Feb 26, 2022

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks

Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks

Nathan King

Four Thousand Weeks – High Level Summary

In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman invites us to step away from our our frenetic, always-on, ever-distracted rat race and to reflect on why we are doing what we are doing. The intriguing title, a context-less label, comes from the average number of weeks a modern human can expect to live (barring tragedy).

The subject matter comes from Burkeman's own confrontation with his limits, lending the book a humility of one who has only reluctantly landed on his conclusions. For those of us who haven’t had our own reckoning with the limits of time management, he helpfully shows us hope. His narrative unfolds in a meditative exploration around the theme: we’re in a life that’s moving fast: what do we do about it? The subtitle promises us a narrative on “time management for mere mortals.”

A self-described recovering productivity addict, he awakened to the delusion that he had enough time for everything he wanted, if only he could use it well. He had chased after “inbox zero,” efficient personal workflows, etc. This was, he learned, a dishonest relationship with time. The insight initiated a journey to learn how to use time in a way that is meaningful.

By taking on this topic, Burkeman departs the realm of personal productivity and adventures through terrain more commonly explored by philosophers and theologians.

We have less time than the possible uses of our time

The central argument of the book is that we can imagine more ways to use time than we actually have time for, a jarringly sad and painful reality for the human spirit. Bound to our finite life, we inevitably fail realize the possibilities before us – every day. So troubling is this harsh reality that we delude ourselves and distract ourselves endlessly.

One strain of thinking, like the path that took the author into this journey, is that if only we organize our time wisely enough, we can do everything we desire. He illustrates the faultiness of this logic by picking on Stephen Covey's popular example from Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that if we attempt to fill a jar with small pebbles and sand, and then attempt to add the rocks, the rocks won't fit. The point Covey seeks to make, is that we need to do first things first, fill the “jar” of our lives with the big rocks first. Burkeman states:

It’s a lie. The smug teacher is being dishonest. He has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar.

You can watch Covey's example here:

Instead, Burkeman argues that accepting the fact that we are mortal is the key enabler to the proper relationship with life:

It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives.

Being present – to family, to ourselves, to the beauty of the world – is an essential problem of the modern age. He spends his book on it.

"Man never is, but always To be blest"

We aren't present, Burkeman asserts, because we are endlessly conspiring in our minds about how we will accomplish everything we want to do someday. We fantasize about the future endlessly. It recalls the lines from Alexander Pope in An Essay on Man:

What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,

But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast:

Man never Is, but always To be blest:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

It is easy to deceive yourself that with more efficiency and hard work, you don't have to choose what to work on, or more precisely what not to work on, because you can squeeze in everything. But it isn't true – there always will be more than you can handle.

As a result, "hope springs eternal."

Burkeman confronts us with a stark truth. We will choose how we limit our time: the question is whether we will do so on purpose, or unconsciously.

Our Biggest Challenge is the Person in the Mirror

The 5th century theologian Augustine pointed out that most of us struggle with significant discontent in our lives: we are "out of order" in what we prioritize, the choices we make. He concludes that the essence of the human problem is disordered love. We spend more time on less important pursuits at the cost of having enough time on the truly important.

In Burkeman's exploration of our struggle to come to grips with how we use our time, he gives ample evidence of how we live disordered lives:

  1. Distracting ourselves (unconscious choosing)

  2. An overemphasis on control (conscious choosing, neurotically)

  3. Yielding to the fantasy that our lives should be easy

Distraction Is a Problem of Responsibility

Rather than decide, we avoid taking responsibility for what we will spend our precious time on, which shows up as pursuing distraction like watching tv or scrolling Twitter, or letting other people's agendas keep us busy. This helps us forget that we are responsible for how our lives turn out.

As long as there have been contemplating humans, there has been awareness of the devastating impact of distraction. A stirring challenge is to consider that we see the world through what we pay attention to, and if those areas of life that get our attention are trivial, we are trading our limited life for those things.

The Attempt to Master Time is a Pathology of Control

Efficiency is a Deception. No matter how much automation we have or how many hours we work in the day, there will always be more that we can do than we have time for. An example is email: if we attempt to perfect our email inbox, the more we respond, the more people will write back. The work multiplies. The antidote is that there is no perfect inbox or freedom from demands on our time. We must come to peace with that. Focus on what's most important because you can never achieve everything, so you might as well achieve what matters.

The Fantasy of the Easy Life

This temptation to obsessively focus on managing our time gives rise to the fantasy that we shouldn't have to deal with the messiness of other people, their problems, their demands on us, their inscrutable neediness. They slows us down, and often prevent us from doing what we want, or so we think.

We'd like to think that life would be a lot easier if the only person making decisions about our time is us: when we choose to work, what our priorities are, and a belief that we should never face interruption. That mindset prevents us from engaging with others. If applied fully, we would be entirely isolated: no spouse, no friends, no offer to those in need.

Fantasy can take us out of reality and give us a reason not to live in the present. Once I achieve [hard thing], the thinking goes, then I will have a life of ease. Burkeman calls this the "when-I-finally mindset." It contributes to a race that we always chase after something that is next. We aren't attuned to the present, and we never grow attuned to the present. It's always a chase.

