Jul 20, 2020

Notes From Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals


our Thousand Weeks sparked my post about how many sunrises I have, decades of joy, and how I am thinking about all of that. Speaking with a friend the other day, I wanted to share a few of my highlights from that book.

Hope you find this helpful. Take care, Kelly

Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (August 10, 2021)


Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action. (Location 43)

The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder. (Location 55)

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. (Location 148)

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move. (Location 152)

“The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” writes the essayist Marilynne Robinson, who observes that many of us spend our lives “preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.” Our struggle to stay on top of everything may serve someone’s interests; working longer hours—and using any extra income to buy more consumer goods—turns us into better cogs in the economic machine. But it doesn’t result in peace of mind, or lead us to spend more of our finite time on those people and things we care most deeply about ourselves. (Location 155)

Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster. (Location 163)

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.” (Location 231)

We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally. (“We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”) Or we plan compulsively, because the alternative is to confront how little control over the future we really have. (Location 350)

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of “what needs doing” that expands to fill the time available. (Location 479)

The technologies we use to try to “get on top of everything” always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the “everything” of which we’re trying to get on top. (Location 551)

you have too much to do, so you try to fit more in, but the ironic result is that you end up with more to do. The worst aspect of the trap, though, is that it’s also a matter of quality. The harder you struggle to fit everything in, the more of your time you’ll find yourself spending on the least meaningful things. Adopt an ultra-ambitious time management system that promises to take care of your entire to-do list, and you probably won’t even get around to the most important items on that list. (Location 555)

the more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time. (Location 560)

Convenience, in other words, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context. Take those services—on which I’ve relied too much in recent years—that let you design and then remotely mail a birthday card, so you never see or touch the physical item yourself. Better than nothing, perhaps. But sender and recipient both know that it’s a poor substitute for purchasing a card in a shop, writing on it by hand, and then walking to a mailbox to mail it, because contrary to the cliché, it isn’t really the thought that counts, but the effort—which is to say, the inconvenience. (Location 612)

It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life. (Location 720)

It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives. (Location 743)

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.” (Location 789)

The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things. (Location 837)

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 left over at the end, you’ll be disappointed. (Location 866)

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. (Location 878)

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.” (Location 913)

We invariably prefer indecision over committing ourselves to a single path, (Location 978)

“The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,” Bergson wrote, “and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.” (Location 985)

when people finally do choose, in a relatively irreversible way, they’re usually much happier as a result. (Location 1030)

We’ll do almost anything to avoid burning our bridges, to keep alive the fantasy of a future unconstrained by limitation, (Location 1031)

All of which helps clarify what’s so alarming about the contemporary online “attention economy,” of which we’ve heard so much in recent years: it’s essentially a giant machine for persuading you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about. (Location 1116)

As you surface from an hour inadvertently frittered away on Facebook, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the damage, in terms of wasted time, was limited to that single misspent hour. But you’d be wrong. Because the attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling—instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful—it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things—and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. (Location 1137)

social media sorts us into ever more hostile tribes, then rewards us, with likes and shares, for the most hyperbolic denunciations of the other side, fueling a vicious cycle that makes sane debate impossible. (Location 1173)

When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much. (Location 1244)

The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation. (Location 1269)

Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again—as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine: (Location 1341)

that there’s no meaningful way to think of a person’s existence except as a sequence of moments of time—begins to make more sense. And it has real psychological consequences, because the assumption that time is something we can possess or control is the unspoken premise of almost all our thinking about the future, our planning and goal-setting and worrying. So it’s a constant source of anxiety and agitation, because our expectations are forever running up against the stubborn reality that time isn’t in our possession and can’t be brought under our control. (Location 1363)

to the extent that we can 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. (Location 1423)

What we forget, or can’t bear to confront, is that, in the words of the American meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, “a plan is just a thought.” We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly 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. (Location 1430)

In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum in London who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the ancient Egyptian artifact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later, by recording images and videos of it on their phones. So intently were they focused on using their time for a future benefit—for the ability to revisit or share the experience later on—that they were barely experiencing the exhibition itself at all. (And who ever watches most of those videos anyway?) (Location 1446)

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. (Location 1469)

our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. (Location 1532)

treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed there’s a sense in which 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. To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time. (Location 1537)

One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is as a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit. Seeing things this way helps explain the otherwise mysterious truth that rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable. They’re very good at instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves; that’s the definition of being successful in a capitalist world. But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase. (Location 1543)

As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future—that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems—you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived. Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, 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. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now. (Location 1571)

By trying too hard to make the most of his time, he misses his life. (Location 1586)

this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied (Location 1373)

“We are the sum of all the moments of our lives,” writes Thomas Wolfe, “all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.” If 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. (Location 1766)

“Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness,” writes the philosopher John Gray. He adds: “How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?” (Location 1811)

Results aren’t everything. Indeed, they’d better not be, because results always come later—and later is always too late. (Location 1895)

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. We grow anxious about not keeping up—so to quell the anxiety, to try to achieve the feeling that our lives are under control, we move faster. But this only generates an addictive spiral. We push ourselves harder to get rid of anxiety, but the result is actually more anxiety, because the faster we go, the clearer it becomes that we’ll never succeed in getting ourselves or the rest of the world to move as fast as we feel is necessary. (Meanwhile, we suffer the other effects of moving too fast: poor work output, a worse diet, damaged relationships.) Yet the only thing that feels feasible, as a way of managing all this additional anxiety, is to move faster still. You know you must stop accelerating, yet it also feels as though you can’ (Location 1991)

that if you’re willing to endure the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself— (Location 2103)

develop an appreciation for the fact that life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires— (Location 2125)

Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. To embrace it, to whatever extent you can. (Isn’t it hilarious, in hindsight, that you ever imagined things might be otherwise?) Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and overdemanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is. (Location 2508)

But “at a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.” (Location 2618)

But I sometimes think of my journey through adulthood to date as one of incrementally discovering the truth that there is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn’t just winging it, all the time. (Location 2636)

We’ll never get the upper hand in our relationship with the moments of our lives because we are nothing but those moments. (Location 2536)

A life spent focused on achieving security with respect to time, when in fact such security is unattainable, can only ever end up feeling provisional—as if the point of your having been born still lies in the future, just over the horizon, and your life in all its fullness can begin as soon as you’ve gotten it, in Arnold Bennett’s phrase, “into proper working order.” (Location 2542)

The truth is that it’s impossible to become so efficient and organized that you could respond to a limitless number of incoming demands. (Location 2597)

The attempt to attain security by justifying your existence, it turns out, was both futile and unnecessary all along. Futile because life will always feel uncertain and out of your control. And unnecessary because, in consequence, there’s no point in waiting to live until you’ve achieved validation from someone or something else. Peace of mind, and an exhilarating sense of freedom, comes not from achieving the validation but from yielding to the reality that it wouldn’t bring security if you got it. (Location 2620)

Once you no longer feel the stifling pressure to become a particular kind of person, you can confront the personality, the strengths and weaknesses, the talents and enthusiasms you find yourself with, here and now, and follow where they lead. (Location 2626)

It’s easy to spend years treating your life as a dress rehearsal on the rationale that what you’re doing, for the time being, is acquiring the skills and experience that will permit you to assume authoritative control of things later on. (Location 2634)

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. (Location 2664)

No items found.