- Author of "Four Thousand Weeks," Oliver Burkeman says obsessive productivity stems from fear of mortality.
- The book discusses the challenges of time management and how to make the most of your limited time on earth.
- We often focus on the future, put off making commitments, and distract ourselves from the reality of life.
If the Amazon website opened one second slower, it’s estimated that the company would lose over a billion dollars a year. One of the major complaints I hear from couples is that they are too busy—so much to do, so little time; they feel they are passing in the night. We try to squeeze as much in our days as possible and always feel behind. Our society is too fast-paced; social media is shrinking our attention spans and filling our days with junk.
You've heard this all before, but don’t blame social media, our short attention spans, or our hectic lives for how we feel, says Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The real underlying driver for all this is something more existential, what he calls the nonacceptance of our “finitude”—our limits. Whether you agree with his argument or not, his ideas provide plenty of food for thought. Here’s my take on what he believes those limits are the following.
We can't control the future
We’re constantly making plans, making lists, looking ahead, or adopting what Burkeman calls the “when I finally get there” way of thinking—when I retire, when I get the promotion, when I get married—then I can relax, settle, move forward, etc. We look ahead and want certainty: What if I marry the wrong person and it doesn’t work out, or I take this job and don’t like it? We hesitate, we are afraid to make commitments, we are constantly thinking in terms of what-ifs, and as a result, are anxious or second-guessing ourselves.
The obvious reality check here is that we can’t control the future; we can never be certain how things will turn out. We can only live in the present, make the best decision now and solve problems only when they are firmly lying in our laps.
We can’t control our lifespan
The 4,000 weeks of Burkeman’s title refers to how many weeks we have if we live till we’re 80. We won’t live forever, or perhaps not even until tomorrow, but, he says, we act like we will—living in the future, making plans, having unrealistic goals, and staying busy and distracting ourselves from the reality that time is running out.
We can’t control the speed of life
One of Burkeman’s major points is that many things in life will take as long as they need to take. Your efforts to get your toddler to move more quickly to get out of the house will likely slow the process down even more. Doing art, writing a book, or anything creative can’t be hurried, nor can reading a novel if you really want to read it.
There’s a limit to how fast you can make some things go. But like ignoring our limited lifespan, we like to ignore the reality that we can’t control or go more quickly than life goes.
Frustrated by it all, we instead multitask, jumping from project to project to give us the illusion that we’re moving forward and to often avoid slogging through the difficult middle periods of any project, where we get stuck, bored, or question what we’re doing. We look at our phones while eating dinner with our partners or sneak looks under the table because putting away our phones means having to listen to what our partner is saying.
It may be boring or difficult, and you can’t control the conversation, unlike your phone, where you’re in command. Your phone, Facebook, and Tik-Tok distractions aren’t the problem; they’re bad solutions to the reality of life that we’d rather avoid.
Are there better ways to deal with our finitude? Here are some suggestions to consider:
Decide on what’s most important in your life
Burkeman tells a story attributed to Warren Buffet, but possibly an urban legend, where one of his employees asks for advice on setting priorities. Buffet tells him to sit down and list on a piece of paper the 20 things he’d like to do in his life that he’s passionate about. Then, he says, focus on the top five and absolutely avoid the next 15. Why? Because those 15 will be the things that will distract you from accomplishing the top five.
The point is that you won’t live forever, so you need to focus on what’s important and make those tough decisions. The word decide comes from the Latin decidere, meaning to cut off. Making a decision—what mate, what job—implies that something will be left behind. That’s okay; that’s life; you can’t do it all.
The next step is to jump in with both feet. No, you don’t know if a marriage or a job will work out; yes, it may be more difficult than you imagined, but you can’t control the future. Don’t hem and haw, don’t distract, don’t do what-ifs. Time is running out.
To accomplish your top five, you need to stop distracting yourself by multitasking. Focus on one thing at a time so you are experiencing life fully and are not tempted to run away from the hard parts. Research shows that doing one thing at a time actually makes you more effective, efficient, and productive.
Live in the present
You’ve heard this a thousand times before—there is only now. The future is yet to be—you don’t start to live when you retire—and the past is a memory. Life is only right now, this moment. If you can learn to slow down and get out of your future head, you’ll be able to appreciate and savor what is unfolding right before you.
If you only have 4,000 weeks, don’t fritter them away, pretend you can do it all, or have all the time in the world. You don’t. Make the hard decisions, and build the one life you’ve got before it’s too late.
Burkeman, O. (2021). Four thousand weeks: Time management for mortals. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.