Book: Four Thousand Weeks

Book Report

I did a lot of reading this summer, and while some was just for fun (many excellent young adult books!), most was related to my blog theme of aging well and living a meaningful life. So I’m trying something new for the blog and sharing my takeaways from a book that I’ve found helpful.

My first “book report” is Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman.

The title is a bit misleading; this isn’t another book that explains how to do everything on your to-do list or achieve the perfect balance between all your competing priorities. Instead, Burkeman takes the culturally heretical position that time is not a resource to be used for greater productivity. Instead, he claims the way to build a more meaningful and productive life (but productive in a different sense) is to come to terms with our finite lifetime.

He says, “The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem – or so I hope to convince you – is that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressure to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse.”

And he makes a convincing argument that it’s only by embracing the fact that we have limited time to live that we can create an authentic, joyful, and productive life doing what matters to us.

As a compulsive planner and productivity enthusiast, this is a hard message for me. But I hear the truth in his words when he says that there is a kind of liberation in accepting that we can’t do it all, that we have to make hard choices about how to spend our time. Even with all the best productivity techniques, my daily to-do list is more than I could ever complete in a day.

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.

Another essential truth he discusses is that the essence of our planning is an attempt to control a reality that is ultimately not under our control. My planning can only capture a picture of what I want to happen – it doesn’t guarantee that I can make it happen.

I realize this will trigger some arguments from kindred-spirit planners and productivity hackers. I don’t think he’s saying that all planning is useless. But for some of us, planning crosses the line from useful to obsessive. It becomes a way of attempting to control life and cope with the fear of the unknown. I acknowledge that one of my ways to cope with anxiety about life is trying to plan for all contingencies. And I believe that’s what he’s talking about.

Fortunately, this isn’t all depressing news. Burkeman concludes by saying, “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unrelenting 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 work on what’s gloriously possible.”

He offers ten approaches to help us come to terms with this realistic but rather distressing reality:

  1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity. Rather than working from one huge, overwhelming task list, limit yourself to a fixed number of items (10 at most) on your active task list. Don’t add a new task until one of the ten is completed. Also, set pre-determined time boundaries for daily work. (Even for those who no longer have an official “job,” I think this can still be helpful. For me, it means I have a designated time when I stop working on my task list and consciously switch to fun or relaxing activities.)
  2. Serialize. Only work on one big project at a time. Work till it’s finished, and don’t distract yourself by starting many things at once (which leads to more anxiety about the things that are half-done).
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at. Pick areas in your life where you won’t expect excellence from yourself. Or, plan to “fail” at a particular area for a specific season in order to focus on others, knowing this is temporary. For example, keeping an immaculate house is not one of my priorities. This has been true (as demonstrated by my actions) for my entire adult life, although I haven’t been comfortable accepting it as the truth. If I consciously acknowledge it, maybe the wisps of pet hair floating like tumbleweed across the floor will no longer trigger a feeling of personal failure that makes me feel bad about myself.
  4. Focus on what’s completed, not just what’s left to complete. This is why I love having a handwritten to-do list where I check off the finished items. Even though I may not get everything done, seeing that there are items crossed off reminds me that I have accomplished a lot.
  5. Consolidate your caring. We don’t have unlimited things we can actively care about, no matter how worthy the causes. Pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics. (I recently wrote a post related to this topic.)
  6. Embrace boring, single-purpose technology. Don’t always have easy access to technology that exacerbates distraction.
  7. Seek novelty in the mundane. Pay more attention to every moment, no matter how mundane, to see the novelty. Experiencing moments with twice the intensity will reduce how time seems to speed up as we age.
  8. Be Curious. Approach not knowing what is coming next with curiosity rather than anxiety. I love this idea, but this sure is a hard mindset to change.
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity. Act on generous impulses right away. An imperfect generous, or thoughtful action done right away is better than one that gets put off and forgotten. This suggestion felt like it was written just for me. So many times, I’ve put off doing something generous with the intent of waiting till it’s more convenient. And I usually end up never getting around to it. Now I’m resolving to write that check, give a few bucks to the guy with a sign asking for help with medical bills in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, send a text/card or buy a little gift right when the idea occurs to me rather than waiting. Because, really, it doesn’t take that much time. It gets done, lets someone know I care, and I get the side benefit of feeling happier.
  10. Practice doing nothing. Meditation can help time slow down. It’s amazing how long 20 minutes can feel when you’re just focused on your breath and being mindful!

I found this book thought-provoking as well as helpful in a practical way. It’s written in a very easy-to-read style and filled with many nuggets of wisdom. Although its intent wasn’t spiritual development, the core message is essential to come to terms with as we get older and become more aware of the amount of time we have left.

Burkeman’s ten practices for a different type of productivity are deceptively simple sounding, but I see how they could lead to profound changes. Its given me reason to stick with some practices I already have and motivation to try new approaches. I’ve started incorporating some of these ideas into my life and can begin to feel the very beginning of a shift in the way I approach time.

And, finally, if you have thoughts on whether you’d like to see more book related posts like this, or if you don’t find them helpful, please leave me a comment and let me know. I’m undecided about whether to do more of these and would appreciate feedback!

6 comments

  1. thanks for sharing! i’m not such a planner so your insights give me a glimpse into what motivates super-organized people. Last Tuesday’s gospel reading from Luke (6:12-19) made me think about how Jesus might have planned his activities, made decisions, what he tried to control, and what decisions he trusted to the Father.

    “Jesus departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named Apostles…”

    I came away thankful for Jesus (again) showing us the power and possibilities that come from trusting God, and how that trust is built through prayer… incredibly hard things to do for sure.

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    1. Letting go of my need to plan and control is a constant struggle. Even though I know I don’t really have control over too much, it’s now a well-worn habit and method of coping with anxiety about the unknown future. I seem to need constant reminders to let it go and trust that God will continue to be there for me.

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  2. Very interesting blog, Tacky. You read so much that I would certainly enjoy hearing your reviews of books that have touched you. I can’t imagine my life without my lists. I am very aware that they are a coping and control mechanism that doesn’t guarantee anything other than a fleeting sense of being in charge (scratching off those completed items). I appreciate some of the suggestions you provided and am allowing myself to move items to the next day (I do work off of a daily subset). Gasp! I also liked the “be curious” rather than “anxious” approach to life. I may be able to adopt that although the “do nothing” is a bit of a stretch for me. Even the “doing nothing” is, in fact, doing something. I’d have to add “do nothing” to my list to remind myself that it’s a behavior I want to model. And then cross it off each day. 🙂

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    1. I appreciate the irony of needing to put “do nothing” on a to-do list and then get satisfaction from crossing it off the list! I have done that. I tell myself that baby steps are better than not trying at all!

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  3. I really enjoyed your book review and would welcome more reviews, whenever you want to share. You read different types of books than I do, and I appreciate your reflections on what captures your attention. I find your insights help to broaden my perspective.

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