We often push back against simple reality, living as if we are the masters of time. Our lives are filled with to-do lists that we’ll never complete, increasing the anxiety that is an all-too-common feature of 21st century living. As technology gives us the ability to work faster, we quickly fill up the time “saved” with more tasks. We become increasingly impatient when we can’t force life to keep the pace we’ve chosen.
Sound familiar? If so, realizing that if you live to be 80 years old, your life span will only total 4,000 weeks may be a good place to begin facing reality.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) by Oliver Burkeman begins with the simple fact that we won’t live forever. In the grand scheme of things, we won’t even live very long at all. We all know this intellectually, but we structure our lives and our priorities as if our time will stretch on indefinitely. While many of us have used up more than half of that 4,000-week allotment of time, we nonetheless buy into efficiency experts and productivity gurus who push us to make almost infinitely ambitious plans. If we stop to notice, we’ll see that we are frenetically doing tasks instead of experiencing the wonder of life that is all around us.
And why do we fail to make the best use of a small amount of time? Because to embrace a life with limits is to admit that we’re not superhuman; to acknowledge that we cannot master time. It is to accept the fact that we’re mortal, and that we’ll die. Probably sooner than we wish.
Burkeman, a self-described “recovering productivity geek”, tells us in this thoughtful book that we’ll only truly live the life we’re given when we accept those limits and understand our mortality; when we acknowledge we have “the human disease” and understand, as Kate Bowler has written, that there is simply no cure for being human.
The first half of Burkeman’s work is focused on facing “finitude” — how being human is bound up with our finite time. The details differ, but
We all recoil from the notion that this is it — that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.
How do we deal with this challenge? If you’ve been paying attention to anything I’ve written over the past few years, you’ll not be surprised to find that Burkeman’s paradox of limitation rings true to me. The more one tries to manage time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets. But the more one confronts “the facts of finitude instead — and works with them, rather than against them — the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.”
We’ve all heard the Greek myth of Sisyphus who is punished for his arrogance by having to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down so he has to repeat the action for all eternity. Burkeman suggests that in the contemporary version, “Sisyphus would empty his inbox, lean back, and take a deep breath, before hearing a familiar ping: ‘You have new messages . . .'”
The book’s second half is structured to help the reader move “beyond control” to where we confront life on its terms, not ours. You’ll never be liberated. “And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.”
Burkeman isn’t suggesting that we shouldn’t plan for the future. That’s not the problem. “The problem — the source of all the anxiety — is the need that we feel … to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.” We can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty, he writes, “is an intrinsically hopeless one.” And many spiritual traditions point this out. “Trying to control the future is like trying to take the master carpenter’s place” cautions one of the founding texts of Taoism.
I have a spiritual mentor who is fond of saying, “the job of God is already taken.” Throughout this provocative book we learn how to mind our own business, which is the only thing we really control.
We are also taught to give up seeing everything we do in life as laying the groundwork for something else. Those caught up in the capitalistic world’s pressure to instrumentalize our time learn how breaking our days into billable hours saps meaning from our lives. Burkeman provides a much more satisfying — to my thinking — way to consider “living in the moment.” We’re always “living in the moment” he asserts. We never had any other option.
One of the most useful chapters focuses on the need to rediscover rest. We have seen the decline of pleasure since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Even in our time off we’re supposed to be “investing in our future.” But is work — especially in the modern capitalist model — the highest human calling? To fully inhabit the only life we ever get, we have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth. As one Marxist writer put it, we have the right to be lazy. Burkeman would add, we not only have the right, but we have the need to do so.
This book came to me via recommendations from high-powered and highly productive colleagues who are taking time mid-career to figure out what’s next. It is certainly an appealing book for that cohort, but also for the young student and professional as well as those of us who have already passed through the first two “thirds” of life. There is much for each of us to consider.
Things just take the time they take. The sooner we accept that fact and admit that the level of control demanded by the efficiency experts will never be attained, the sooner we can live the only life we have more fully.
More to come…
The Weekly Reader links to written works I’ve enjoyed. I hope you find something that makes you laugh, think, or cry.
Sounds like an excellent read. I just ordered it from my favorite book store, Gibson’s in Downtown Concord – and it’s listed as a “staff favorite”.
Terrific, Kathy! I think you’ll enjoy it. Thanks, as always, for reading (and for supporting those great independent bookstores!). DJB
My friend Merrill, one of those who recommended the book to me, wrote the following on my LinkedIn page:
Love this book (and your review)! You’ve prompted me to go back and look at some of the quotes that resonated with me when I read it. This one stands out again, especially as many hours in this season of life are spent driving my kids all over the DMV… “Moreover, most of us seek a specifically individualistic kind of mastery over time—our culture’s ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want—because it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.”
Also, the former Latin nerd in me loves how he talks about the word “decide” comes from a word meaning “to cut off” so as we make decisions we should be all in on them and not regret the path not taken.
Finally, “today, at least, there might be nothing more you need to do in order to justify your existence” and it’s paradoxical “blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: that what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.”
And my friend Barbara heard Oliver Burkeman’s interview on a podcast. She strongly recommended it:
“David—check out this interview: https://www.amantha.com/podcasts/get-your-priorities-straight-with-oliver-burkeman/
This is one of my favorite podcasts.”
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