Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

(New York: Macmillan, 2021), 245

This book suffers from what I'm calling for now "Correct diagnosis, incomplete solution". Similar to strains of secular minimalism, this book correctly diagnoses some challenges with our modern approach to time and productivity and business, but—despite giving some good insight and tips—ultimately falls short in its proposed solution.

The primary discussion in the book where this shortcoming is present is when talking about eternity. Burkeman quotes the philosopher Martin Hägglund as saying: "If I believed that my life would last forever I could never take my life to be at stake, and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time."1 Further, People are "living in denial of the fact that their time is limited; so when it comes to deciding how to use any given portion of that time, nothing can genuinely be at stake for them. It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives."2

A Christian understanding of eternity is less "I'm going to live forever so I can do whatever I want" and more "my limited time on earth has eternal consequences, making how I spend my time even more important."

Also, how depressing is this thought: "Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you'll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order." (136)

Nevertheless, he does offer some wisdom: "We're all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we'll never see. The cathedral's still worth building, all the same." He doesn't go as far as explaining how the Medieval teleological worldview explains their motivation (cf The Cathedral Builders by Jean Gimpel), but this is in the right direction.

Some other great observations include the efficiency trap (it's a treadmill and you can never win), the reality of our finite time, the importance of intentionally choosing how to use our time rather than falling into defaults, "staying on the bus" and committing to what is important to us at the expense of other non-essentials, and Cal Newport's "time blocking" which I have found effective recently.

Notes


Contents


Introduction

  • if you live to be 80, you'll have about 4,000 weeks
  • arguably, time management is all life is (4)
  • "This book is an attempt...to recover some ways of thinking about time that do justice to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibility of our four thousand weeks." (5)

Part I: Choosing to Live

Chapter 1: The Limit-Embracing Life

Summary: Recognize you can't do everything and make decisions accordingly.

  • Medieval life was task oriented and time was measured relative to real tasks, i.e. something lasts a "Miserere while" for Ps-51 (20)
  • When thinking about time in the abstract it's natural to treat it as a resource to be bought, sold, and used as efficiently as possible (23)

    • before, time was the "medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of" (24)

  • Paradox of Limitation: the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, the more stressful and empty life gets (32)
  • Hard time-management choices are unavoidable, so make them deliberately and don't deceive yourself into thinking you can do everything. (32)
  • Teach Yourself to Live by Charles Garfield Lott Du Cann (recommends the limit-embracing life, 35)

Chapter 2: The Efficiency Trap

Summary: There is more to do than could ever be done, and thinking we can get ahead by becoming efficient ignores the fundamental asymmetry between the finite time we have and the infinite things we could do.

  • How to Live on 24 Hours a Day by Arnold Bennett bib is full of good advice but based on the false premise that if you follow the right advice you can get it all done and feel at peace (40)
  • Social Acceleration by Jonathan Trejo-Mathys bib (46)
  • The Efficiency Trap: rendering yourself more efficient won't give you "enough" time because, other things equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits (43)

    • Efficiency technologies always fail us because they increase the size of your to-do list (47)

    • The things you get done when you don't account for the opportunity cost of doing them tend to be unimportant things that are important to other people rather than yourself: you need to start with the important things and be ok with the accumulation of other things that won't get done (49)

  • Existential overwhelm: the modern world provides an inexhaustible supply of things that seem worth doing, so there will always be an inevitable gap between what you'd like to do and what you actually can do (45)
  • "How else are we to get to know this place where we have been set, apart from tending to it?" (Musings on an inefficient life (link) by Sylvia Keesmaat bib, 55, which I love for the same reason I love Jordan's shirt that says "The Grass is greenest where you water it.")

Chapter 3: Facing Finitude

Summary: This chapter is one of the most interesting and also the most muddled in thought, being that he attempts to address Eternity with finite ways of thinking.

  • Heidegger was obsessed with finite time (57), finite time defines us as humans (59)
  • Martin Hägglund on Eternity says that "if you really thought life would never end then nothing could ever genuinely matter, because you'd never be faced with having to decide whether or not to use a portion of your precious life on something." (62) Hägglund: "If I believed that my life would last forever I could never take my life to be at stake, and I would never be seized by the need to do anything with my time." (This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free (2019) by Martin Hägglund bib, 5)

    • People are "living in denial of the fact that their time is limited; so when it comes to deciding how to use any given portion of that time, nothing can genuinely be at stake for them. It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives." (63)

    • → proper understanding of eternity puts more weight on living well now, it doesn't make it meaningless

  • "So maybe it's not that you've been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it's almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all." (66)
  • Joy of missing out: embrace with joy what you are setting aside because you are choosing to spend some time that you never had any right to expect (69)

Chapter 4: Becoming a Better Procrastinator

Summary: Procrastinating is inevitable because you can't do everything, so decide what to do and do it.

  • Pay yourself first when it comes to time
  • It is liberating when we finally chose do so something we have been dreading (88)

Chapter 5: The Watermelon Problem

Summary: The Watermelon Problem: doing something by default rather than actively choosing it—what am I doing with my life? Oftentimes we choose to be distracted ourselves.

  • Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl bib (93)
  • Mary Oliver: "Attention is the beginning of devotion", i.e. distraction and care are incompatible with each other (94)
  • T. S. Eliot: we are "distracted from distraction by distraction" (98, cf. "Burnt Norton" in ~Four Quartets bib)
  • Tristan Harris: each time you open a social media app there are a thousand people on the other side of the screen paid to keep you there (99)

Chapter 6: The Intimate Interrupter

Summary: Doing meaningful things is challenging and we need to acknowledge this to move past it.

