4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver BurkemanAugust 14, 202327 min read
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Four Thousand Weeks is in my opinion a must-read. It covers a breadth of topics, some of which I’ll detail below.
“Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.” - Charles Eisentein
I felt the words above viscerally. We have been conditioned into thinking this is natural when it definitely is not. It reminds us that the wonder and joy—the kind that children experience-we need to carry throughout life.
I can definitively say it is one of those books that depending on where you are in your life, can either upturn your reality, so you refocus on the things that are truly important, or strengthen your core values.
The notes below are rough and sectioned into themes:
Time, not separate to reality due to task orientation
- Before timetables and the industrial revolution which captured time on a clock, where you can see the seconds move and potentially ‘waste away’, there was no real concept of time as an abstract entity at all. Instead, time was interwoven with the task or activity in hand.
“We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, ‘an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences”- Lewis Mumford
- “The medieval farmer simply had no reason to adopt such a bizarre idea in the first place. Workers got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvest time, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that – for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner – would rightly have been considered a lunatic. There was no anxious pressure to ‘get everything done’, either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing towards some hypothetical moment of completion. Historians call this way of living ‘task orientation’, because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.”
- “Untroubled by any notion of time ‘ticking away’, he might have experienced a heightened awareness of the vividness of things, the feeling of timelessness that Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan priest and author, calls ‘living in deep time’.”
- “We can assert all this with some confidence because we still occasionally encounter islands of deep time today – in those moments when, to quote the writer Gary Eberle, we slip ‘into a realm where there is enough of everything, where we are not trying to fill a void in ourselves or the world’. The boundary separating the self from the rest of reality grows blurry, and time stands still. ‘The clock does not stop, of course,’ Eberle writes, ‘but we do not hear it ticking.”
- “Making time standardised and visible in this fashion inevitably encourages people to think of it as an abstract thing with an independent existence, distinct from the specific activities on which one might spend it; ‘time’ is what ticks away as the hands move round the clock face.”
Self-worth and time
- “Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you’re using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked or overwhelmed.”
- How damn true, you’re just LIVING mate.
Constraints of reality
- “Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality”
- “After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do. It’s also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless.”
- This paragraph is golden, it strikes at the heart of our decision paralysis and greatest fears. This implicit understanding, that our time is finite, so we don’t confront the choices that lay in front us instead thinking we will arrive and get to a place where everything is perfect. And all aspects of your life will be fulfilled exactly as you’d like.
- It’s scary to confront the truth that almost 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.
- We seek individual mastery over our time when in reality we need cooperation.
- Allow yourself to be constrained by the rhythms of community—participating in forms of social life where you don’t get to decide exactly what you do or when you do it.
- Is time something we use in the first place?
- The sense that you’re doing enough—that you are enough
- Hard to feel because the metric by society makes you feel like you should have limitless control over your life, when in reality you don’t. It makes you feel you can ‘fit everything in’ and you naturally take on more commitments without asking if each commitment is actually worth your time. Your days’ inevitability fill with more activities you don’t especially value.
Limit embracing attitude
- Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default - or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management trucks, you might not need to make them at all.
- Forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.
FOMO becomes the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO)
- The fear of missing out on something—on almost everything—is basically guaranteed. This isn’t a problem because ‘missing out’ is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place.
- It’s precisely that I could have chosen a different and perhaps equally valuable way to spend this afternoon that bestows meaning on the choice I did make.
- The modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, and so there arises an inevitable and unbridgeable gap between what you’d ideally like to do and what you can actually do.
- Before civilisation people didn’t feel this as much because they believed in an afterlife, viewed world as unchanging throughout history.
Filled Full life vs Fulfilled life
‘The more we can accelerate our ability to go to different places, see new things, try new foods, embrace various forms of spirituality, learn new activities, share sensual pleasures with others whether it be in dancing or sex, experience different forms of art, and so on, the less incongruence there is between the possibilities of experience we can realise in our own lifetimes and the total array of possibilities available to human beings now and in the future—that is, the closer we come to having a ‘fulfilled’ life, in the literal sense of one that is filled full of experiences as it can possibly be’—Jonathan Trejo-Mathys
- Stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect.
- It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived—but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no close to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.
