Author Oliver Burkeman and his book Four Thousand Weeks

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

No time management system can save you if you won’t save yourself.

Our human capabilities are powerless against software, global scale and machine learning. We can’t keep up. It’s the “efficiency trap” — the more effective we get, the more others rely on us. Time management, then, isn’t about getting more done but rather it’s about deciding what not to do and how to be at peace with our decisions.

That’s the biggest theme I took from Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, last year’s bestselling book from former productivity columnist Oliver Burkeman.

The average human lifespan today is about 4,000 weeks — which gives the book its title and its purpose. After spending much of his career chasing each productivity hack, the author came to a newfound philosophy. Late in the book he describes it as his “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy”: recognizing our futility in the universe is a prerequisite for sustaining a balanced life.

High-achievers can still work hard and do great work. He writes about how. More than anything though the book argues we need the right foundation before we ever chase “inbox zero.” As a productivity nerd myself, I enjoyed the book and got lots from it. It is far less tactical and so may not resolve what some want out of a time management book, but it succeeds at adding something new to the conversation.

Below I share notes for my future reference.

My notes:

  • Happiness in the modern world requires you to avoid “Joyless urgency
  • “Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”: Nietzsche
  • Richard Bazh: You teach best what you most need to learn
  • FOMO is the human condition: missing out is what gives our choices meaning
  • Eigenzeit German for “time present in the process:
  • Daniel Markovits: even high achievers feel overwhelmed in our achievement culture
  • Arnold Bennett in 1908: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day
  • The 1985 book More Work for Mother by historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan showed that when housewives first got access to labor-saving devices, like washing machines, society standards of cleanliness just increased.
  • In 1955, English humorist and historian C Northcote Parkinson coined Parkinson’s Law by writing “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”
  • “Efficiency trap”: “It’s not simply that you never get to your email; it’s that the process of ‘getting to your email’ actually generates more email.”
  • Secular modernity replaces faith in afterlife so FOMO heightens (we only have one life to live)
  • “The technologies we use ‘to get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the everything of which we’re trying to get on top.” (47)
  • Jim Benson wrote that the more efficient you get the more you become “a limitless reservoir for other peoples expectations”
  • Martin Heidegger: the Nazi sympathizer wrote extensively about time management and its philosophy — can any of his lessons be pulled from his horrifying deeds? His Being and Time questioned whether we exist at all outside of time. “A world is worlding all around us”
  • Heidigger says we could argue that we are a limited amount of time. “Finitude”: his point is that to distance ourselves from that reality, we create a distance from time itself. He writes about how time isn’t a thing that happens but it is us. We are the passing of time. (Reminiscent of the aliens in Slaughterhouse Five who saw the past and future at once, and so thought of humans as worms tunneling through time.
  • Heidegger uses lots of inscrutable phrases like “being-towards-death”
  • Sarah Bakewell says the wondrous fact there is anything at all is “The brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes.”
  • The word “decide” comes from Latin “to cut off” as in decisions cut off possibilities
  • “You will lose everything that catches your eye” sculptor Marion Coutts wrote after learning her husband was dying
  • “Bright sadness” Richard Rohr
  • “Stubborn gladness” Jack Gilbert
  • “Sober joy” Bruce Ballard, Heidegger scholar
  • Why think of 4,000 weeks as a small number when compared to infinity, as opposed to it being a lot compared to never being born?
  • Imagine, what would a friend who died prematurely give to be in traffic? Focus not on what aggravation you have but the incomprehensible magic that you even have the chance (68)
  • “The joy of missing out”
  • Time management isn’t about getting more done (it’ll never happen) but instead deciding what not to do and how to be at peace with the decision.
  • Stephen Covey’s famous rocks and pebbles metaphor misses because there are too many rocks so we need to choose (72)
  • To choose better: Pay yourself first (in quality time) and Limit your works in progress (The Personal Kanban book recommends having only three unfinished “big rocks” at a time)
  • Buffet: list 25 goals you have, and then only commit to doing the top 5 (because it’s easier to drop stuff you don’t care about but those that are close are the real traps)
  • It is easy to say no to things you don’t want to do, writes Elizabeth Gilbert: “you need to learn how to start saying no to things that you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”
  • The fable from Corsica Bradatan of architect from Shiraz in Persia who made perfect architecture drawings but burned them because no one could make them a reality
  • “The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful in the future itself” Henri Bergson in Time and Free Will: “We find a more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality” because we imagine many future possibilities perfectly and alongside each other
  • All decisions involve closing down other realities and that can be comforting. Whether you act or not, you’ve closed doors
  • Timothy Wilson: we can only pay attention to 0.0004 % of the information around us (91)
  • Attention isn’t a component of life it IS life
  • Neuroscientists refer to “bottom up” or involuntary attention (the bus is coming!) versus top-down (I choose to put my attention here)
  • Austrian Viktor Frankl wrote Man’s Search for Meaning after surviving Nazi prison camp by controlling his inner self
  • Persuasive design (social media, etc); Variable rewards of drag-down-to-refresh
  • Think we’re not the product of social media companies? Facebook investor turned critic Roger McNamee says we are not even the product but the fuel to create the product
  • Harry Frankfurt: social media sabotages our capacity to “want what we want to want” by distorting our worldview
  • TS Eliot: we are “distracted from distraction by distraction”
