Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

by Oliver Burkeman

Four Thousand Weeks is a profound guide to a happier and more fulfilling life. This will teach you how to make meaningful choices based on the reality of your finite time. You’ll learn how to break free from the productivity-obsessed culture, deal with countless distractions and reject unreachable expectations so you can start making the most out of your life!

Summary Notes

The Limit-Embracing Life

"A limit embracing attitude to time means organizing your day with the understanding that you definitely won't have time for everything you want to do, or other people want you to do. Consciously deciding what to focus on and neglect will make your life more meaningful and fulfilling in the end."

We tend to treat time as a resource – something to be bought, sold, or used efficiently. This is why we feel pressured to use it well. We try to be more efficient by working harder or longer, hoping we can respond to all its demands. Otherwise, we would criticize ourselves whenever we felt like our time was wasted. Soon, our sense of self-worth becomes inextricably linked to how we use our time.

Nowadays, it's so easy to keep ourselves busy — to feel obligated to do more than what we can. However, behind this busyness is the fact that we put a lot of energy into trying to fully avoid our reality. To feel limitless, we immerse ourselves in avoidance tactics like being busy and distracted. We don't want to be anxious that we might be on the wrong path and that we will never meet others’ expectations. We plan compulsively to avoid facing how little time we have in the future. We also avoid thinking about sickness and death because this reminds us of our limits.

A limit-embracing attitude to time is about understanding that you won’t have time for everything you and others want you to do. Thus, you have to choose what to focus on and what to neglect. It’s about stopping between busyness to identify what matters most and embracing FOMO, “the fear of missing out,” because prioritizing something means missing out on almost everything. 

To some, living in a finite time may feel like a punishment. Yet if we view it another way, this is actually miraculous. Why do we treat four thousand weeks like a very small number when it’s a lot bigger than if we were never born? Isn’t it amazing that we were given time at all? 

To view our finite time this way can significantly change how we choose to live our lives. Instead of trying to escape reality or wishing for some alternative existence where we don’t have to make such choices, we’ll start to view them as an opportunity. Each day, there is always who faces death – and the fact that this isn’t you is something to be grateful for. This just means you are unexpectedly given another chance to design your life based on your choices. 

Actions to take

Becoming a Better Procrastinator

“Most productivity experts act merely as enablers of our time troubles, by offering ways to keep on believing it might be possible to get everything done.“

The main concern with managing our limited time isn’t about getting everything done but choosing wisely what not to do and feeling at ease about not doing it. This means not totally eliminating procrastination – but choosing more wisely what to procrastinate on. 

There are three principles we must apply to become a better procrastinator: 

  • Pay yourself first: You must save or invest a percentage of your paycheck first. Otherwise, you won't save anything. Time works similarly. You won't have time for your most valued activity if you first handle other commitments. If you're working on a creative project – say, an artwork that you value the most, devote the first hour of each day to it. Never allow other commitments to interfere.
  • Limit your works in progress: When you feel challenged or bored with one task, you switch to another. The cycle goes on and on, and nothing gets done. 
  • Resist the allure of middling priorities: Living in a limited time means choosing what to prioritize and what not. We should learn how to graciously say no to moderately appealing things, like a semi-enjoyable friendship or a fairly exciting job, as they can distract us from pursuing the things that matter most. 

If you're a perfectionist procrastinating on something important because you’re afraid you wouldn’t do a good job, relax – you probably won't. This is because reality is a place where we don’t have direct control and can’t possibly meet our flawless standards. No matter how talented, skilled or smart we are, our work will always be less than perfect. So whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish, just start doing it. 

Aside from having a perfectionist mindset, one thing that stops us from focusing on things that matter most to us is a countless number of distractions.  These distractions don't just happen when we lose focus, like seeing funny images or videos online – but the choices we make to avoid attending to what's truly important to us. Paying attention to these distractions shapes our reality. When we pay attention to things we don't really care about, we might be giving up our lives.

Actions to take

You Are Here

“Living more fully in the present may be simply a matter of finally realizing that you never had any other option but to be here now.”

We all tend to be too focused on using our time for future benefit. It’s as if everything we do in life only matters when it would help us build a better future.

