🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
- Burkeman argues that time is our most precious resource, and we need to be intentional about how we use it.
- He encourages readers to embrace the idea of "enough" and resist the endless pursuit of productivity and success, instead focusing on what truly matters to them.
- Ultimately, the book offers practical advice on how to cultivate a sense of purpose, prioritize what's important, and find fulfillment in the time we have.
Four Thousand Weeks is the average lifespan of a human being.
Burkeman, who also wrote and published several other books around this topic, makes the point that our popular modern aim towards ever-increasing productivity is misguided and leads to an unfulfilled life. It makes sense at first, because running after the mindless completion of more and more tasks and measuring one’s success and self-worth this way just doesn’t seem right, but I’m still not entirely sure I understand what he’s saying.
It comes down to the pursuit of happiness of the individual. Answering the question of what constitutes a lifetime well spent is highly subjective. Deciding to spend this life by accomplishing a lot isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in my opinion. It’s possible to balance this with everything else in a healthy way, and that’s the main secret we’re all trying to solve: where exactly is the perfect balance for each of us?
After having read lots of books which are clearly and openly pro-productivity, it’s refreshing to read someone who challenges this widely accepted belief that pure productivity is plainly good. I think this book is a burnout prevention book and should be understood in that way. It’s no universal truth and not applicable to everyone, but for myself I have found many interesting points of view in it.
Especially when working as a CEO of a company, like I do, the amount of tasks required is endless and could fill the whole 24 hours of every single day, and that’s also true for many other jobs, of course. There seems to always be something more to do. Pausing and reflecting on the question of why certainly is helpful sometimes. It will often turn out that it’s no life-or-death situation, but some of us, including me, have to be regularly reminded of that in order to combat the anxiety.
There was a phrase which blew my mind when I first read it, a Jay Jennifer Matthews quote, regarding the popular way of living by constantly trying to make the most of it, saying that we cannot get anything out of life, because there’s no outside where we could take this thing to. Matthews is absolutely right, so why do we feel this way? Is it because we somehow subconsciously believe there’s something else after death which would benefit from us having taken everything out of life? It seems a bit nihilistic to see life this way, and for me it’s difficult to take a smart conclusion from this statement, but it certainly makes me think.
This book adds the relevant question “But which things and why?” to David Allen’s classic book “Getting Things Done”.
🍀 How the Book Changed Me
- I sometimes feel like I’m on the verge of a burnout, having run my own company with a bunch of employees now for 12 years, but this book made me realize that it’s probably not the possibility of a burnout that gives me anxiety, but rather the growing amount of perceived responsibility for my employees. Good thing this is going to change in summer, because I’m getting a partner to share it and reflect on it together.
- Although not new to me, the idea of “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy” is hugely helpful sometimes. When the pressure adds up and the stakes feel like they’re increasing, remembering our own finite existence and that it all doesn’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things, is healthy and calms me down.
- One of the book’s main points, that we should put more importance on the Now instead of spending most of our time preparing for our future is problematic in certain regards, but it’s quite possibly also neglected in many people’s day-to-day. Making conscious efforts to be present has lots of benefits, especially when you have kids.
Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead
On almost any meaningful timescale, as the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, ‘we will all be dead any minute’. It follows from this that time management, broadly defined, should be everyone’s chief concern.
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.
As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige. Which is clearly completely absurd: for almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.
‘The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,’ writes the essayist Marilynne Robinson [in 2015].
[..] time management as we know it has failed miserably, and we need to stop pretending otherwise.
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.
Part I: Choosing to Choose
If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for ‘staying on top of things’ and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them.
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.
Before, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of. Afterwards, once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used [..].
The fundamental problem is that this attitude towards time sets up a rigged game in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough.
It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.
The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.
Though I’d been largely unaware of it, my productivity obsession had been serving a hidden emotional agenda. For one thing, it helped me combat the sense of precariousness inherent to the modern world of work: if I could meet every editor’s every demand, while launching various side projects of my own, maybe one day I’d finally feel secure in my career and my finances.
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.
‘You teach best what you most need to learn.’ – Richard Bach
None of that will be solved by self-help alone; as the journalist Anne Helen Petersen writes in a widely shared essay on millennial burnout, you can’t fix such problems ‘with vacation, or an adult coloring book, or “anxiety baking”, or the Pomodoro Technique, or overnight fucking oats’.
None of us can single-handedly overthrow a society dedicated to limitless productivity, distraction and speed. But right here, right now, you can stop buying into the delusion that any of that is ever going to bring satisfaction.
Fit a bit more activity into each day’s container, he suggests, and you’ll reach the serene and commanding status of finally having ‘enough time’. But that wasn’t true in 1908, and it’s even less true today.
Figure out how to spend enough time with your kids and at the office, so you don’t feel guilty about either, and you’ll suddenly feel some new social pressure: to spend more time exercising or to join the parent–teacher association – oh, and isn’t it finally time you learned to meditate?
‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,’ the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law.
But the choice you can make is to stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in, because that just makes matters worse.
The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.
The more efficient you get, the more you become ‘a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations’, in the words of the management expert Jim Benson.
What’s needed instead in such situations, 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.
Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.
[..] the core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done – that’s never going to happen – but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.
The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed.
The alternative approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items.
The good procrastinator accepts the fact that she can’t get everything done, then decides as wisely as possible what tasks to focus on and what to neglect. By contrast, the bad procrastinator finds himself paralysed precisely because he can’t bear the thought of confronting his limitations.
[..] if you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax – because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.
‘The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,’ Bergson wrote, ‘and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.’
Since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses. Loss is a given. That ship has sailed – and what a relief.
When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.
Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.
[..] it’s essentially a giant machine for persuading you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about.
Whereas staying focused on the present had made the agonies of the ice-water ritual more tolerable, it made less unpleasant undertakings – daily chores that might previously have been a source not of agony but of boredom or annoyance – positively engrossing.
We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention’, with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy.
I wish I could reveal, at this point, the secret for uprooting the urge towards distraction – the way to have it not feel unpleasant to decide to hold your attention, for a sustained time, on something you value, or that you can’t easily choose not to do. But the truth is that I don’t think there is one.
Yet there’s a sense in which accepting this lack of any solution is the solution.
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.
Part II: Beyond Control
But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitations when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win. You can never be truly certain about the future.
John Maynard Keynes saw the truth at the bottom of all this, which is that our fixation on what he called ‘purposiveness’ – on using time well for future purposes, or on ‘personal productivity’, he might have said, had he been writing today – is ultimately motivated by the desire not to die.
The problem is that the effort to be present in the moment, though it seems like the exact opposite of the instrumentalist, future-focused mindset I’ve been criticising in this chapter, is in fact just a slightly different version of it. You’re so fixated on trying to make the best use of your time – in this case not for some later outcome, but for an enriching experience of life right now – that it obscures the experience itself.
‘We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.’ – Jay Jennifer Matthews, author
Why, [the members of a campaigning group named Take Back Your Time] wanted to know, should holidays by the sea, or meals with friends, or lazy mornings in bed need defending in terms of improved performance at work?
In this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. Rest is permissible, but only for the purposes of recuperation for work, or perhaps for some other form of self-improvement.
‘How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?’ – John Gray, philosopher
[..] when your relationship with time is almost entirely instrumental, the present moment starts to lose its meaning.
‘If, on the other hand, [the human animal] lacks objects of willing, because it is at once deprived of them again by too easy a satisfaction, a fearful emptiness and boredom comes over it; in other words, its being and its existence become an intolerable burden for it. Hence it swings like a pendulum to and fro between pain and boredom.’ – Arthur Schopenhauer
In an age of instrumentalisation, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no pay-offs in terms of productivity or profit.
[Publisher and editor Karen] Rinaldi explains, ‘I experience something else: patience and humility, definitely, but also freedom. Freedom to pursue the futile. And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.’
Things just are the way they are, such metaphors suggest, no matter how vigorously you might wish they weren’t – and your only hope of exercising any real influence over the world is to work with that fact, instead of against it.
People complain that they no longer have ‘time to read’, but the reality, as the novelist Tim Parks has pointed out, is rarely that they literally can’t locate an empty half-hour in the course of the day. What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task.
[Psychotherapist Stephanie Brown] noticed that ‘the feeling of anxiety wells up inside, and I look for something to take it away.’ Reaching for the smartphone, diving back into the to-do list, pounding away on the elliptical machine at the gym – all these forms of high-speed living were serving as some kind of emotional avoidance.
The high achievers of Silicon Valley reminded Brown of herself in her days as an alcoholic.
We push ourselves harder to get rid of anxiety, but the result is actually more anxiety, because the faster we go, the clearer it becomes that we’ll never succeed in getting ourselves or the rest of the world to move as fast as we feel is necessary.
[..] a life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless.
Once you give up on the unattainable goal of eradicating all your problems, it becomes possible to develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires – that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.
There is an even more visceral sense, as well, in which time just feels realer – more intense, more vivid, more filled with meaning – when you’re synchronised well with others.
It’s deeply unsettling to find yourself doubting the point of what you’re doing with your life. But it isn’t actually a bad thing, because it demonstrates that an inner shift has already occurred.
[..] what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much – and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.
To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realise we were carrying in the first place.
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
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.
The human disease is often painful, but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure.
James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: ‘Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?’
Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.
Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.
This quest to justify your existence in the eyes of some outside authority can continue long into adulthood. But ‘at a certain age’, writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, ‘it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life.
It’s easy to spend years treating your life as a dress rehearsal on the rationale that what you’re doing, for the time being, is acquiring the skills and experience that will permit you to assume authoritative control of things later on.
Yet there is a sense in which all work – including the work of parenting, community-building and everything else – has this quality of not being completable within our own lifetimes. All such activities always belong to a far bigger temporal context, with an ultimate value that will only be measurable long after we’re gone (or perhaps never, since time stretches on indefinitely).
Afterword: Beyond Hope
Hope is supposed to be ‘our beacon in the dark’, [environmentalist Derrick] Jensen notes. But in reality, it’s a curse. To hope for a given outcome is to place your faith in something outside yourself, and outside the current moment – the government, for example, or God, or the next generation of activists, or just ‘the future’ – to make things all right in the end. As the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön says, it means relating to life as if ‘there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one’.
To give up hope, by contrast, is to reinhabit the power that you actually have. At that point, Jensen goes on, ‘we no longer have to “hope” at all. We simply do the work.
Appendix: Ten Tools For Embracing Your Finitude
- Adopt a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity.
- Serialise, serialise, serialise [tasks despite the anxiety of other open tasks and] train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing.
- Decide in advance what to fail at.
- Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.
- Consolidate your caring.
- Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.
- Seek out novelty in the mundane. An alternative, Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and ‘your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is’ – and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long. [..]
- Be a ‘researcher’ in relationships.
- Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
- Practise doing nothing.