- Efficiency trap[^1] again, but this time with existential overwhelm.
- Maybe it’s okay to do the same things again and again.
Tolerating the discomfort
- It’s okay to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.
- Existential overwhelm, once you truly understand you will miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem.
Inconvenience often adds colour in our lives
- It’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it liveable
- It isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort—which is to say, the inconvenience.
- The more you make things convenient, you drain it of its meaning.
- Less money involved, more effort, more worthwhile.
- Cook your food, brew your coffee, garden, play sports, etc.
- I happen to be alive, and there’s no cosmic law entitling me to that status. Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteed.
- The secret of happiness is that realizing the world owes you nothing, and so everything and I mean everything is a blessing
- Your whole life is on borrowed time, that you will give back - any experience is a blessing
Tips on how to do the things that truly matter to you:
Pay Yourself First
- Find time for your most valued activities no matter what, do a little bit everyday no matter what else is pulling your attention.
- Make what you want to truly do a habit, and carve time out for it.
Limit your work in progress (these are projects)
- Think of things like kanban and things with start and finish or even if not, a hard upper limit of things you are allowing yourself to work on at any given time.
- If they are really big, epic themed you can break it down to smaller tasks still
Resist allure of middling priorities
- Make list of 25 things you want out of life and arrange them in order, from important to least. Top 5 are how you should organise your time around. Rest 20 - actively avoid at all costs, because they’re ambitions insufficiently important to form core of life yet seductive enough to distract from the ones that matter most - Warren Buffet
- The problem is moderately appealing futures. Say no yo.
Procrastination (perfection and paralysis)
- Bad procrastinator paralysed precisely because they can’t bear thought of confronting limitations - procrastination is emotional avoidance.
- It’s the fear of reality and the chaos and uncertainty, which is the underlying reason for this. Better for ideas to exist as ideas instead of things in the world.
- The idea of the future pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams that in reality.
- Call to action - live life! These plans don’t mean anything unless you make steps to make it real.
- Good procrastinator knows they can’t finish everything so decide which tasks to focus on and what to neglect.
- Be content with the tradeoffs, nothing can be perfect.
Jump off without fear into ALL things in life, do not be afraid of commitment.
- When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because there’s only one direction to travel - forward into the consequences of your choice. Finitude is fact, what we do now is in our court.
Attention is life
- Attention isn’t a resource, just as time isn’t a resource - it is life - your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. it isn’t wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on Buzzfeed. It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all!
The finest meal might as well be a plate of instant noodles if your mind is elsewhere. ‘Attention is the beginning of devotion’ - Mary Oliver.
- The details matter, the richness in life is EVERYWHERE
- What happens when we succumb to distraction?
- We’re motivated by the desire to flee something painful about our experience of the present.
- We are attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude - with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, in the case of distraction, limited control over that time, which makes it impossible to feel certain about how things will turn out.
- When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits - more uncomfortable because this is something you value so much.
- Why we get bored of things we deem important
- When you feel bored you are obliged to deal with how your experience is unfolding in this moment, to resign yourself to the reality that this is it.
- Find the beauty and details when you experience the feeling of boredom.
A poignant quote about suffering and Buddhism
- 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, or that we wish we felt more in control of the process.
- The human disease, is often painful, but as the zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure.
The uncertainty of time
Time is never guaranteed - nobody ever really gets 4000 weeks. You may not even get tomorrow or next week. It’s not an allotment of time we get. We are potentially 4000 weeks or more or less.
There is a sense that every moment of life is a ‘last time’. It arrives; you’ll never get it again - and once it’s passed, your remaining supply of moments will be one smaller than before.
You will never get 100% certainty or reassurance, so maybe that can help with that anxiety.- All of the impossibilities that led to this moment right now, you’ve been able to weather them. You will be able to weather the future too.
- So much of the beauty is from circumstance :)
To the extent we stop demanding certainty that things will go our way later on, we’ll be liberated from anxiety in the only moment it ever actually is, which is this one.
But all a plan is - all it could ever be - is a present- moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply
The Promised Future
- When we think of time as something to ‘use well’ like a resource, we think we have to get through to reach some fulfilling promised point in the future.
- It’s a balance to not think too future oriented that you don’t enjoy the present.
