Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals
# What is the book about?
Our time on this earth is limited to four thousand weeks, but our commitments, goals and desires far outstretch what is achievable in this short span of time. This book is about facing our finitude and making choices to pick and choose activities that give us most happiness and satisfaction in our limited time. Reader should be aware that this book often dabbles in existential nihilism hinting that our life is so short that it is basically devoid of meaning. Instead, the takeaway really here is that time is our most valuable resource and we should treat it as such.
# Who should read this book?
If you are feeling overwhelmed with the number of things piling up in your to-do list, fueled by your commitment to work, family and hobbies that you derive satisfaction, this book gives some perspectives on how we can pick and choose things that we will get most happiness from. If you have trouble saying no, this book will help you identify that making hard choices is required to make use of our finite time. I would assume that this book is directed at at-least 30 somethings who have reached a point in their career and family where the number of obligations is too much to meet.
# Tools to embrace our finitude
- Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity
- Use dual to-do list approach:
- A “current” one limited to 10 entries. Only by finishing tasks, can you make way for more.
- An “open” one that you put all your tasks into, knowing full well that some of them may never be finished.
- Another apporach is to use a fixed time approach to establish the boundaries of daily work.
- Use dual to-do list approach:
- Only focus on a big project at a time and see it to completion before moving on to the next.
- Decide in advance what to fail at
- There are great benefits to strategic underachievement. You can identify beforehard what you intend to do poorly at, and that will make way for you to succeed in the important things. You can also take a cyclical approach to failing, where you decide that you will not do something or do it poorly for the next few months.
- Make a Completed list
- Instead of always looking to a to-do list, start a completed list and only list tasks you have completed on it. This will avoid the anxiety of seeing all the tasks yet to be finished and derive satisfaction from your successes.
- Consolidate your caring
- If you are donating time to charity, political causes or activism, make sure you limit yourself to a few tasks.
- Embrace single purpose technology
- Pen and paper is often effective for note taking
- When not reading physical books, kindle has minimal distractions compared to iPads
- Seek out novelty in the mundane
- Enjoy what you are doing instead of seeking out new pleasures. Absorb the now, and you will fill out time a lot longer. Go on walks, play with a child, meditate. Draw attention to the present.
- Become a better listener
- Relationships will be strengthened if you pay more attention to the other person speaking. Ask questions and adopt a mentality of curiousity, and show that you genuinely care about others.
- Become spontaneous
- If you think of calling a friend, do it right away. If you want to donate money, dont put it off until too much later.
- Practice doing nothing
- Just doing nothing enables you to feel the sensations and time flowing around you. Be present in it and stop trying to constantly manipulate your present experience.
# Chapter Notes
# Introduction: In the long run, we’re all dead
- We have 4000 weeks to live. Thats very short in the grand scheme of things. This book is about facing that fact, and accepting that we will never get everything done
- Productivity has become: how do we cram most number of tasks into as little time as possible
- We all regret “wasting” time when we are either too busy (no time to do what I want) or when having too much time (what should i have really been doing with my time?), because we are aware that time is limited.
- Contrast life to a conveyor belt:
- Tasks keep coming and we are supposed to get it done
- We use productivity tools and shave time off each task
- This causes conveyor below to move faster -> more tasks
- John Maynard Keene predicted that we will have 15 hour work weeks soon. He was wrong. We work more than ever now
- Busyness has become a symbol of prestige, which is strange because the goal of getting rich is to not work as hard.
- We yearn to spend time in more meaningful ways:
- desire to devote to larger cause
- having day job to cover what you really want to do
# 1: The limit embracing life
- We need new ideas about how to think about the limited time we have and how we use it.
- Each hour of life is a container on the conveyor belt of life that we feel we have to fill with something
- Before timetables were existed, people were mostly task-oriented. Do the task when it is necessary, no scheduling
- This gives rise to a sense of timelessness that Richard Rohr calls living in deep time. We get this sensation when we see big landscapes where we lose ourselves for a moment.
- We have started treating time as a resource, and feel like we dont have enough or wasting too much. Trying to make better use of time, we push ourselves harder even when there is no need to. It never feels like you do well enough.
- Accept reality: time is short, you will never do all you want. Be guided by the time it inherently takes to do something, called Eigenzeit in German. Resist the need to do everything, and let time be your guide.
# 2: The Efficiency Trap
- What is it?
- We believe we can get more efficient at doing our tasks and then “make time” for the things that really matter.
- Parkinson’s law will ensure that work always baloons to fill the time available.
- Hard choices should be made: you have to give up something to make time for something else.
- Instead of getting things done, you will add more things to do
- You will not get it all done; just focus on the ones that count
- Existential overwhelm: You want the get all of life experiences and push yourself to do so. Life has infinite experiences to offer, you can’t have all of them. Enjoy the tiny slices of experiences you actually do have
- If the goal is to clear your to-do list, you will end up doing the meaningless small tasks first instead of the important ones. So accept the fact that your to-do list will always have things on it, just prioritize better on the important things
- By using convenience tools to eradicate life’s seemingly tedious tasks, you often remove meaning and connection from your life.
