Let us assume, dear reader, that you are young and healthy and lucky enough to live a total of 80 years. Doesn't sound too bad, right? Break it down into days and you get 29,200, which is such a large number that our brains tend to give up trying to process what it means. But divide 80 years into weeks, and you get 4,171. Now we're getting somewhere that sounds uncomfortably small, even for the longest-lived among us. (The current record holder, age 118, has lived less than 6,200 weeks — still a blink in the cosmic eye.)
"When I first made the 4,000 weeks calculation, I felt queasy," writes psychology expert Oliver Burkeman in his arresting new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Soon he started pestering friends to guess, off the top of their heads, how many weeks the average person can expect to live. One named a number in the six figures. Burkeman had to tell her that 310,000 weeks is "the approximate duration of all human civilization."
That's the bad news. Here's the good: Having so few weeks is, if you follow it through to its logical conclusions, a massive weight off your shoulders. With true awareness of limited time, the unimportant stuff tends to fall away — and, paradoxically, more time becomes available for the truly fulfilling parts of life.
What makes Burkeman's book so compelling is that it's an apology from a time management nerd. Burkeman has chased the highs of Inbox Zero and the Pomodoro Technique. Alongside Moleskines and felt-tip pens, books like Master Your Time, Master Your Life crowd his desk. Like me, he is a devotee of Getting Things Done (GTD), the task system by productivity guru David Allen that swept Silicon Valley in the 2000s, and loves designing endless new productivity systems on top of it.
Also like me, Burkeman found that his to-do list kept him feeling busy, and stressed, but somehow never really got around to the long-term goals that were important to him personally. Life was always being pushed into the future, once all this other stuff was out of the way, instead of being actually, y'know, lived. (I sent friends multiple screenshots of pages in this book with the caption "too real" or "I feel personally attacked.")
"Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved 'work-life balance.'"
"Time management as we know it has failed miserably," Burkeman says. "Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up faster. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved 'work-life balance.'"
So if our time management systems are filling our lives with busywork and never fulfilling our dreams, how then shall we live? Here's some of the most memorable advice I got out of Four Thousand Weeks.
It may seem morbid to dwell on how many weeks you may have left in life — or on the fact that for all you know, you may not even finish out this week. But it's also bracing, clarifying, and better than the alternative. With the aid of philosophers and psychologists, Burkeman argues that we're usually dwelling on it subconsciously anyway — and it holds us back in ways we rarely understand.
Why can't you pay attention to what matters: Your art, your big personal project, the hard work needed to improve relationships? Why is wasting time on the internet so much more alluring than the things we have to do, even when it isn't fun? Because, says Burkeman (himself a recovering Twitter junkie), social media lets us feel "unconstrained" in a space outside of time. You may not be happy scrolling through curated feeds that make your friends' lives look perfect, or news feeds that make the world look doomed, but at least you're relatively comfortable.
Banning yourself from social media doesn't necessarily work either, because there are any number of ways to distract yourself, including daydreaming. Instead, you need to understand the root cause.
"Whenever we succumb to distraction, we're attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude," Burkeman writes, "an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much."
Finitude is a great word, because it's all about understanding our limitations. Your art, your projects, your relationships: They all exist in time, and they will always be imperfect because they are finite. You will never have enough time for them. You will never be able to control the outcome. They will never, ever live up to the vision in your head. Accept the imperfection, embrace the discomfort, and run headlong towards the important stuff anyway — especially if you feel like you're going to fail at it.
Part of understanding your finitude is knowing that you can't spend all your time on the important stuff. We need breaks, and we need to stop applying the logic of the maximizer to those breaks. If you've ever over-scheduled your weekend, or found yourself racing to tick off every sight on your vacation list, you know what I'm talking about. Instead of truly enjoying moments, you're packing them for the sake of future you — some happier, more fulfilled version of yourself that can sit back and enjoy all those cool photos you took. Except we rarely if ever do that, because future you is too busy doing stuff for their future to care about what you did for them.
