Four Thousand Weeks
by Oliver Burkeman

  • Personal Development
  • Ashto = 9/10
  • Jonesy = 5/10
four thousand weeks

What You Will Learn from Four Thousand Weeks

This week, Jonesy and Ashto learn an unconventional approach to making the best use of their time from Four Thousand Weeks. In contrast to other time management or productivity books, this book debunks the idea of time management as we know it. Productivity is a trap. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved the ideal work-life balance. You certainly won’t get there by simply joining the ‘5 am club’ or copying ‘The 6 Things Successful People Do Before 7 am’ that you see on Instagram.

The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Assuming you live to eighty, you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks of life. Or you might get lucky and push to ninety, giving you 4,700 weeks of life.

Expressing the matter in such startling terms makes it easy to see why philosophers from Ancient Greece through to the present day have taken the brevity of life to be the defining problem of human existence. Yet the modern disciplines of time management and productivity are depressingly narrow-minded affairs. All the books we’ve read on time management and productivity are focused on how to crank through as many work tasks as possible; on devising the perfect morning routine; or on cooking all your lunches for the week in one big batch on Sunday. These things matter to some extent, but they’re hardly all that matters. The world is bursting with wonder; ironically, the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.

Four Thousand Weeks is an attempt to redress the balance and see if we can discover some ways of thinking about time in a way that does justice to our real situation: the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our 4,000 weeks.

 

Becoming a Better Procrastinator

The core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done – that’s never going to happen – but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it. We need to learn to get better at procrastinating.

Procrastination of some kind is inevitable: indeed, at any given moment, you’ll be procrastinating on almost everything, and by the end of your life, you’ll have gotten around to doing virtually none of the things you theoretically could have done. So the point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.

Discovering the right activities for your to-do lists

Perhaps you’re familiar with the extraordinarily irritating parable of the rocks in the jar, which was first inflicted upon the world in Stephen Covey’s 1994 book, First Things First, and which has been repeated ad nauseam in productivity circles ever since. A teacher arrives in class one day carrying several sizable rocks, some pebbles, a bag of sand, and a large glass jar. He issues a challenge to his students: can they fit all the rocks, pebbles, and sand into the jar? The students, who are apparently rather slow-witted, try putting the pebbles or the sand in first, only to find that the rocks won’t fit. Eventually, the teacher demonstrates the solution: he puts the rocks in first, then the pebbles, then the sand, so that the smaller items nestle comfortably in the spaces between the larger ones. The moral is that if you make time for the most important things first, you’ll get them all done and have plenty of room for less important things besides.

Here the story ends – but it’s a lie. The smug teacher is being dishonest. He has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar. The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritising the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks—and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar. The critical question isn’t how to differentiate between activities that matter and those that don’t, but what to do when far too many things feel at least somewhat important, and therefore arguably qualify as big rocks.

 

Three Principles of The Art of Creative Neglect

1. Pay yourself first when it comes to time

Using the concept of personal finance, if you take a portion of your paycheck the day you receive it and squirrel it away into savings or investments, or use it for paying off debts, you’ll probably never feel the absence of that cash. But if you buy what you need at the beginning and hope that there’ll be some money remaining at the end for your savings, you’ll usually find that there isn’t any.

The trouble is that we’re terrible at long-range planning: if something feels like a priority now, it’s virtually impossible to coolly assess whether it will still feel that way in a week or a month. This same logic applies to time. If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands on your time, in the hope that there’ll be some leftover at the end, you’ll be disappointed. So if a certain activity really matters to you, the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other big rocks may be begging for your attention.

This is the same insight embodied in two venerable pieces of time management advice:

  • Work on your most important project for the first hour of each day.
  • Protect your time by scheduling meetings with yourself, and marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude.

If you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.

2. Limit your work in progress

Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once. That way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. However, you end up making progress on no fronts, because each time a project starts to feel difficult, frightening, or boring, you can switch to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things but at the cost of never finishing anything important.

The alternative approach is to fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time. Rather than trying to do everything, it’s easier to accept the truth that if you’re strict with the projects you bring in, you’ll be doing only a few things on any given day. The difference, this time, is that you won’t just be dreaming about them – you’ll actually be doing them.

3. Resist the allure of middling priorities

Warren Buffett once advised his personal pilot on how to set priorities. He told the man to make a list of the top 25 things he wants out of life, and then arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. According to Buffett, the top five should be those around which he organises his time. But contrary to what the pilot had expected, the remaining twenty aren’t the second-tier priorities that he should turn to when he gets the chance. In fact, they’re the ones that should be avoided at all costs. The other twenty goals are ambitions that are insufficient to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

In a world with too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing things (like the fairly interesting job opportunity or the semi-enjoyable friendship) on which a finite life can come to grief. As cliché as it sounds, most of us need to get better at saying no. But as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert points out, it’s all too easy to assume that this merely entails finding the courage to decline various tedious things you never wanted to do in the first place. She says: ‘It’s much harder than that. You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.’

 

Conclusion of Four Thousand Weeks

The dream of getting the upper hand in our relationship with time is the most forgivable of human delusions, simply because the alternative is so unsettling. But unfortunately, it’s the alternative that’s true: the struggle is doomed to fail.

Your quantity of time is so limited, and you’ll never reach the commanding position of being able to handle every demand or pursue every ambition that feels important. So, you’ll be obliged to make tough choices instead.

Our life is too short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. If anything, it’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible: the quest to become the optimised, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re supposed to be. After reading Four Thousand Weeks, you’ll roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.

Get Your Copy of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman