Four Thousand Weeks

Time Management for Mortals

by Oliver Burkeman

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Table of Contents



We tend to live with a future-focused mindset as if our time in the world is infinite. However, that is not true. There will always be too much to do, and no amount of productivity systems or tips can help us if we adopt a limitless mindset. There will always be tough choices to be made, experiences that we will miss out on.

The only solution is to face our finitude and simply live for the moment and do the work that matters to us most.

How I Discovered It

I discovered this book from Ali Abdaal's Youtube video, 15 Books To Read In 2022.

Who Should Read It

Anyone who is into productivity-related books. This book will offer a different perspective towards productivity as compared to other books on this topic.

Key Ideas

In the Long Run, We're All Dead

The average human lifespan is incredibly short. The average life expectancy is about 76 years, or roughly 4000 weeks. Some people may have more, and some people have less.

We tend to have an egocentric bias - the tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history. It makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint as we will probably be less motivated to struggle to survive and propagate our genes if we think otherwise.

To put things into perspective, the whole of civilization can be spanned with sixty centenarian lifetimes, which was "the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party." Even the iPhone will be remembered for more generations than anything you or I will ever accomplish; but from a truly cosmic view, it will soon be forgotten, like everything else.

Everything is Borrowed Time

Why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality the outrageous violation? Or to put it another way, why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it's so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because its so many more weeks than if you had never been born?

It's not that you've been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it's almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.

Life on the Conveyor Belt

Modern technological improvements made mundane tasks such as dishwashing, house cleaning much faster, but it wasn't what our ancestors envisioned the future to feel. In 1930, in a speech titled "Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren," the economist John Maynard Keynes made a famous prediction: Within a century, thanks to the growth of wealth and the advance of technology, no one would have to work more than about fifteen hours a week. The challenge would be how to fill all our newfound leisure time without going crazy.

Thanks to all the hours freed up, time should feel more expansive. But this is nobody's experience. Life accelerates, and everyone grows more impatient. Becoming "more productive" just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks just makes them fill up again.

They never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they're in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige.

Getting on Top of Everything

Productivity geeks tend to believe that we can win the struggle with time once and for all if only we find the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline. The state of calm and the feeling that we are finally on top of everything will never arrive because we have a tendency to think that we are limitless. After vaguely getting things in control, we tend to push ourselves further, shifting goalposts and adding new commitments that we don't especially value.

In the author's case, his productivity obsession served a hidden emotional agenda that many of us can relate to.

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.

You Can't Fit Everything

Most of us have heard of the story of the rocks, pebbles and sand for time management. The story's morale is to tackle the big issues like the rocks first, and the smaller issues like sand can still fall into place. However, in reality, there is too many rocks, and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar.

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. And once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind that way, it becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you're no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands.

There is an opportunity cost in everything we do, and we can't do everything. Instead of the fear of missing out, there is the "joy of missing out". In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you're forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you've decided to do instead is how you've chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.

The author also suggests being kinder to ourselves.

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.

Defying Social Norms

In the capitalist world, it seems as if work is the real point of existence. Leisure is merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment, for the purposes of further work.

Rest is permissible, but only for the purposes of recuperation for work, or perhaps for some other form of self-improvement. It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for itself alone, without regard for any potential future benefits, because rest that has no instrumental value feels wasteful.

The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully,” focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it—to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement. In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth.

To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake—entails first accepting the fact that this is it: that your days aren't progressing toward a future state of perfectly invulnerable happiness.

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.

When lockdown ended, Gambuto warned, corporations and governments would conspire to make us forget the possibilities we'd glimpsed, by means of shiny new products and services and distracting culture wars; and we'd be so desperate to return to normality that we'd be tempted to comply. Instead, though, we could hold on to the sense of strangeness and make new choices about how we used the hours of our lives.

On Distraction

Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else—to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most.

Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: It's not usually that you're sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you're eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you're doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. 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.

Mary Oliver calls this inner urge toward distraction "the intimate interrupter"—that "self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels,"" promising an easier life if only you'd redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever's unfolding one browser tab away.

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 Freedom of Time

We have to ask ourselves, what kind of freedom do we really want when it comes to time?

Do we want the freedom to set your own schedule, to make your own choices, to be free from other people's intrusions? Or do we want to be free to engage in all the worthwhile collaborative endeavors with others and fall in with the rhythms of the rest of the world?

Strategies for achieving the first kind of freedom are things that fill books of productivity advice: ideal morning routines and strict personal schedules.

No One Really Cares Except Us

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. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else's life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us."

Peace of mind, and an exhilarating sense of freedom, comes not from achieving the validation but from yielding to the reality that it wouldn't bring security if you got it.

I'm convinced, in any case, that it is from this position of not feeling as though you need to earn your weeks on the planet that you can do the most genuine good with them.

Everyone Is Winging It Too

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. But I sometimes think of my journey through adulthood to date as one of incrementally discovering the truth that there is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn't just winging it, all the time.

It's alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you're doing, in work, marriage, parenting, or anything else. But it's liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they're aware of it or not.

How Would You Spend Your Days Differently If You Didn't Care So Much About Seeing Your Actions Reach Fruition?

It is natural to think that we should focus our time on those activities for which we expect to be around to see the results of.

Are there acts of generosity or care for the world, ambitious schemes or investments in the distant future that might be meaningful to undertake today, if you could come to terms with never seeing the results?

We're all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we'll never see. The cathedral's still worth building, all the same.

Actionable Advice for Fellow Mortals

Become a Better Procrastinator

Procrastination is a human tendency and is inevitable. It is also our solution in facing our limits. We can become better procrastinators by prioritizing limited goals.

The first principle to becoming a better procrastinator is by paying yourself first with your time. Instead of waiting for the opportunity to have loads of free time. Claim pockets of time, for example, an hour in the morning, to work on the project that you want to do.

The second principle is to limit your works in progress. Focus on a short list of priorized projects instead of starting a bunch of new projects.

The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. Make a list of the top twenty-five things you want to get out of life and arrange them according to importance. You should focus on the top five priorities. The remaining second-tier priorities should be avoided at all costs because they're the ambitions that are insufficiently important and yet seductive enough to distract you from the ones that matter most.

Enjoy Atelic Activities to Truly Enjoy Leisure

Atelic activities are done for their own sake, rather than to achieve a specific goal. For example, you go for a hike because you simply want to. You play a sport not because you want to become a professional but because you like it. The activity itself is its own reward.

It's fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them. To pursue an activity in which you have no hope of becoming exceptional is to put aside, for a while, the anxious need to "use time well".

You can also decide in advance what to fail at. The great benefit of strategic underachievement - that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won't expect excellence of yourself - is that you focus that time and energy more effectively.

“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.”

Live For the Now

We become obsessed with “using it well,” whereupon we discover an unfortunate truth: the more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through. ... We treat everything we're doing—life itself, in other words—as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.

We tend to have a future-focused "when-i-finally" mindset. However, our lives are inevitably full of activities that we are doing for the last time. There will be a last time that you have a conversation with a certain close friend or visit a certain place. Yet, there is no way of knowing this fact in the moment itself. Instead, live and enjoy the present moment.

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"

“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.”

Do the Next Most Necessary Thing

The individual path "is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other." ... If you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.

There is no objective way to know in the moment what the right action is, we can only do what is the next and most necessary thing.

There is an empowering potential in giving up hope. When we give up hope, we reinhabit the power we actually have.

We no longer have to 'hope' at all. We simply do the work.

It makes my day when I see it.
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