  • The Intimate Interrupter: the self within the self that demands you turn your attention away from the challenging task at hand
  • Acknowledge the inevitability of the discomfort of focusing on meaningful things and turn more of your attention to that reality to overcome it (cf Zen Buddhism, 109)

Part II: Beyond Control

Chapter 7: We Never Really Have Time

Summary: "Don't mind what happens" acknowledging that you lack control over what will happen and not demanding that the future conform to your will.
- Hofstadter's Law: any task you're planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law (113)

Chapter 8: You Are Here

Summary: This chapter seems somewhat contradictory (don't worry about the future and don't worry about being present), but concludes with "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." Not inspiring; related to the concept of Time preference.

  • "My fixation on using time will meant using my son himself as a tool for assuaging my own anxiety." (131)
  • The future can't always automatically take precedence, we must do what is good in the moment because it is good. (131)
  • "One way of understanding Capitalism is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters (resources, time, etc.) in the service of future profit." (133)
  • "Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you'll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order." (136)
  • John Maynard Keynes said our fixation on using time well for future purposes or personal productivity is motivated by the desire not to die...by trying too hard to make the most o f his time, he misses his life (136)
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig bib (137)

Chapter 9: Rediscovering Rest

Summary: We need to engage in leisure for its own sake, not for some other purpose (this section could have referenced ~Leisure The Basis of Culture).

  • Our leisure can't be judged on usefulness or it becomes a chore: "We are all of us compelled to read for profit, party for contacts...and stay home for the weekend to rebuild the house." (The Decline of Pleasure by Walter Kerr bib, 143)
  • Aristotle: true leisure is self-reflection and philosophical contemplation and is the highest of the virtues (144)
  • Spending at least some of your leisure time "wastefully" is the only way not to waste it (147)
  • Sabbath as Resistance by Walter Brueggemann bib: the sabbath is an invitation to spent one day per week "in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the received end of the gifts of God." (153)
  • John Gray: "Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness" (154)
  • The World as Will and Idea by Schopenhauer (157)
  • "In an age of instrumentalization, he hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone" (158)

Chapter 10: The Impatience Spiral

Summary: We are addicted to living at wrap speed and don't take the time to slow down and engage with reality at the pace it demands.
- Not having time to read: engaging with reality (including reading) properly just takes the time it takes (165-166)

Chapter 11: Staying on the Bus

Summary: We need to develop habits of patience if we are to live a meaningful life and produce a meaningful body of work.

  • The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck bib: "I'm not good at fixing things" translates to "I've never taken the time to figure it out." (178)
  • Three rules for having patience:

    • Develop a taste for having problems: life is a process of engaging with problem after problem, and having problems is the very substance of a meaningful life (180-181)

    • Embrace radical incrementalism: do small things consistently to build a body of work over time

    • Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality: art metaphor of staying on the bus to get good enough to become original

Chapter 12: The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad

Summary: The "Digital Nomad" epitomizes our modern atomization and lack of community. We need to build community.

  • Freedom for, not freedom from (198)
  • "Totalitarian movements are mass organizations of atomize, isolated individuals" – The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt bib (200)
  • Make commitments that remove flexibility but add community (201)

Chapter 13: Cosmic Insignificance Therapy

Summary: "Cosmic insignificance therapy" is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things." (213)
- "The modern world is especially lacking in good responses to such feelings: religion no longer provides the universal ready-made sense of purpose it once did while consumerism misleads us into seeking meaning where it can't be found"...perhaps looking at the wrong religions? (204)

Chapter 14: The Human Disease

Summary: Five questions to ask about your life.

  1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what's really called for is a little discomfort?
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you're doing?
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn't care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
  6. "We're all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we'll never see. The cathedral's still worth building, all the same."
  7. Letter from Carl Jung: "Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way... If that's what you want, you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what's what." By contrast, 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."

    • → This is actually a great reason to join and study the Catholic faith: there is a coherent intellectual tradition that uphold universal truth and respects the natural law, giving a ready-made plan of life.

Afterword: Beyond Hope

Summary: "Once you no longer need to convince yourself that you'll do everything that needs doing, you're free to focus on doing a few things that count." (233
- The Kali Yuga phase in the cycle of history when everything starts to unravel, cf. Mahabharata Sanskrit epic bib (229)

Appendix: Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude

  1. Adopt a "fixed volume" approach to productivity

    1. limit WIP by keeping an "open" and "closed" to do list

    2. time blocking cf. Deep Work by Cal Newport bib

  2. Serialize: focus on one big project at a time
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at:

    1. strategic underachievement: acknowledge where you will fail (so you can focus that time elsewhere)

    2. fail in a cyclical basis: give bare minimum in certain areas given the season of your life

  4. Focus on what you've already completed: "done list"
  5. Consolidate your caring: pick your battles in charity, activism, politics
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology

    • try switching screen from color to greyscale (cf. Tristan Harris): in iOS 15.4



      • Accessibility > Color Filters > On (or Accessibility > Accessibility Shortcut > Color Filters)


      • Accessibility > Differentiate Without Color



  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane
  8. Be a "researcher" in relationships: adopt an attitude of curiosity to figure out the human being you're with
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity: act on impulse
  10. Practice doing nothing

Topic: Productivity

Source: Jordan

Bibliography

<a href="../notes/bib.html">bib</a> file:(2022-06-06-Four Thousand Weeks)

Created: 2022-06-06-Mon
Updated: 2022-07-17-Sun


  1. Four Thousand Weeks (62), quoting This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free (5) by Martin Hägglund 

  2. Four Thousand Weeks (63)