  • The Soviets tried staggered 5-day work weeks to avoid closing factories but no social cohesion was allowed because no time off shared by family and friends
  • Tristan Harris, every time you open a social media app it’s you against “1,000 people on the other side of the screen” trying to keep you there
  • “What we think of as distractions aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation” ie our mortality or shortcomings or frustration (107)
  • We can’t listen to our spouse not because we’re playing with our phone but instead we play with our phone because it’s hard to listen to our spouse
  • Accepting this unpleasantness is simply what life feels like
  • “Acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort” and pay attention to it (109)
  • Hofstadter’s Law: everything will take more time than expected “even when you take into account Hofstadter is law” (This is from his wild book)
  • “ The uncontrollability of the past and the unknowability of the future explain why so many spiritual traditions seem to converge on the same advice” live in the present (121)
  • Avoid the “when I finally….” mindset
  • Alan Watts: people are “like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They are never there. They are never alive.” (128)
  • Author puts Parenting books into two buckets: The Baby Trainers and the Natural Parents, but they are both about training kids for the future not enjoying the present.
  • Adam Gopnik’s “casual catastrophe”: The belief that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of something (like bringing up children) is the result (like the kind of adults) it produces” which might sound sensible but robs childhood as an experience to purely become training ground (131)
  • In his play the Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard writes Russian philosopher Alexander Herzen to say: “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up…But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment… Life’s bounty is in its flow. Later is too late”.
  • In some sense we do everything for a last time, but even in the most literal sense we will almost never know when It was the last time (ie the last time you pick up your child)
  • Rich people are very good at instrumentalizing their time (turning in now for future profit), which makes them often very bad at appreciating the right now
  • It is unsettling to think our life isn’t leading to some moment of truth, so we trick ourselves into thinking of that by planning for the future without living for today
  • The billable hour can make someone feel that the costs are too high to do something else
  • In his 1962 book the Decline of Pleasure, Walter Kerr wrote “we are all of us compelled,” he wrote, “To read for profit, party for contacts… Gamble for charity, go out in the evening for the greater glory of the municipality and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house.”
  • The Latin word for “negotiate” meant “not leisure” because leisure was the virtue all worked for (negotim which is also the root word for negotiate)
  • Author notes leisure should be point not something to replenish for more work
  • Max Weber’s protestant work ethic
  • Kieran Setiya: “atelic activity” as opposed to “telic” ones with an ultimate aim. Another word for that? Hobbies, things we do with no aim of mastery. Hobbies seem very different than “side hustles.” What are my atelic hobbies vs goals? Maybe hobbies should be a tad embarrassing as you know they’re done for pure joy
  • Arthur Schopenhauer writes of “objects of willing:” things you want to do or to have in life: not having them yet is bad but getting them is arguably even worse because you no longer have them to hope for
  • James Gleick writes that “rush” means both speed and exhilaration: we hide from inner thoughts
  • Patience: “you’re not successful with fixing mechanical stuff cause you don’t take the time to figure it out”
  • How to do this better?
    • 1. Develop a taste for having problems (the state of having no problems will never come)
    • 2. Embrace radical incrementalism (Robert Boice found academics who were more productive made writing a smaller, but more consistent, part of their lives. As short as 10 minutes daily, never more than 4 hours and took weekends off. Stopping even in flow when your time goal is over is an exercise in patience, being ok with not being done)
    • 3. Originality lies in the far side of unoriginality. (Arno Minkkinen’s parable of buses departing the Helsinki main bus station. Lots of buses follow same path and like careers they will seem derivative unless “you stay on the fucking bus” long enough to get somewhere new)
  • Terry Hartig’s research in Sweden showed both that vacation reduced antidepressant use AND that if a higher percentage of all Swedes were on vacation, collective use fell too
  • “Egocentricity bias” makes sense evolutionarily: we have to believe we are important enough to pass our genes but to “Consider the massive indifference of the universe” as Richard Halliday writes. Let’s us chill out
  • Marie-Louise von Franz: “There is a strange attitude and feeling that one is not yet in real life”
  • It’s easy to become overwhelmed, so survival requires an acceptance of our futility and lack of control in the universe: “And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here.”
  • “The human disease is often painful,” but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, “it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure” (219)

Five Questions the author asks:r

  1. Where in life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
    • James Hollis: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” Rather than make you happy, since that will likely you bring to what is easiest
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
  • Carl Jung: Do the next right thing. If you don’t know what the exact right thing is, do the next right thing.
  • Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön: Getting the hang of hopelessness

Though the book is largely a philosophical worldview, he does close with a few tactics:

  • Fixed volume productivity: to do list with 5-10 items, another for just collecting tasks. Can’t add until you remove
  • One big project at a time: maybe one work and one personal
  • Strategic underachievement: what to be no good at
  • Keep a “done list” of what you’re proud of accomplishing
  • Focus your caring (ie pick a fixed percent to donate annually)
  • Any experience can become routine, so find novelty in the mundane
  • What if we wonder what will happen next instead of worrying about a specific one?
  • Do the generous act whenever it comes to mind (donate or compliment a friend)
  • Practice doing nothing: set a timer for 5-10 minutes and stop yourself from any thought that comes until timer goes off

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