Book Review – Four Thousand Weeks

Four thousand weeks is a time management/self help book by Oliver Burkeman. In his blog, Burkeman tells us that it is a book about the power of embracing your limitations. The name of the book, four thousand weeks, refers to the average lifespan of a human being rounded to a nice figure. There is something scary about expressing our lifetime in weeks, it seems too short.

Published in the middle of the Covid pandemic (August 2021), this book was an instant hit. The book’s message of embracing the shortness of our lives was a kind of therapy many needed. The first thing you notice about the book is the cover picture and how soothing it is!

Oliver Burkeman has been writing on the topic for a long time. For over 14 years(2006 – 2020), he wrote a popular column on psychology called “This Column Will Change Your Life” for the Guardian. Previously he has written two books, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.

Originally the subtitle of the book was time and how to use it, but it seems to have been changed to time management for mortals. In my opinion, a better way to describe the book will be “life – take it easy“. Burkeman argues that many of the modern productivity and time management concepts simply don’t work and cause a lot of pain. He calls himself a “recovering productivity geek” who was once obsessed with productivity hacks and techniques. He argues that most of these techniques don’t solve the problem of finitude of our lives and we need a different strategy of acceptance to deal with it.

The book starts with Burkeman convincing us that our limited time is something that is the root of many of our issues. He tells us,

Arguably, time management is all life is. Yet the modern discipline known as time management—like its hipper cousin, productivity—is a depressingly narrow-minded affair, focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible, or on devising the perfect morning routine, or on cooking all your dinners for the week in one big batch on Sundays.

Many of us will agree with Burkeman when he says,

In fact, I did get better at racing through my to-do list, only to find that greater volumes of work magically started to appear.

Burkeman not only explores the issues of finitude but also gives some practical suggestions on how to deal with it. I agree with him that the virtue of patience is underrated. I liked his advice on developing patience – (1) develop a taste for problems (2) embrace radical incrementalism (3) understand that originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.

In under 300 pages, Burkeman takes us through the importance of selective procrastination, the all pervasive issue of distraction and modern technology, the importance of pleasure for its own sake, virtue of patience, the loneliness of the free digital nomad and how our acceptance of our irrelevance in the universe can actually help us!

One common theme of the book is that we should make our life decisions, accept them and then deal with it. He tells us to embrace JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) instead of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). He tells us,

(The original Latin word for ‘decide’, decidere, means ‘to cut off’, as in slicing away alternatives; it’s a close cousin of words like ‘homicide’ and ‘suicide’.) Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.

I like his advice on dating and romance where he goes against the western cultural thinking of delaying marriage and “settling”. Burkeman is very clear in his thinking,

The received wisdom, articulated in a thousand magazine articles and inspirational Instagram memes, is that it’s always a crime to settle. But the received wisdom is wrong. You should definitely settle.

I agree with him and I also note that this is also a cultural thing. In my society (South India), the social consensus (at least now) is to settle. Marriages happen with very little dating or “getting to know each other”, but still a lot of these marriages are successful simply because people move on with their decisions.

I am a fan of the personal finance classic, The Richest Man in Babylon. I couldn’t help but chuckle when Burkeman tells us that the Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.

The book ends with 10 tools for embracing your finitude which seems like something added on the insistence of the publisher or editor. I liked his advice of practising the art of doing nothing, but disagree on the advice to see boring and single purpose technology. Clearly it is something that depends on the individual, his needs and what he can afford.

Four thousand weeks is a well researched book with historical references and quotes from Tao, Seneca and modern studies on human behaviour. Burkeman writes humorously and with humility and that goes a long way making this book an interesting and worthwhile read!