Psychologists have a phrase for this —"idleness aversion" — and it seems to have arrived on the scene alongside modern capitalism. Burkeman admits he was infected with it "during the years I spent attending meditation classes and retreats with the barely conscious goal that I might one day reach a condition of permanent calm." As someone who has created meditation contests, embarked on a lengthy hiking challenge, and tried to hack my dream time, I could not be more guilty.
So what's the solution? How do you enforce moments of idleness, even boredom (the state of mind when you get your most creative ideas)? Well, humans have been doing it for centuries. Most religions have rigidly defined days off, like the Shabbat or sabbath, where there's a prohibition against doing any kind of work; on the secular side, most cultures have long lists of feast days with a focus on celebrating life in the moment.
The idea of a tech Shabbat, or Screenless Sunday, seems to be gaining ground as a solution. You could also decide that the work day ends at a specific time and hold to it, rather than letting it bleed into your evening as we have a habit of doing in the always-on world. But as Burkeman points out, it's near impossible to impose these rules on yourself without a support network around you that's doing the same thing: We live best in rhythm with others. So bring your family and friends along for the ride into enforced idleness.
Burkeman doesn't advise throwing out your productivity tools entirely. There's nothing wrong with having a to-do list; as GTD guru David Allen says, capturing all your tasks enables you to only have a thought once (instead of having a brain that is constantly nagging you about what needs to get done next). Rather, you can use that list to be more mindful about how you're going to procrastinate — because no matter what you do, you're always procrastinating on something else.
Four Thousand Weeks offers a number of strategies for better procrastination. You could try focusing on one big project at a time (or one big work project and one big personal project), while letting everything else lie fallow. Or you could "fail on a cyclical basis" — agree ahead of time that you're going to do the bare minimum on your fitness routine during a month you're canvassing for an election, say, then get back to the gym the following month. Instead of seeking the elusive work-life balance, you are "consciously imbalanced."
But my favorite is Burkeman's idea of having two to-do lists: one open and large, one closed and tiny. The open one is everything you could be doing; the closed one is a list of just 10 things you could achieve today. The catch is you can't move items from the open list to the closed list until an item on the closed list is ticked off (or if you're waiting for someone to get back to you on it.) I put this strategy into effect in the app Todoist — every day I make sure the "Today" section has no more than 10 items — and it's already making me calmer and less in need of digital distraction.
It's unreasonably annoying when the people you love don't act the way you expected, am I right? How dare they act like unpredictable human beings, constantly in flux! Burkeman taps pre-school education expert Tom Hobson for the appropriate mental shift: Deliberately adopt the attitude of the researcher about this human being you've been thrown together with.
Wonder what this autonomous individual might do next; don't attach yourself to a particular hope of what that action might be, or it will eventually end badly. Cultivate curiosity instead of getting attached to an outcome. Indeed, you can apply this approach to all of life itself, no matter what crisis arises: Wondering rather than hoping is the foundation of radical acceptance.
It isn't just the 4,000 weeks thing. Burkeman goes out of his way throughout the book to remind us of just how little we matter in the grander scheme of things. We spend our lives wanting to "put a dent in the universe" by having an impact on future generations, but "even Steve Jobs, who coined that phrase, failed to leave such a dent," writes Burkeman. "Perhaps the iPhone will be remembered for more generations than anything you or I will ever accomplish, but from a truly cosmic view [say, another 310,000 weeks,] it will soon be forgotten, like everything else."
This attitude is not meant to be mean or depressing, but liberating. It takes your ego out of the equation. If the work of today's greatest novelists will be forgotten eventually, your novel matters just as much; you might as well have fun adding it to the vanishing canon. That nutritious meal you're making for your kids doesn't make you a Michelin star chef, sure, but it will make as much of a difference in their lives as a hundred-dollar dish — perhaps more.
Shorn of the nagging voice that tells us we need to do something of maximum importance, fully aware of our limitations and our inability to tackle even a tiny percentage of our list, aware that we are never really in control of our time or our outcomes we can at last relax and enjoy the ride. With the lowest possible expectations, we paradoxically find it easier to take pride in our accomplishments — for as many weeks as remain.