- The present is not a path to some superior future state - the moment is satisfying in itself.
- Balance the “now” with the wisdom of the future.
- It doesn’t have to be rooted in scientific methodology, but your intuition.
“Take education. What a hoax. As a child, you are sent to nursery school. In nursery school, they say you are getting ready to go on to kindergarten. And then first grade is coming up and second grade and third grade … In high school, they tell you you’re getting ready for college. And in college you’re getting ready to go out into the business world … [People are] like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive.” - Alan Watts
Productivity as a state of being
- Big reason why lawyers are so depressed is the concept of billable hours - an hour not sold is automatically an hour wasted. They (and other people) have a hard time understanding a non-commodified understanding of time.
- For non-lawyers/contractors this could just be the underlying feeling of fixating on being ‘productive’
- All this hard work will pay off right?
- Who says it will? The fruits of our time and labour, for some imagined pristine state of no problems. Wishful thinking. Wasteful reality.
“John Maynard Keynes saw the truth at the bottom of all this, which is that our fixation on what he called ‘purposiveness’ – on using time well for future purposes, or on ‘personal productivity’, he might have said, had he been writing today – is ultimately motivated by the desire not to die. ‘The “purposive” man,’ Keynes wrote, ‘is always trying to secure a spurious and delusive immortality for his actions by pushing his interests in them forward into time. He does not love his cat, but his cat’s kittens; nor in truth the kittens, but only the kittens’ kittens, and so on forward forever to the end of cat-dom. For him, jam is not jam unless it is a case of jam tomorrow and never jam today. Thus by pushing his jam always forward into the future, he strives to secure for his act of boiling it an immortality.’ “Because he never has to ‘cash out’ the meaningfulness of his actions in the here and now, the purposive man gets to imagine himself an omnipotent god, whose influence over reality extends infinitely off into the future; he gets to feel as though he’s truly the master of his time. But the price he pays is a steep one. He never gets to love an actual cat, in the present moment. Nor does he ever get to enjoy any actual jam. By trying too hard to make the most of his time, he misses his life.”
- Be grateful for the way things are NOW.
- The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness or other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore.
- Meditating so that we can be calm forever, running a 10k marathon but not enjoying a simple run. Photography for an end state of producing something, not for the joy of doing it. Backpacking to create memories and hope you’ve lived life, rather than travelling for the sake of it.
- Spending leisure time ‘wastefully’ - that is without the need to create value for the future - is true leisure.
- What’s the point if you can’t simply enjoy the moment? - like legitimately.
‘We are the sum of all the moments in our lives,’ writes Thomas Wolfe, ‘all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.’ It we’re going to show up for, and thus find some enjoyment in, our brief time on the planet, we had better show up for it now.
- What does this mean about what we want to do in that time? Enjoying things for the process as well as the end result.
- The work you’ve done over the week is enough - spend one day per week in the awareness and practise of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.
- There is nothing more you need to do in order to justify your existence.
Hobbies (Atelic Activities)
- Activities with no end goal or state, like listening to music - you don’t hurry it otherwise the song would be a single sound.
- Get the heart of “why” do you do things.
- Out of love, or out of showing an image or something of yourself for others?
- To pursue an activity in which you have no hope of becoming exceptional is to put aside, for a while, the anxious need to ‘use time well’
- When you have a modicum of feeling that you MAY be able to accomplish it brilliantly, it becomes stressful - be mindful of this with photography, writing etc.
- Working too hastily means you’ll make more errors, which you’ll then be obliged to go back to correct; hurrying a toddler to get dressed, in order to leave the house, is all but guaranteed to make the process last much longer.
- Try to be slow no matter what, it’ll probably be faster!
Time To Read
- Reading is one of the things that operates according to its own schedule - it refuses to our desire to exert control over how our time unfolds.
- Connecting this with distraction, which is filling a hole.
Nomadic working & True Connection
- “The point, to be clear, isn’t that freelancing or long-term travel – let alone family-friendly workplace policies – are intrinsically bad things. It’s that they come with an unavoidable flip side: every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s. The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root. For the rest of us, likewise, more freedom to choose when and where you work makes it harder to forge connections through your job, as well as less likely you’ll be free to socialise when your friends are.”
