Four Thousand Weeks
My wife was stressing about her long to-do list recently: clean the kitchen, pick up Christmas gifts, design some shirts, complete some orders for her store, and so on. It was an impressively long list—more than she could do in a day, or even a few day.
I was just about finished with the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, so I grabbed it and handed it to her, suggesting that she read it.
“I can’t read a time management book,” she told me. “I already feel bad enough about myself.”
I assured her that was the point of reading it. It’s not a book about how to squeeze more out of our already over packed days. Or a new system for managing tasks. Rather, it’s a new way of looking at our time, so we don’t constantly feel bad about ourselves for not getting through an impossible to-do list (which I’m probably one of the guiltiest of).
I’ve had this book in my reading list for a little while now, not even realizing exactly what it was. But I can’t think of a better book for product people in December, getting ready to start a new year.
This was exactly what I needed to change the way I think about my own relationship with time, how I use it, and what I expect from myself.
Let’s dive in.
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Four Thousand Weeks isn’t a traditional time management book or productivity book. In fact, it says right at the beginning:
“[This book] is written in the belief that time management as we know it has failed miserably, and that we need to stop pretending otherwise.”
I feel that. The author is a self-proclaimed “productivity geek” and I feel like I’ve been down that same path. Trying to get more done. Schedule better. Crank through the lists.
But the average human life-span is only about four thousand weeks, which in the grand scheme of the universe, is unfairly short. And the author acknowledges that. So, besides the idea that time management has generally failed, we need a new way of thinking about time and our lives, because they are terrifyingly short:
“So this book is an attempt to help redress the balance—to see if we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.”
Let’s look at some of the key ideas from the book, and what we can learn.
This book was packed with so many ideas that I can’t cover all of them here. You’ll have to read the book to get all of them (you’ll want to do that anyway). But as I’ve reflected on the most important ideas, the ones that have stuck with me and changed my thinking the most, these are the key themes that stuck out to me.
Embracing our Limits
I, like many of you reading, probably consider myself a person who can do everything. I don’t accept the idea of limits or limitations. The idea that I can’t do it all runs against my very core, and has since I was young. I’ve always tried to do it all. That’s been a key part of who I am. So accepting that I may not be able to do everything is jarring.
But that is exactly what the author proposes—that we accept the fact that we can’t do everything. Our time is limited. And no matter how much we try or how productive we make ourselves, we simply can’t do more than we are able to:
“It’s not just that this situation feels impossible; in strictly logical terms, it really is impossible.”
This can be a difficult thing to come to terms with, though. The author might as well have been talking about me here as he describes his own realization:
“Though I’d been largely unaware of it, my productivity obsession had been serving a hidden emotional agenda. For one thing, it helped me combat the sense of precariousness inherent to the modern world of work: if I could meet every editors’ every demand, while launching various side projects of my own, maybe one day I’d finally feel secure in my career and my finances.”
I definitely feel that. But it’s true. We keep adding to our plates because we feel like there are no limits. We can do everything. And if we can only do a little more, we’ll eventually reach a place where everything will come together.
Once we realize that we do have limitations, though, we can make the necessary changes and hard choices:
“So, technically, it’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming to-do list. You’ll do what you can, you won’t’ do what you can’t, and the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken. We rarely stop to consider things so rationally, though, because that would mean confronting the painful truth of our limitations.”
Which is why I love the advice that the book gives about clearing the decks, which is a form of clearing off the easier tasks before you get to harder ones:
“instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further”
The decks could be your email, or clutter on your kitchen counter, or the list of errands you need to run. But the key is being able to tolerate the discomfort of a messy desk (which I’m pretty good at by now) in order to get more important things done. We have to understand we have limitations and we can’t do everything. So what are the most important things we should be doing and then embrace the discomfort of letting go of the rest. Which I’m not great at yet.
Embracing Uncertainty and Chaos
We all like to think that we have a tremendous amount of influence over the future—that we can bend it to our will. But the reality is that our plans are likely to go awry, no matter how carefully orchestrated.
For those of us in produce development, we are most likely familiar with Hofstadter’s Law, which states that “a project always takes longer than expected, even when the law is taken into account.” So no matter how well we plan, and even when we give ourselves buffer, that only will make it worse!
Time, and the future, don’t follow the path that we prescribe for them. And it often ends up causing us more of the anxiety that we were trying to prevent:
“The trouble with being so emotionally invested in planning for the future, though, is that while it may occasionally prevent a catastrophe, the rest of the time it tends to exacerbate the very anxiety it was supposed to allay. The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future—but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future.”
So we need to embrace the chaos and uncertainty. Embracing chaos means accepting that life is unpredictable and uncontrollable. It means letting go of the need for order and perfection. Embracing chaos means letting go of the illusion of control and learning to find happiness and fulfillment in the midst of life's unpredictability.
Does that mean we don’t plan at all? No, but we give up the expectation that our plans will prove successful and the need for certainty:
“Our efforts to influence the future aren’t the problem. The problem—the source of all the anxiety—is the need that we feel, from our vantage point here in the present moment, to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.”
And a final thought on this from the book:
“The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it. The future just isn’t the sort of thing you get to order around like that.”
Be More in the Present
When I was in college, I used to think “if I can just get past these mid-terms, then I’ll be okay.” Then it was “if I can just get past final, I can finally relax.” After I graduated, I had that same thinking. “If I can just get past this end-of-quarter reporting, then I can be happy.” And so it went. Until I realized I was endlessly putting off being happy, or relaxing, or doing other things until I just got past something.
And that is no way to live.
I came to that realization driving home late from work one night. It changed how I thought about a lot of things and changed me.
The author, in his customary way, has either peered into my life or laid bare the fact that I’m not unique at all:
“Once you’ve cleared the decks, you tell yourself; or once you’ve implemented a better system of personal organization, or gotten your degree, or invested a sufficient number of years in honing your craft…that’s when you’ll feel in control at last, you’ll be able to relax a bit, and true meaningfulness will be found. Until then, life necessarily feels like a struggle.”
To be present, we have to give up this idea of “in the future” or “after the next thing” and actually be in time now. The author calls this “entering space and time completely” and says that it means letting your illusions die.
“You have to accept there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid the tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed…and in exchange for accepting all that? You get to actually be here.”
Not everything we do needs to be in the service of higher productivity. Or getting things done. We can simply be here. And things can take as long as they take. It’s okay.
When I began woodworking, I was shocked and horrified how long it took to make everything. Part of it was my lack of skill. But part of it was simply that making things by hand takes a long time. I came to realize that is part of the process. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature. And trying to rush it always leads to bad outcomes. So sometimes we just need to stop looking so much at what’s next and simply be in the moment we’re in.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Four Thousand Weeks has changed how I think about my time. It is the book I’ve been waiting for without realizing it.
I’ve long been a tale of conflicting sides. Part of me has been a productivity geek who is looking to optimize time and get stuff done. Anyone who knows me well can tell you about my to-do lists and the way I squeeze small things in throughout the day whenever I can (my wife hates it). But the other part of me has been fighting the productivity geek. He has been trying to be more present, spend more time in the moment, have more fun. These two have been in immense conflict for several years. But with this book, I now have a framework and a lens to see how I can approach my time better and not be in so much conflict with myself.
If you feel you're in conflict, or simply feel you are always trying to get more done that you’ll ever be able to, you should definitely pick up a copy of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Hopefully, it will change your perspective as much as it has changed mine.