# 3: Facing Finitude
- The early part of this chapter focuses on the fact that life will ultimately end; momento mori- remember that you will die. This might serve as a reminder to people who live very fast paced lives without stopping to think.
- It usually happens that you face a moment of clarity when faced with finitude, like death or a terminal illness. We should not wait until that moment to realize that time is our most valuable asset.
# 4: Become a better procrastinator
- learn to neglect the right things, or the art of creative neglect.
- Pay yourself first when it comes to time.
- Use your primetime hours to do what is most important to you
- If you are waiting to start a creative project, a social cause or anything that matters to you, at a later date, “when you have the time”, dont. Start today, however small.
- Protect time by scheduling meetings with yourself
- Limit your number of concurrent projects
- Do not work on more than 3 concurrent projects at once. If you need to add more, remove one from the list first.
- Feel free to abandon a project if it isnt working out
- Limit the number of half-finished projects
- Define your projects in managable chunks, and work on actively finishing them. Something like “get better at music” is too broad. Pick a song you want to learn. This would avoid the project from clogging up the system when something more interesting comes along
- Learn to say no to projects you do want to do
- There will be many projects that you will want to do
- Learn to actively say no to them. This is the way to focus on your priorities
- Pay yourself first when it comes to time.
- We fear committing to a single path in projects or relationships. We have the fear of missing out on possibilities that could have been. We live out a perfect fantasy in our heads, and escape when reality does not meet that perfect expectation. A fine example is Franz Kafka’s relationship with his fiance Felice Bauer.
- You must settle on something, in order to strive to get better at it. You have to commit to an instrument you want to play, for example. Switching all the time will scatter your efforts needlessly.
- I disagree with Burkeman that one should have a child to “settle” and find happiness. Yes, children are great, but its a responsibiliy that not all are cut out or want to begin with.
- Once you make a choice to settle on something, anxiety falls away and now you can move forward with purpose
# 5: The watermelon problem
- People spent 40 mins watching a TV show where people were putting rubber bands on a watermelon till it burst. This seeming utter waste of time, seems a much better source of entertainment than how we spend our time “doomscrolling” on social media.
- What you apply your attention to, is what dictates how you spend your life energy. Social media is a machine designed to collect your attention reserves for profit, and most people give away too much of their attention (life energy) to social media without realizing it.
# 6: The intimate interruptor
- Why do we so readily get distracted from hard tasks (like our job, or reading, or pracitisng an instrument)? We are the ones that distract ourselves ultimately. Burkeman suggests that this is because of our awareness of finitude.
- I disagree with this dramatic explanation of a fact that is much better explained with how social media is designed to deliver instant dopamine hits which the mind starts to crave. Most tasks worth doing do not give instant gratificaation. Finitude has nothing to do with it. It’s a weak explanation attempting to shoehorn this observation into the theme of this book.
- Burkeman suggests that there is nothing we can do to avoid distracting ourselves all the time. That aall techniques such as focus music, meditation, etc are pointless.
- I disagree with this because it has been shown that binaural beats increase focus, and meditation has far reaching impacts on the body and mind even if done only for 17 minutes a day (heard from Huberman lab podcast). Again, the author paints a hopeless picture that we are supposed to accept.
- We distract ourselves from our work, because we know what we can achieve is finite and limited. We can build in our imagination a perfect world, but reality usually falls short and we avoid facing this reality.
# 7: We never really have time
- Douglas Hofstadter jokingly said- Any task will take longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law. For example, the sydney opera house took 14 years instead of the planned 4 years.
- In trying to plan everything ahead of time to perfection, so that you will be able to avoid an outcome you do not want, you often cause more anxiety to yourself instead of facing the actual consequencies would cause themselves.
- We strive to control our time and refuse to accept our limitations. By trying to shape our future by controlling time today, which leads to anxiety. A simple cure to this anxiety is to realize that we will never be able to fully ensure our future outcomes
- Uncertainity has brought us this far in life. We handled it once, and will surely handle it in the future. Learn to accept future outcomes even if it is not the ideal one you imagined.
# 8: You are here
- Instrumentalizing time: Using time as a means to achieve something in the future. This is a problem we all face.
- Abandon the future-chasing mentality of “when-i-finally” to do something. There is no fixed task list that you can complete that will result in an overnight state of happiness.
- Children are a great example of being in the present. Their purpose is to be a child. They dont worry about kindergarden, grade school, high school, college, etc. This kind of future chasing mentality comes from the parent.
- Life is just a series of moments that you have to experience now. Being absent in the present and working towards a future benefit means that you will miss life itself.
# 9: Rediscovering Rest
- We have even taking the pleasure out of leisure by:
- Pressurizing ourselves to extract the most out of our holiday time
- Use our time off to get things done and be “productive”
- Using leisure as a means to be more productive later
- True leisure according to Aristotle is self-reflection and philisophical contemplation, and is the highest of virtues.