- It’s harder than ever to find time for a leisurely family dinner, a spontaneous visit to friends, or any collective project - nurturing a community garden, playing in rock band - that takes place in a setting other than the workplace.
“Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” - Ecclesiastes 2:11
- What really matters???
Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
- Invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
Take the next step as a response to how to live your life
- “The individual path ‘is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other’. His sole advice for walking such a path was to ‘quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.’ A modified version of this insight, ‘Do the next right thing’, has since become a slogan favoured among members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way to proceed sanely through moments of acute crisis. But really, the ‘next and most necessary thing’ is all that any of us can ever aspire to do in any moment. And we must do it despite not having any objective way to be sure what the right course of action even is.”
- Where in life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
- Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.
- Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
- In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
- It can be surprisingly radical and discomfiting, for many of us, to ask how we’d enjoy spending our time - that might be an indication of how you might use your time best.
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
- How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
- Adopt a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity
- “keep two to-do lists, one ‘open’ and one ‘closed’. The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one – that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are ‘on hold’ until someone else gets back to you.) You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list – but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you’ll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about.”
- “A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work”
- Serialise, serialise, serialise.
- “focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one non-work project) and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next.”
- “Decide in advance what to fail at.”
- “strategic underachievement – that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself – is that you focus that time and energy more effectively.”
- “As with serialising your projects, there’ll be plenty you can’t choose to ‘bomb’ if you’re to earn a living, stay healthy, be a decent partner and parent, and so forth. But even in these essential domains, there’s scope to fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting.”
- “Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.”
- “keep a ‘done’ list”
- Consolidate your caring.
- “consciously pick your battles in charity, activism and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry – not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.”
- “ Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.”
- “ choose devices with only one purpose”
- “ Seek out novelty in the mundane.”
- “ pay more attention to every moment, however mundane
- “Be a ‘researcher’ in relationships.”
- “deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity”
- Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
- “whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind – to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work – act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.”
- Practise doing nothing.
Miscellaneous quotes and notes
‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion’ - C. Northcote Parkinson
- Parkinson’s Law. This applied to everything that needs doing.
“Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to notice: ‘One thinks with a watch in one’s hand,’ he complained in an 1887 essay, ‘even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.”
- Multitasking everywhere even in 1887 yo
Technology & Internet
- The technologies we use to try to ‘get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of ‘everything’ we’re trying to get on top.
- Heidegger asked the question what does it mean a human being to be?
- For a human is above all to exist temporally, in the stretch between birth and death, certain that the end will come, yet unable to know when.
- We are a limited amount of time.
The etymology of the word Decide
- Latin is decidere which means ‘to cut off’, take that.
You will lose everything that catches your eye.
Every time you open a social media app, there a thousand people on the other side of the screen paid to keep you there. - Tristan Harris.
Less Economic Success but more Happiness? A story.
“This is also the kernel of truth in the cliché that people in less economically successful countries are better at enjoying life – which is another way of saying that they’re less fixated on instrumentalising it for future profit, and are thus more able to participate in the pleasures of the present. Mexico, for example, has often outranked the United States in global indices of happiness.8 Hence the old parable about a vacationing New York businessman who gets talking to a Mexican fisherman, who tells him that he works only a few hours per day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled at the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him an unsolicited piece of advice: if the fisherman worked harder, he explains, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, then retire early. ‘And what would I do then?’ the fisherman asks. ‘Ah, well, then,’ the businessman replies, ‘you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.”
To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from ‘the moment’, and then in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.
Why does the 4 day work week need defending in terms of economic productivity?
- Sure it makes it more palatable for businesses, but why does it need defending in terms of improved performance at work.
- Midlife is when many of us first become concisely aware that mortality is approaching - and mortality makes it impossible to ignore the absurdity of living solely for the future.
The 3 hour painting exercise
- The second-order change occurs after you start noticing things that you would never have noticed, which is after you abandon your futile efforts to dictate the speed at which the experience moves, the real experience can begin
Soviet Govt around 1930
- 7 day factories, people had different ‘weekends’ but meant no one could ever co-ordinate with others for leisure - it’s not quantity of time that matters, but where you’re in sync with the people you care about most.
Read sometime in June 2023.
Created by Apurva Shukla.
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