have an especially tidy home, or get quite as much exercise as you should, and so on. Instead, in an attempt to avoid these unpleasant truths, we deploy the strategy that dominates most conventional advice on how to deal with busyness: we tell ourselves we’ll just have to find a way to do more—to try to address our busyness, you could say, by making ourselves busier still.
- But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory.
- The technologies we use to try to “get on top of everything” always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the “everything” of which we’re trying to get on top.
- The reason for this effect is straightforward: the more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.
- If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else.
- I gradually came to understand, is a kind of anti-skill: not the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges—to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.
- Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.
- Likewise, there’s no possibility of a romantic relationship being truly fulfilling unless you’re willing, at least for a while, to settle for that specific relationship, with all its imperfections—which means spurning the seductive lure of an infinite number of superior imaginary alternatives.
- The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.
- The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.
- The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.
- The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.
- There’s a soothing implication in de Beauvoir’s words: that despite our total lack of control over any of these occurrences, each of us made it through to this point in our lives—so it might at least be worth entertaining the possibility that when the uncontrollable future arrives, we’ll have what it takes to weather that as well.
- And so in order to be a source of true fulfillment, a good hobby probably should feel a little embarrassing; that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than for some socially sanctioned outcome.
- “It is not simply that one is interrupted,” writes Parks. “It is that one is actually inclined to interruption.” It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule.
- As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness, or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed. We grow anxious about not keeping up—so to quell the anxiety, to try to achieve the feeling that our lives are under control, we move faster. But this only generates an addictive spiral.
- Likewise, Brown argues, we speed addicts must crash to earth. We have to give up. You surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take, and that you can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster, because it isn’t within your power to force reality’s pace as much as you feel you need to, and because the faster you go, the faster you’ll feel you need to go.
- When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety, and your anxiety is transformed. Digging in to a challenging work project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice; giving a difficult novel the time it demands becomes a source of relish.
- Peck’s insight here—that if you’re willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself—would be helpful enough if it were merely a piece of advice for fixing lawn mowers and cars. But his larger point is that it applies almost everywhere in life: to creative work and relationship troubles, politics and parenting.
- This dream of somehow one day getting the upper hand in our relationship with time is the most forgivable of human delusions because the alternative is so unsettling. But unfortunately, it’s the alternative that’s true: the struggle is doomed to fail. Because your quantity of time is so limited, you’ll never reach the commanding position of being able to handle every demand that might be thrown at you or pursue every ambition that feels important; you’ll be obliged to make tough choices instead.
- We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments. To “master” them would first entail getting outside of them, splitting off from them. But where would we go? “Time is the substance I am made of,” writes Jorge Luis Borges. “Time is a river that 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.”
- You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings, can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway.
- The same realization that struck me on that park bench in Brooklyn struck the French poet Christian Bobin, he recalls, at a similarly mundane moment: “I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought an ocean of profound peace entered my heart.”
- And so we naturally tend to make decisions about our daily use of time that prioritize anxiety-avoidance instead. Procrastination, distraction, commitment-phobia, clearing the decks, and taking on too many projects at once are all ways of trying to maintain the illusion that you’re in charge of things.
And finally, Burkeman included a list of questions for you to reflect on and apply some of the above thinking to your life. I found these to be interesting prompts, and you might as well:
- James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
- Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
- In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
- How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
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