- Medival peasants worked only for 150 days a year, but the industrial age meant that workers need to be in factories, and were allowed to do what they pleased with their time off as long as it didnt interrupt profits.
- Todays concept of rest is only a means to recuperate from work, and be more productive when going back to it, or to improve ourselves for a future benefit. Anything that does not fit into this framework is viewed as wasteful.
- To truly enjoy rest, you have to accept that this is it, and that you cannot work yourself towards a state of perfect happiness. Real rest, where we do nothing can feel uncomfortable at first, but that is a sign that you are doing it right.
- It is worth undertaking ‘atelic’ activities, what are things you do for the sake of doing them alone, like hiking.
# 10: The Impatience Spiral
- We suffer from chronic impatience, where we honk at others for no reason, don’t wait for the microwave timer to run out, inch towards cars at red lights, etc.
- Technology has made things fast for us, but we still strive to go faster. Food reheats in a minute, but we would rather it took zero seconds. This impatience has led us to experience “restlessness” when we pick up a book to read, because reading is something that cannot be rushed. We are constantly submitting to interruptions, and using it as an excuse to avoid the discomfort that comes with something that takes time.
- Working faster has become an addiction, where we believe that we need to work as hard and as fast as possible to survive, leading to anxiety, which only makes us work more. This phenomenon is celebrated society as being “driven”
- Surrender to the reality that things will take the time they take. Reframe your perspective to relish the hard things in life that take time.
# 11: Stay on the Bus
- To be successful at the hard things, “stay on the bus”. Stick with it longer than others can and will, while having the patience to face failure and imperfection and you will be successful after sufficient effort has been put into your endeavor.
- Not being in control results in discomfort and we shy away from situations where patience and acceptance of the lack of control would be the better choice. Example, fixing an unknown problem, listening to your partner carefully, working on a difficult creative problem.
- Three principles of patience:
- Develop a taste for having problems. Learn to love them.
- Embrace radical incrementalism. Be consistent in getting a little better everyday. The results will be staggering. Don’t be impatient for dramatic results.
- If you’ve dedicated a small time slot for consistently chipping away on a project, walk away when that time slot is done even if you’re in the flow. The ability to do this everyday is more important that doing a lot in one day. Stopping helps develop the patience muscle to keep getting after it day after day.
- Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. Your initial work will always be unoriginal, but you have to “stay on the bus” long enough till true originality starts to emerge.
# 12: The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad
- Time is not useful if you are forced to experience it all on your own. It is a “networked good”, whose value is higher when other people’s time is shared and co-ordinated with yours (like a phone; it’s no use having it all to yourself)
- In the post-covid world, there is an increasing number of people who work from anywhere in the work, aka, the digital nomad. But people found that without a sense of community, it gets increasingly lonely.
- In USSR, Stalin’s chief economist, Yuri Larin, suggested having a staggered day off in the week, so that the factories can run all week, and increase productivity. The result was the people were unhappy because their inner circle never had time off at the same time. Time off only makes sense if it is synced with others you want to spend your time with.
- This is why Sweden’s, fika works so well. In a fika, the entire workplace gathers at the same time in the day for coffee and cake, and they even get offended if people don’t show up at a fika. You dont control your time off in this case, but it makes it very meaningful to connect with others.
- Burkeman talks about keeping in sync during drills, in a choir, or in communal prayers where time feels more vivid, when it is filled with more meaning.
- We need to draw a balance between individual and communal time to extract most meaning out of life. Too much of either can be detrimental to overall happiness.
# 13: Cosmic Insignificance Theory
- In the time scale of the cosmos, our finite lives are truly insignificant, and the universe could not care less about what we do with our time.
- Burkeman says that the whole of human civilization is about sixty lifetimes, and goes on to conclude that our own lifetime is nothing but a meaningless flicker.
- This absolutely makes no sense. If all of human civilization is only sixty lifetimes, then each of our lives is absolutely meaningful, and what we do with our time can affect the course of human civilization, no matter in how miniscule a way.
- He says if we realized how insignificant we are, we would not even be motivated to propagate our genes. Another absurd claim.
- What does make sense is to not hold ourselves to a unrealisitic standard of what can be considered a significnat life well spent.
# 14: The Human Disease
Burkeman poses five questions that we can answer for ourselves to assess the reality of our finite-time situation:
- “Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?” – you want to make sure you’re making choices that result in personal growth.
- “Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?” – be realisitic in what you can do.
- “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?” – don’t prove yourself to anyone, or meet expectations set by others, instead accept who you are and what you can achieve.
- “In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?” – you may never reach mastery on a skill you’re working on, so get started with what you have right now and do what you will with it.
- “How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?” – avoid being driven by results to achieve satisfaction; the journey is just as important.
“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.”
“We treat everything we’re doing—life itself, in other words—as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.” – in the context of instrumentalizing time.
“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.”
“In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth”
Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 1st Ed.