A related delusion is that we should postpone the important things we really want to do until we get everything else figured out. A common reaction to having too much to do is to choose to spend time on less important and often administrative problems. But initiatives that matter the most to you require full focus. We deceive ourselves into thinking that it is prudent to wait until we can devote full focus, so we do less valuable things like clearing email even though we have 15 minutes to make progress now.

What Should We Do, Then?

Burkeman points out that if we really stop to consider the path of our lives, where we are today bears little resemblance to what we once imagined our lives would look like. We have significant anxiety over using our time in precisely the correct way, but we didn’t control how we got here, for the most part. Viewed correctly, this takes the pressure off of the importance of "getting it right."

Taking Burkeman’s ideas to a place of action and application to my own life, I find actionable wisdom in entrepreneurs and artists who intuitively understand that a relentless focus on action in the present towards goals is important. It protects us from distraction, the trap of waiting for the perfect time to start, or prioritizing something else in the place of valuable activity.

Be Like Quincy Jones...

As described in Will Smith’s autobiography, Quincy Jones co-created and produced the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Will Smith’s sitcom from the 90s. With no acting experience at the time, Will Smith was a stretch to get such a part. Jones saw how he would be a good fit for it, but he had to get others on board, including a fearful Will Smith. Jones had to fight through the inertia of various stakeholders to give Will Smith the opportunity to audition. At various stages of the process, he goaded, cajoled, pleaded, and pushed them to act now to make the casting and the show happen, repeatedly imploring people with the phrase, "No analysis by paralysis!"

And the Founder of Lulu Lemon...

Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, who traveled a long and winding road to create what is now a $39 billion athletic wear company, was asked on the Tim Ferriss podcast what he would put on a billboard if given the opportunity. His response: "Do it now, do it now, do it right f-ing now."

And Be Like the Ancient Israelites (?!?!)...

The story of Exodus in the Bible tells of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt. Through a series of supernatural actions, God leads them to freedom from the Egyptians. He commands them to always keep present that they are who they are because of Him, and to remember this they are to routinely offer their "first fruits" to him as a sacrifice. In other words, as Augustine would put it, giving the first fruits to God would help the Israelites remember and continue to prioritize the right order to their lives.

Each of these examples, in their own way, illustrates an important truth: we need a discipline to emphasize what is most important to guide us through the perilous reality that our time is less than our imagination. If we don't act immediately in the face of the value of endless risk evaluation to make sure we don't make a mistake (Quincy Jones), the risk of distraction (Lulu Lemon), or a failure to prioritize (the Israelites). Burkeman writes:

focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.

Giving Up is Gaining More

Burkeman describes a "paradox of limitation," which means that if we let go of control, and acknowledge that we can't have it all and not try to squeeze it all in, our lives will have more meaning and joy. Conversely, if we try to arrange our time for maximum freedom and choice, we will experience more and more frustration and emptiness.

We need to embrace the concept of the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO), Burkeman argues, as a replacement of the Fear of Missing Out (FOMO).

The thirst for more, piling ever more into our lives, is not an expression of freedom then, but counterintuitively has the opposite effect. It is a “new slavery,” as Wendell Berry writes in his novel, Jayber Crow:

The new slavery has improved upon the old by giving the new slaves the illusion that they are free. The Economy does not take people’s freedom by force, which would be against its principles, for it is very humane. It buys their freedom, pays for it, and then persuades its money back again with shoddy goods and the promise of freedom. “Buy a car,” it says, “and be free. Buy a boat and be free. Buy a beer and be free.” Is this not the raw material of bad dreams? Or is it maybe the very nightmare itself?

By limiting our pursuits – embracing the “paradox of limitation” – we open ourselves to the larger riches of life, which emerge from the experience attached to being present.

A good example that Burkeman writes about is a walk in the woods. Its value is not in knowing it is complete, or in accomplishing a certain amount of walks. Such an activity can be called an "atelic activity" because there is no "telos" or ultimate aim. Looking at your time as merely a tool to accomplish these "ultimate aims" diminishes the meaning of life.

Importantly, what matters includes time with those we loved. Burkeman endearingly writes of time with his newborn son, an experience any parent would recognize as far superior to productivity mastery.

Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel writes in his book, Sabbath, that

There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.

For Heschel, who argues for a day of rest and spiritual focus, a spiritual discipline of ritually giving up the “control of space” one day per week plays a crucial part in living a meaningful life.

In Conclusion

Every one in modern life, and indeed, any human, at any point in history, struggles with dealing with time. Time management, as the subject has most frequently been treated in recent decades, has seemed to focus on helping us cram even more into our lives. Burkeman uses his own experience and significant reflection to offer us an alternative point of view. I was humbled and inspired by reading his book, which brought me to freshly contemplate his observation:

It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.

The book will likely inspire the reader to understand how to choose the right things to work on, and to prioritize better. To that end, my review of Mind Management Not Time Management points to interesting ideas.




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