However, this future-focused attitude often keeps us from being totally fulfilled and happy in life.  We don't feel fulfilled in the present because we only treat it as a path that will lead us to a more satisfying state. Even “when-you-finally” finish your workloads or finally find the right partner, the fulfillment you’ve been waiting for will never come. This is because, at the end of the day, you’ll just find more and more reasons to delay that fulfillment. 

This future-focused attitude toward time is similar to how we approach leisure. Nowadays, how we spend our leisure no longer feels very leisurely. It’s as if we just have to spend it to refresh and replenish for the sake of future work since it has been proven that we are more productive workers when we are well-rested. 

This explains why, when we enjoy our leisure time for its own sake, we suddenly feel like we’re screwing up. It's as if we're obligated to engage in personal improvement activities since it will be more beneficial to ourselves and our future work. We tend to associate leisure with money rather than with our own personal satisfaction.

To view and experience leisure for the sake of it – spending lazy hours, engaging in your passions without practical payoffs, and doing nothing for the sake of a genuine rest – means first accepting that you are there, and this is it. You are not heading towards your ideal kind of happiness nor waiting for it. Because such relaxing things are also worth doing in the span of four thousand weeks – they also make your life valuable, so allow yourself to do so.

Actions to take

The Power of Patience

“As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed.”

Like most people, you surely get easily irritated when you get stuck in traffic. It could be because you're afraid you'll be late for work or simply excited to go home. But if we dig deeper, we'll realize that this kind of frustration comes from wanting things to move at the speed we want, making us much more impatient than we used to be.

Undoubtedly, the continuous rise of technology has enabled us to complete tasks more quickly than ever before – yet this has only exacerbated our feelings of impatience. As we finish our tasks quicker, the higher we expect things to move faster and faster — to a point where we can finally feel in control of our time.

However, even though we know that we will never be able to move things as quickly as we want and that we must stop accelerating, it feels as though we can't. This is because speed addiction tends to be widely celebrated.  When we master the game of playing with speed, we are often seen as "driven."

Once we surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take and that we can't control the reality's pace, we will start to have a reality-confronting experience of recovery. This is called the "second-order" change, where we'll be fully aware of our limitations and start to acquire patience.

In this world filled with impatience and hurry, we can turn this patience into a power. The capacity to allow things to take their time is a  valuable skill. It will lead to you doing the work that really matters and feeling fulfilled from work for itself rather than for some future rewards. 

Here are three principles that will help you harness the power of patience as a creative force in your daily life:

  • Develop a taste for having problems 
  • Embrace radical incrementalism
  • Immerse in the earlier stage of originality (imitating others, learning new skills, and accumulating experiences) before trying to create something original. 

Once you start harnessing the power of your patience, you’ll begin to encounter newer and richer experiences that are worth spending time on.

Actions to take

The Human Disease

“You’ll have to accept that there will always be too much to do; that you can’t avoid tough choices or make the world run at your preferred speed; that no experience, least of all close relationships with other human beings can ever be guaranteed in advance to turn out painlessly and well – and that from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway.”

The constant attempt to master our time is the core reason behind our troubled relationship with it. We try to be as productive, fast, and efficient as possible, hoping that in the end, we will finally gain control over our time. We fail to realize that time is what we are made of, and we are nothing but a set of moments we engage ourselves in.

If we want to live a more fulfilling life, we have to accept this reality and start making choices on what we want to experience within the limited time we have. This means not letting anyone or your illusions control how you will spend your finite time. It doesn’t matter whether you want to spend it doing your greatest passions or simply taking care of your children because whatever it is you choose to do, the universe could not care less.

In the grand scheme of things, humans are just a relatively little part of the cosmos. While this truth will make us feel that we are insignificant, it is, however, liberating. To think that we don’t matter much to the world and that soon after death, we would just be forgotten is enough reason to free ourselves from the unreachable definition of a life well spent – making a legacy, gaining accomplishments, and being remarkable. 

Once we embrace the fact of our irrelevance, we will start to pause and reflect on how we could make the most out of our four thousand weeks – based on our own realistic definition of a “life well spent.”

Actions to take

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