Four Thousand Weeks. Time Management for Mortals

by Oliver Burkeman


2022 Oct 09


The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks.

Nobody needs telling there isn’t enough time. We’re obsessed with our lengthening to-do lists, our overfilled inboxes, work-life balance, and the ceaseless battle against distraction; and we’re deluged with advice on becoming more productive and efficient, and “life hacks” to optimize our days. But such techniques often end up making things worse. The sense of anxious hurry grows more intense, and still the most meaningful parts of life seem to lie just beyond the horizon. Still, we rarely make the connection between our daily struggles with time and the ultimate time management problem: the challenge of how best to use our four thousand weeks.

Drawing on the insights of both ancient and contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers, Oliver Burkeman delivers an entertaining, humorous, practical, and ultimately profound guide to time and time management. Rejecting the futile modern fixation on “getting everything done,” Four Thousand Weeks introduces readers to tools for constructing a meaningful life by embracing finitude, showing how many of the unhelpful ways we’ve come to think about time aren’t inescapable, unchanging truths, but choices we’ve made as individuals and as a society - and that we could do things differently.

Notes & Highlights

1. The Limit-Embracing Life 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 … You are no longer befogged and bewildered by a false and misleading illusion about your life—like most people.”

2. The Efficiency Trap

The technologies we use to try 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.

4. Becoming a Better Procrastinator

…two venerable pieces of time management advice: to work on your most important project for the first hour of each day, and to protect your time by scheduling “meetings” with yourself, marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude.

…fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you will allow yourself to work on at any give time. In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot.

Another happy consequence was that I found myself effortlessly breaking down my projects into manageable chunks, a strategy I’d long agreed with in theory but never properly implemented. Now it became the intuitive thing to do: it was clear that if I nominated “write book” or “move house” as one of my three tasks in progress, it would clog up the system for months, so I was naturally motivated to figure out the next achievable step in each case instead. Rather than trying to do everything, I found it easier to accept the truth that I’d be doing only a few things on any given day. The difference, this time, was that I actually did them.

6. The Intimate Interrupter

Some Zen Buddhists hold that the entirety of human suffering can be boiled down to this effort to resist paying full attention to the way things are going, because we wish they were going differently (“This shouldn’t be happening!”), or because we wish we felt more in control of the process. There is a very down-to-earth kind of liberation in grasping that there are certain truths about being a limited human from which you’ll never be liberated. You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.

7. We Never Really Have Time

…despite our total lack of control over any of these occurrences, each of us made it through to this point in our lives—so it might at least be worth entertaining the possibility that when the uncontrollable future arrives, we’ll have what it takes to weather that as well. And that you shouldn’t necessarily even want such control, given how much of what you value in life only ever came to pass thanks to circumstances you never chose.

8. You Are Here

Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now.

As the author Jay Jennifer Matthews puts it in her excellently titled short book Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are, “We cannot get anything out of life. There is no outside where we could take this thing to. There is no little pocket, situated outside of life, [to which we could] steal life’s provisions and squirrel them away. The life of this moment has no outside.”

11. Staying on the Bus

The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism. The psychology professor Robert Boice spent his career studying the writing habits of his fellow academics, reaching the conclusion that the most productive and successful among them generally made writing a smaller part of their daily routine than the others, so that it was much more feasible to keep going with it day after day.

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Four Thousand Weeks. Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman