Only 4000 weeks to live
Lessons from Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman
Season’s greetings! The year is already and finally coming to an end, and we have “2020 two” only nine days away. I’ll send my 2021 reflection in the coming weeks—first I wanted to share a book I read recently that I can’t stop thinking about, Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.
Four Thousand Weeks is an anti self-help self-help book. It is about time management and how to live a meaningful life, but more importantly it is about how humans (including you and me) are doomed to fail at both of these things. There will always be tasks that we won’t have time for (who are we to think we can “manage time” anyway?) and there will be plenty of pursuits we want to master for which our life is too short.
This sounds like an incredibly depressing take but Oliver Burkeman emphasizes how much this should free us! So much of our desires and actions to be more productive, to increase efficiency, and to alleviate boredom stems from the difficulty in accepting our complete lack of control in life. If we can recognize that we are never really in control and that having problems is intertwined with living a life, then we can ease into the freedom and peace of following time rather than controlling it (as Burkeman puts it, “let time use you”).
You can unfold and be with time, opening your attention to the now and all its discomforts, or you can spend time for a future state of happiness/relaxation that may never come. We don’t own time—the odds are that we shouldn’t even be alive!
You don’t need the feeling of complete security that you desperately seek. Giving up hope doesn’t kill you—it only kills the fear and ego driven side of you. I feel so far from being able to internalize this but working on it!
Saying no to what you don’t want to do is relatively easy—saying no to what you do want to do is what makes the difference. Here’s more on that strategy, though I think having periods of not saying no to anything is really fun too.
Endure the discomfort of not knowing. The solution will often present itself and racing towards a solution is often counterintuitive. I am reminded of my conversation with my brother-in-law Nick on not overintellectualizing what to do in life.
Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. The Helsinki Bus Station Theory points to a story told in a graduation speech by a photographer that uses the Helsinki main bus station as a metaphor to approaching a creative life. The station has tons of buses that all take the same route of the city before they diverge later along the path. Getting off the bus early and starting over would be fruitless, since it takes more time to reach a worthwhile destination. In the same manner, you might pick a creative path and be tempted to pivot when you feel you aren’t skilled or that your work is derivative. But if you stay on the bus, “your total output is…all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision.” This story teaches the same lesson as the taste gap popularized by Ira Glass, but more vividly!
A good survival strategy: do the next right thing (without ever knowing if it was really right).
We often to seek to individually master time, but consider that the things most worth doing depend on cooperating with others, exposing yourself to the emotional unpredictabilities of relationships. As an anxious introvert this freaks me out but I know it’s true.
Try atelic activities—things done for their own sake, with their purpose in the middle. There are walks and hikes, dancing, listening to an album, doodling, playing games with others, any form of hobby.
10 tools and techniques:
Try two to-do lists: one open, one closed. The open to-do list has every incoming or carried over task, from the big to the mundane. The closed to do list has ten items at most, and you can only carry over a new item to the closed list once you finish a task and have an open slot.
Tackle one big project at a time (or one work, one non-work project). So hard to do! I love juggling several projects to feel productive but I think we all have experienced having multiple projects and not finishing any of them. By having just one project, we get better at tolerating the anxiety of focusing on one thing.
Decide what to fail at. Accept that you won’t be mastering every area in your life. What things are constantly on your to do list that never seems to get done?For now I have decided to fail at aesthetic home decor and keeping up with the latest TV and pop culture. Feels freeing!
Focus on what you’ve already completed. Keep a done list to feel proud of what you have accomplished day by day. You can also add low lift wins as to do items, like “floss teeth.”
Consolidate your caring. There is so much bad shit happening in the world (just scroll Twitter for five minutes) that it’s very likely you will feel overwhelmed and not take any meaningful action. Instead you can accept your finite capacity and narrow your caring to certain issues (e.g. “In 2022 I will focus on climate change issues and volunteer with X organization”).
Embrace boring, single-purpose technology. Smartphones have no limits—that’s why they are so appealing! To encourage sticking with hard feelings like boredom and difficulty, you can try making your phone display greyscale and use technology like e-readers, analog timers, and record players that only serve one function.
Seek out novelty in the mundane. I am guilty of stuffing my schedule with new experiences—places to travel, things to eat—that end in me feeling overwhelmed instead of inspired. We can try instead to pay more attention to every mundane moment, whether it’s taking a new route on a daily walk, sketching from real life, or playing “I Spy” with a child.
“Research” in your relationships. When we strive to have full control of our time, we find it hard to listen to others and feel more annoyed by interruptions. Instead we can adopt curiosity during moments of challenge or boredom. Ask, “how did this person come to be this way?” Curiosity allows for ways that you like and dislike, as opposed to judgment or control.
Cultivate instant generosity. When you get the impulse to be generous or kind, whether it’s donating, complimenting a stranger, or checking on on a friend, act on it right away instead of putting it off. Stressing about the “best” way to be generous likely means we won’t get around to doing it at all.
Practice doing nothing. From the book: “technically, it’s impossible to do nothing at all: as long as you remain alive, you’re always breathing, adopting some physical posture, and so forth. So training yourself to ‘do nothing’ really means training yourself to resist the urge to manipulate your experience or the people and things in the world around you—to let things be as they are.”
Wishing you all the atelic activities during this end of year season. Let me know what lessons resonated with you, and what you’re currently struggling with regarding time management! Would love to exchange stories and help each other out. 💛
This is a great summary it’s always interesting seeing how other people respond to the same books. Reading this book was a bit of an existential crisis for me, it was like I had to suspend all my beliefs for the two weeks I spend reading it before stating my new beliefs about time.
This was such a great end of year wrap up and notes for the upcoming year - planning on printing this out and posting on my desk as many many good reminders.