Book Summary – Four Thousand Weeks

Four thousand weeks consists of twenty chapters organised in two sections – Choosing to Choose and Beyond Control.
Part I – Choosing to Choose contains the following chapters,

  • The limit-embracing life. Accept that time is limited and even with prioritisation, everything won’t get done. Confessions from a productivity geek on how productivity hacks bring more misery.
  • The efficiency trap. The more you get efficient at something, you feel there are much more possibilities and things to get done. Don’t operate under the illusion of one day making time for everything. The pitfalls of convenience.
  • Facing finitude. Our lives are finite. Accepting finitude and moving on is important in our lives. Heidegger says that our being is defined by our finite time. The latin word for decide means to cut off.
  • Becoming a better procrastinator. The lie of first things first. Three principles – the art of creative neglect, pay yourself first when it comes to time. Second is to limit your work in progress. Third is to resist the allure of medium priorities. The inevitability of settling and how it can help.
  • The Watermelon problem – The Buzzfeed How Many Rubber Bands Does It Take To Explode A Watermelon? video in 2016 and the problem of distraction. The silicon valley software/social media cause not only time wastage but also influence how the society is working.
  • The Intimate Interrupter – We try to avoid doing important things by moving to the distractions. Accept reality and pay attention.

Part II – Beyond Control contains some wisdom and tips for managing time,

  • We never really have time – A plan is just a thought. Krishnamurthi’s secret, I don’t mind what happens.
  • You are here – Missing the present for the expected future which never arrives.
  • Rediscovering rest – The need for pleasure for its own sake. The importance of hobbies.
  • The impatience spiral – The Tao philosophy of accepting things as it is. The virtue of patience.
  • Staying on the bus – Principles of patience – (1) develop a taste for problems (2) embrace radical incrementalism (3) originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.
  • The loneliness of the digital nomad – The misnomer of digital nomad. Nomad originally is group focused and has less personal freedom than members of settled tribes. The importance of the community aspect.
  • Cosmic Insignificance Therapy – Face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. There are only a handful of people in history such as Mozart or Einstein.
  • The Human disease – The thinking that we can master time is the disease. Do the next right thing. Some questions to ponder,
    • Are you pursuing comfort, when what is called for is a little discomfort?
    • Are you holding yourself to standards or performance that are impossible to meet?
    • Yet to accept you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
    • Are you holding back until you feel like you know what you are doing? Everyone is winging it!
    • How would you spend days differently if you don’t care about immediate results?

In the appendix, Burkeman offers us 10 tools for embracing your finitude,

  • Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity
  • Serialise, serialise, serialise
  • Decide in advance what to fail at
  • Focus what you have already completed
  • Consolidate your caring
  • Embrace boring and single-purpose technology
  • Seek out novely in mundane
  • Be a researcher in relationships
  • Cultivate instantaneous generosity
  • Practice doing nothing

Interesting Quotes from Four Thousand Weeks

  • We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.
  • It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige.
  • Edward Hall was making the same point with his image of time as a conveyor belt that’s constantly passing us by. Each hour or week or year is like a container being carried on the belt, which we must fill as it passes, if we’re to feel that we’re making good use of our time. When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy;
  • This book is an exploration of a saner way of relating to time and a toolbox of practical ideas for doing so, drawn from the work of philosophers, psychologists and spiritual teachers who all rejected the struggle to dominate or master it.
  • We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life, wrote Nietzsche, because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.
  • Back in the 1950s, a splendidly cranky British author named Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann wrote a short book, Teach Yourself to Live, in which he recommended the limit-embracing life, and he responded saltily to the suggestion that his advice was depressing. Depressing? Not a bit of it. No more depressing than a cold [shower] is depressing.
  • Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie.
  • Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.
  • Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.
  • At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life.
  • The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise – to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.
  • Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again – as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster.
  • In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum in London who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the ancient Egyptian artefact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later, by recording images and videos of it on their phones.
  • If the satisfaction of an old man drinking a glass of wine counts for nothing, wrote Simone de Beauvoir, then production and wealth are only hollow myths; they have meaning only if they are capable of being retrieved in individual and living joy.
  • The Tao Te Ching is full of images of suppleness and yielding: the wise man (the reader is constantly being informed) is like a tree that bends instead of breaking in the wind, or water that flows around obstacles in its path.
  • Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You.
  • And it is likewise implausible, for almost all people, to demand of themselves that they be a Michelangelo, a Mozart, or an Einstein. There have only been a few dozen such people in the entire history of humanity.

December 28, 2022 | Posted in Opinion No Comments » | By Jayson

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