Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman is not your typical time management book. There are no quick hacks, no schedules to follow, and no secrets to optimising your focus. So what is it about then?
Four Thousand Weeks is about accepting that you won’t have time for all the things you want to do and understanding that even if you could you wouldn’t want to. It is about understanding that to live a meaningful life you need to embrace its finitude – we have limited time on this earth – we cannot control that but we can control what we focus on.
I really enjoyed reading Four Thousand Weeks. It was comforting to read that some of Burkeman’s conclusions on time management were the exact same conclusions I have come to over the last five years. Other conclusions though were new to me and while I found some of them challenging, I agree with them also.
Burkeman is a confessed productivity geek, something I also consider myself to be. He doesn’t dismiss entirely the idea of being productive, planning for the future, and trying to do better. But he highlights that the key issue for so many of us (me included) is we want to control time. Life is short – 4000 weeks if we are lucky, and we don’t and can’t control time. The sooner we accept this the happier we will be.
Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default.Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
Burkeman states what many time management gurus will not say:
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 as much exercise as you should, and so on.Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
When you accept that all is not possible it is actually empowering – you get to choose to focus on what is important to you. This is the philosophy behind my single goal setting that I do each year and teach in my Planned + Present E-course. If you do not know where you want to spend your time and haven’t made a conscious choice as to where you want to spend it, you are unlikely to feel satisfied with how you are spending your time. Time is finite, so doing anything requires sacrifice. You need to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it – is this really where I want to be spending my time?
I found Burkeman’s observation on “convenience culture” impactful. We have so many things now that require little effort and make life more convenient for us – shouldn’t we have more time? Convenience culture actually sucks us in and makes us think that if we eliminate or outsource tedious tasks we will fit in all the things we want to do but we can’t. We will still have to make choices.
On facing Finitude
Facing finitude is the key theme in the book and Burkeman compares it to the joy of missing out. This is knowing that you have finite time, embracing your choice of doing what you want to do with the time you have right now, accepting you sacrificed something else to do it and being happy with that choice.
Facing finitude is also a great perspective changer:
Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteedFour Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
When you think about how you are lucky just to be here, while it doesn’t prevent all the daily annoyances from occurring, it can change the way we feel about them. Yes, it may be annoying when the kids leave their towels on the bathroom floor and their dishes on the bench near the dishwasher but I am lucky to be here in the now to go find them, and tell them to clean up their mess!
It is easy picking to write about how technology with all of its billions of dollars is designed and crafted to distract us. The attention economy we find ourselves in can make it hard to keep focused. We can end up paying attention and giving our time to what is most compelling in the moment not what matters most to us if we do not think about what we are doing.
But it is not all tech’s fault. We have an inner urge towards distraction and Burkeman quotes Mary Oliver who calls this “the intimate interrupter”. We could be working on things we want to be working on but when it gets hard or a little tedious, out of nowhere appears an urge to check our email, to walk away from our desk, switch to another task and this isn’t driven by external technology, it is driven internally.
The “distractions” that we find ourselves absorbed in aren’t actually the cause of us being distracted. We have chosen the distractions to give ourselves relief from feelings of discomfort. Discomfort from a task that is hard, a task that scares us, a task that may see us fail, and tasks that simply bore us. We need to practice resisting these internal urges and stay on task.
With Burkeman’s view that the way we attempt to control time is causing us such grief, where does planning fit into it?
The real problem isn’t planning. It’s that we take our plans to be something they aren’t…..all a plan is – all it could ever possibly be – is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
I know I have caused myself stress, frustration and anger when I have missed my own deadlines for the plans I have made. I am still going to continue to plan because this is a key way that I make conscious choices about how I will spend my finite time but I am going to work on the attachment I have to the plan. And this is where the concept of Cosmic Insignificance Therapy comes into it:
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.Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
This is a freeing concept. Does it matter that the newsletter went out a day later than usual? Does it matter that I am temporarily out of stock with Adapt Drinks? Cosmic Insignificance Therapy doesn’t mean that what we do doesn’t matter at all – because it can and it does. The power of this therapy is to help us change the way we look at what we are already doing.
Cooking a good meal for the family can matter just as much as anything else we do! We are most likely overlooking how much good work we are doing and how well we are spending some of our time because we have a skewed view that to spend time well is to be spending it on something of grandeur. Cosmic Insignificance Therapy tells us that even if we were doing something grand, in a couple of generations it will all be forgotten just like the dinner we cooked last night.
On rediscovering rest
This was a particularly relevant chapter for me. I am great at prioritising sleep to make sure I get enough but I struggle with just sitting and chilling or pure relaxation.
In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth.Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman
Burkeman suggests hobbies can be a great way to rediscover rest. The hobby doesn’t have to be something you are good at and it doesn’t have to be productive or create something. It could be drawing badly, or singing out of tune, but it is something you enjoy doing just for the joy of doing it and have no attachment to the outcome.
As you reach the end of the book and you have accepted your finitude, Burkeman offers five questions to ask yourself. They are excellent questions and can help you make changes so that you are living the meaningful life you want to be living.
For those looking for some more tangible takeaways from the book that you can act on, Burkeman has an appendix with Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude and a short explanation of each of them. This is pretty much a summation of the book.
Who should read Four Thousand Weeks?
If you are feeling constantly overwhelmed by all you have to do, or think that if you could just get more organised you would be able to get everything done, then I highly recommend reading Four Thousand Weeks – Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman. Burkeman doesn’t have a magic wand that will help you with your problems but he can give you perspective that can help you change the way you feel about them.
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