Four Thousand Weeks- how to confront the limits of your life and make the most of it.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
Oliver Burkeman 2021
Most of us will live an estimated 4,000 weeks before our expiration date kicks in. Some lucky ones may make it to 5,000 and some will live much less, but on average we will put in our 4,000 and ultimately it's up to us how to live it. A lot has been written by time management, but it seems like the more we try to control time, the further it slips away. The more things we cross off of our to-do lists, the more things pop up to replace them.
Are we living hyper-scheduled lives that are geared only to the future, when, someday, we'll finally get to do what we really want? For most of human history, clocks didn't exist and all that mattered were the sunrise, sunset, and seasons. But with the invention of the calendar and the time clock, time became a commodity- to be maximized and planned, if not always enjoyed.
Four Thousand Weeks is a look at how humans have dealt with time and how our current obsession with productivity makes us slaves to our clocks while making life somehow more full of things to do but less meaningful. Oliver Burkeman is a British journalist who primarily writes for The Guardian, but has also put out several self-help books including one of my favorites, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking.
Burkeman writes about the efficiency trap, where those who get things done are generally rewarded by being given yet more things to get done. We've all noticed how parents and bosses reward productive people by expecting more and more from them. The same holds for workplaces and society at large. We've found ways to make so many things more efficient and productive
- The internet makes information available with a click of a mouse that took weeks to gather not long ago.
- Microwave ovens and fast food make cooking and eating a much quicker proposition, compared to the hours it used to take to cut up food and bake it.
- The cell phone carries with it more power and capability than NASA in the 1960's. You can take pictures, get directions, play games, and find multiple uses that in the past required expensive equipment.
- Jobs that took many people long hours to complete can now be done by small numbers of people aided by artificial intelligence and computers.
You would think that with all this efficiency we'd have tons more free time to accomplish our goals and add meaning to our lives. But thanks to moving goalposts and problem creep, many of us feel more overworked and overwhelmed than ever. More is possible every day, and we foolishly think that we have to keep up with the expanding menu of stuff out there. (And those who are unable to keep up are left behind in a depressing limbo that often ends in substance abuse and loneliness.)
This book asks so many great questions. Are we getting the important things done, or just the easy, urgent stuff? How do we deal with the fear of missing out (FOMO) in a world of way too many streaming services, podcasts, websites, books, movies, and people? One thing that this author stresses over and over is that we have to accept our limits and admit that we can't possibly do it all. We have to make tough choices and make peace with that our limits and mortality.
There is so much great food for thought packed into every chapter that I'm having trouble summarizing it here. Basically the book is about facing reality and living in the moment with joy and humility. This is not a standard "how to do more with your time" type of self-help book. Most of the life hacks, which the author admits to having tried, don't work and in fact backfire to make you feel like you're not truly reaching your goals. There are ways to make your life more the way you want it, but it takes some soul searching and a willingness to say "no" to a lot of temptations and distraction that use up your limited time on this earth.
Here are some great nuggets of time wisdom that I got from this book:
- Parkinson's Law states that work expands to fill up the time you allocate to it. Be careful how you set things up at the beginning.
- Silicon Valley has made billions making our lives easier and smoother with technology, but they've also made things so easy they're drained lives of meaning because there's no investment of time or energy on our part.
- See your 4000 weeks as a gift to be enjoyed, not as a limit to try to overcome and resent.
- Limit your work in progress to less than 3 items at once.
- It's okay to settle sometimes. Perfectionism drains our time and our enjoyment of life.
- Distraction is a way to give up on our goals and choices. In this attention economy any number of powerful algorithms are trying to distract you and monetize your eyeballs. Wasting hours scrolling on Facebook or Twitter feels good, but takes you away from your life and goals.
- We give in to distraction because it's easier than facing the tough work ahead. How many times have you tended to procrastinate with easy busywork rather than tackling a difficult or complex assignment?
- Treat your experiences each day with reverence, and not just as stepping stones to an unknowable future.
- Learn how to rest properly- give your mind and body a chance to catch up and process what's gone before. Take up hobbies that stretch you and allow you to fail.
- Don't get addicted to speed. Not on the internet, not on the highway, and not waiting in lines. Going too fast is a way to pretend time is being conquered, but it causes more mistakes, accidents, and lost opportunities than you might expect.
- The 3 principles of patience. There will always be problems- get used to it. Embrace radical incrementalism- stop and re-start to get new energy and perspectives. Stick with your problems for uncomfortable amounts of time and unique solutions will present themselves.
- Happiness requires connection with other people. Thus proper use of time requires that we have to be able to schedule meaningful social time with others. Shift work and long schedules can destroy intimacy and families.
- Egocentricity bias makes us think we're more important than we really are. In the grand scheme of things our lives are insignificant, which is both depressing and oddly liberating.
- We want to load our calendars with plans, but unexpected things like Covid make them laughably irrelevant. There will always be FOMO, so admitting defeat ahead of time being realistic and flexible allows us to be present.
Burkeman ends the book with 5 key questions and 10 time tips. Here is a summary.
1- Where in your life or your work are you pursuing comfort, when what's called for is discomfort?
2- Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? What would happen if you gave that up?
3- In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you should be?
4- In what areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you're doing?
5- How would you spend your days differently if you didn't care about seeing your actions reach their goal? (i.e. you'd never see the final results)
Ten Time Tools
1- Adopt a fixed volume approach to your goals. No new tasks unless you accomplish older ones.
2- Serialize your lists- ideally tackle one big project at a time.
3- Decide in advance what to fail at.
4- Focus on what you've already completed, not on what's left. Keep a "done" list.
5- Consolidate your caring. Pick your battles on social media and elsewhere.
6- Embrace boredom and single purpose technology. Tech is a tool, not a distraction.
7- Seek out novelty in the mundane. Look for new pathways in life.
8- Be a researcher in relationships, ask questions, and be always curious.
9- Cultivate instant generosity. The only donations that count are the ones that you make.
10- Practice doing nothing. It's harder than you think.
40,000 weeks is worth your time, if only to get you to think about how you spend it. One reason people don't read books is because they claim there's no time. Books like this are the main reason we need to reclaim our time for learning, growth, and introspection and say no to some of the time-wasters out there. We all have a limited period of time on this Earth, and how we use it and think about it matters.