I recently read the book Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals from former productivity guru Oliver Burkeman. The book’s hook is that if you live to eighty years old, that means you have about four thousand weeks of life on this earth. That is a short amount of time, and using that time effectively is one of the key problems of being human. The subject of this book seemed right in line with my interest in stoic philosophy, so I gave it a try.
What the Book is About
This book went in a different direction than I was expecting. I was thinking the book would state the problem (“short lifespan, limited time, hard choices needed”) and then would present something like a cookbook on how to live a good life. Instead, it mainly elaborates on the depth of the problem we face. This book is more like a starting point to help you come to your own conclusions.
I think the book’s thesis statement is really in the afterward, which says:
You could think of this book as an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope. Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your wayFour Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals – Oliver Burkeman
Not exactly a how-to manual!
The Book’s Core Points
The core points this book makes, as I see them, are:
- Your life is limited. Decide how to spend it.
- You can’t do everything. Focus on a few things that count.
- Life is filled with uncertainty and tragedy. Focus on what you can do to help.
- You will always have problems. Learn how to solve them through trial and error. Accumulate skills, experience, and wisdom.
- Be comfortable with uncertainty. Be patient, and the solutions to problems present themselves in time.
- Absolute control over time leads to isolation. Embrace the social regulation of time. Spend your time with others.
- You do not need impressive accomplishments to live a good life. Release yourself from unrealistic expectations. Enjoy activities for their own sake.
- To lead a good life, seek out novelty in the everyday, be a researcher in life and relationships, cultivate generosity and gratitude, and practice doing nothing.
- For work (and really, life in general), do the most you can, in the set amount time you have, on one or a few projects at a time. Decide in advance what you’ll fail at.
Most of the book is simply elaboration on these points.
My Thoughts on the Book
I appreciate the book’s invitation to face reality and make choices accordingly. The author has credibility, having been part of the “productivity” movement for many years and coming to realize the futility of his efforts.
I struggle with the absence of aspirations to accomplish something bigger than oneself in this book. Perhaps that is implied by the “you choose what’s important” message, but parts of the book’s philosophy seem to border on nihilistic. Is pursuing group goals in a family, social group, government, or other organization really just a personal preference? Or does that sort of activity universally inspire and satisfy all people? I suspect it does.
Perhaps what I’m really getting at is this book feels like it is missing a “Part 2”, which describes how to make good decisions on how to spend your time. It is hinted at with sections on embracing the social regulation of your time, but I think this subject could have been greatly elaborated on.
My Takeaways from this Book
After reading this book:
- I acknowledge that I’m in charge of deciding what is important to me. It is my responsibility to spend my time accordingly.
- I will be mindful. I must ensure I am spending time on things that matter at work, life, and home. I need to enjoy the process of working on the things that matter. I may never see the fruits of my labor, and I’m not in full control of how things turn out.
- I will work on avoiding unimportant details. I need to treat my time as a fixed resource that should be spent on things that matter.