On the cusp of a new year, it’s natural to reflect on our lives, to take stock of the things we’ve accomplished and the dreams we have yet to fulfill. Are we living our life the way we really want to live it? And if not, what changes should we make to ensure we spend our time on the things that truly matter to us?
Because our time is so very limited.
If you live to the age of eighty, you’ll be alive for just over four thousand weeks.
Four Thousand Weeks is not your typical time management book. It’s not trying to sell you a system like Getting Things Done, Bullet Journaling or Personal Kanban, all of which I’ve tried and mostly abandoned at various points in my career.
Instead, Four Thousand Weeks tries to give you a more fundamental perspective about how to live your life the way you want to live it. Burkeman delivers some painful truths, but he argues they shouldn’t be cause for despair. We should see them as liberating and empowering.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
By Oliver Burkeman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2021
The painful truth, Burkeman says, is that we have limited time, and limited control over the time we have.
We may have only four thousand weeks, but it often feels like the demands on our time are infinite. Your inbox is never empty. The boss keeps shoving more and more work at you. You have to take the kids to school, to doctor’s appointments, to soccer practice. The grass needs cutting, and you’ve been meaning to replace that leaky faucet.
Typical time management books aim to help you become more productive, to use your time more efficiently. Burkeman points out this is self-defeating. If you do become more productive people will notice, especially your boss, and they’ll give you more work. There will be even more mail in your inbox, more tasks on your to-do list. He calls this the Efficiency Trap.
In a strange way, Burkeman says, we take comfort from all this frantic busyness. It lets us avoid confronting the anxieties, fears, limitations and finitude of real life.
But it’s a false comfort because meeting all those demands is impossible. There will always be more work than you can complete on any given day. There will always be too many big rocks to fit into your life’s jar.
So Burkeman says we should accept the finitude of our lives and stop trying to satisfy the impossible demands for our time. It’s not failure, it’s a relief.
“Whereas once you deeply grasp that they are impossible, you’ll be newly empowered to resist them, and to focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you’re in.” [p. 34]
But this means we have to make choices, often hard choices, to focus on some things and deliberately neglect others. I’ve heard this called “ruthless prioritization.” It’s something I’ve always found especially difficult.
It’s not a tragedy that life is so short; it’s a miracle that we have any life at all, Burkeman says. And it’s not a bad thing that we have to make choices; we should think of it as a joy that we get to make choices.
In our busy modern lives, we tend to live in the future more than the present. Almost everything we do is aimed at some goal, some ideal future state where we can finally relax or finally do the things we really want to do. Burkeman calls this the “when-I-finally” mindset.
“Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time – instead of just being time, you might say – it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally ‘out of the way.’” [p. 25]
And so we put off the things we’d really love to do like spending more time with family and friends, or traveling, or learning to play the piano, or writing a book, or volunteering for that local environmental group, or, or, or. We put them off until we “clear the decks” and “get our lives under control” at some hazy time in the future “when-we-finally.”
But as Burkeman tells us, those four thousand weeks and that future aren’t guaranteed. We have limited control over the future. If you’ve tried to get on a plane recently, you’ll have experienced just how limited our control really is. Burkeman isn’t saying we should abandon any kind of planning for the future, but the desire for certainty or control over the future is hopeless.
“We treat our own plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under control. But 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.” [p. 123]
More importantly, you’ll never clear the decks or get your life under control. There isn’t some far off time in the future when your “real” life, the life you really want to lead, will start.
This is it.
Embracing Your Finitude
Throughout the book and in an appendix, Burkeman gives some suggestions for how to implement a “limit-embracing” approach to life.
One suggestion, borrowing from the world of financial planning, is to “pay yourself first.” Set aside some time each day to do what’s most important for you, knowing full well that some other things will get neglected. That’s OK. It was going to be impossible for you to do them all anyway.
Another tip is to limit your in-progress tasks to a very small number, say three. This allows you to focus on and actually complete those items. This will increase your satisfaction and reduce your stress. And you’ll waste less time thrashing between tasks.
The reward for doing these things, for accepting our finitude, is that we can stop trying to do the impossible and focus our lives, now, on what really matters.
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible – the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start on what’s gloriously possible instead.” [p. 234]
Four Thousand Weeks is like a cold shower. It’s a bracing perspective on how to live our lives, though I must admit it’s a little uncomfortable too. Burkeman tells us to make hard choices about the things we spend our time on and the things we neglect. Ultimately that will mean disappointing some people. But Burkeman suggests it also means we’ll lead more authentic and more satisfying lives.
I love the idea of accepting the impossibility of doing everything that’s demanded of us, even the things we demand of ourselves. The fact that it’s impossible to meet every demand means that no matter how hard you work, no matter how much overtime you put in, you still won’t get it all done.
I work in the tech sector where “giving 110%” is considered just “table stakes.” And that’s fine, I love the work I do. But accepting that it’s impossible to do it all is liberating. That impossibility gives me permission to choose what to spend my time on. It’s like having a manager who tells you everything is a P1 – a priority one task. Well if your manager can’t or won’t prioritize, then by default you get to prioritize for yourself. I think Burkeman is telling us we have to be our own managers and set our own priorities.
I also like how Burkeman says we don’t have to aspire to great or remarkable accomplishments in our lives. They can be small things, local things, even things that are not completable in our own lifetimes, like regrowing a forest. They’re still worthwhile.
I’m glad Burkeman explicitly rejects Steve Jobs’s call to “make a dent in the universe.” I much prefer Walt Wittman’s poetic answer:
“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”
That strikes me as more realistic, more achievable and more humane.
One area where the book falls short is that it doesn’t offer much to people who are struggling just to survive – people holding down multiple jobs, often low-paying, thankless jobs, just to make ends meet. People in these situations may not have the luxury of neglecting certain work to pursue their dreams.
The rest of us should recognize what a privilege it is to be able to dream at all.
As always, thanks for reading. Best wishes to you and your family for a safe and healthy New Year.
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