The fact that as human beings we have a finite amount of time underlies much of the cult of productivity and time management—how can we get more done in the time that we have?

But Oliver Burkeman, in his new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, contends that conventional approaches to productivity are a trap and that the more you try to optimize your use of time, the more empty your life becomes.

He argues that our soberingly limited time on earth—the 4,000 weeks referenced in the title are the rough duration of the average human’s lifespan—means that we won’t have time to accomplish all of the things that we want to do and we’re better off living more fully in the moment rather than try to cram more tasks into our days.

“Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster,” writes Burkeman, a longtime journalist for The Guardian. “Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7am.” (p. 13)

Four Thousand Weeks is the manifesto for a broad life philosophy—constructed in reaction to the cult of personal productivity that underpins countless other business books, which Burkeman says he long followed. It’s a creative, well-written book, whose central caution against trying to optimize our lives in pursuit of some ideal future resonates thoroughly. Four Thousand Weeks is especially relevant as people reassess the place of work in their lives during the pandemic, and though it pushes back against obsessing over efficiency, it ultimately does include useful tips for getting things done.

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Burkeman’s argument is based on a few observations and assumptions:

  • We have impossible expectations for how much we can get done, and still beat ourselves up for failing to meet them.
  • The more work we do, the more there is to do. (Burkeman uses the simple example  that replying to an email often prompts a reply that requires a further reply from you.)
  • The unrealistic idea that we can do everything often means that we focus first on the less important tasks that crop up and never give adequate time to the most meaningful things we could spend time on.
  • The core challenge is how to choose what not to do, and to be at peace with that decision.
  • Our frantic efforts to optimize for a more perfect future are rooted in an unwillingness to confront our own mortality and imperfections. We opt to lose ourselves in “busyness.”
  • Social media is “essentially a giant machine for persuading you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about,” Burkeman writes. (p. 94)
  • But, paradoxically given our limited time on earth, idleness has its own value in anchoring us in the present moment, which is all that we are guaranteed to have. And time spent with others—presumably not on work tasks—is often the most meaningful.

“Once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count,” writes Burkeman (p. 233)

The book concludes with a series of tips, including:

  • Put limitations around the work that you take on to force yourselves to confront the tough choices about how you use your time. One approach is to restrict your main to-do list to 10 items, and not add a task until you’ve completed one. Another is to put hard time bounds around your work day.
  • Focus on just one big project at a time. Become comfortable with the anxiety of postponing everything else, and you can get more done by taking things one at a time.
  • Decide in advance where you’re going to underperform so you can focus on your priorities.
  • Keep a “done list” with tasks you’ve completed. That will make you feel good about what you’re accomplishing, even as you choose not to do everything.
  • Consciously pick a limited number of charity, activism, and political causes. There are many urgent things to support, but focusing allows you to make a meaningful difference.
  • Use boring and single-purpose technology, such as a Kindle ereader, to reduce distraction. The key is not being lured into social media when that’s not what you intended.
  • Be curious about other people. It requires loosening control over interactions, but is more enriching.
  • Act on generous impulses right away. Deferring the thought of giving money or checking in on a friend makes it less likely you’ll actually do it.

To be sure:

  • Burkeman’s approach is literally fatalistic—he repeatedly notes that we could die anytime and anything we do is insignificant on a cosmic scale. There’s a counter-argument (that he ultimately at least partly aligns with) that what we do does matter and that we shouldn’t retreat into idleness but rather need to make the most of the time that we do have.
  • In this way, Burkeman is arguably less different from the productivity philosophies he critiques than he suggests. Ultimately, he offers time-management tips that are more humanistic—but he offers such tips all the same.
  • Burkeman’s approach assumes that you have control over how you spend your work time and what you need to accomplish, which is more true for a white-collar elite than for the average American worker.

Choice quotes:

  • “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” (p. 3)
  • “We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.” (p. 4)
  • “Arguably, time management is all life is.” (p. 4)
  • “The busyness of the better-off is contagious, because one extremely effective way to make more money, for those at the top of the tree, is to cut costs and make efficiency improvements in their companies and industries. That means greater insecurity for those lower down, who are then obliged to work harder just to get by.” (p. 11)
  • “You have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationship with other human beings can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well—and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for much anyway.” (p. 218)
  • “The ‘next and most necessary thing’ is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in the moment. And we must do it despite not having any objective way to be sure what the right course of action even is.” (p. 228)

The bottom line is that Four Thousand Weeks offers a convincing counter to our culture of glorifying extreme productivity, work, and wealth. It suggests an alternative to frustration for those of us who don’t make it way through our to-do lists every day, and provides pragmatic advice for using more meaningfully our limited time on earth.

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