How many weeks do you think the average person lives? Ask your friends to give you a number off the tops of their heads without any mental multiplication. If Oliver Burkeman’s experience and mine are representative, the number is likely going to be far larger than four thousand, which about all you get if you live to be eighty.
Burkeman has written to highlight the issue and suggest a mindset (because that’s what it takes) that stops using time instrumentally—“not as something we live in,” as a Guardian reviewer wrote, but to use time “as something to be got through on the way to somewhere else.” Spoiler alert: There is no somewhere else. This is it. This is all you get.
Until this past January, Burkeman was the author of the popular Guardian psychology column, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” He’s the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. He’s an Englishman who lives in New York City, and on the evidence of the book is writing to teach himself a good lesson.
Four Thousand Weeks proposes a blueprint for less stressful living. We must accept our finitude and make choices. A self-described recovering “productivity geek” himself, Burkeman invites readers to drop the futile struggle to carry off the impossible and focus on what’s “gloriously possible” instead. We need to escape the “efficiency trap” and make peace with “settling” because you will never have enough time to do everything.
Burkeman asks five questions to help you simplify and attain a less stressful life:
• Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
• Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? (Perfection, I’ve learned, is the enemy of finished.)
• 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?
• In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
• How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
Over and over Burkeman says things I’ve thought—or almost thought—but didn’t have the wit to express. “When you’re faced with too many demands, it’s easy to assume that the only answer must be to make better use of time, by becoming more efficient, driving yourself harder, or working for longer—as if you were a machine in the Industrial Revolution—instead of asking whether the demands themselves might be unreasonable.”
That’s addressed to someone who has actually spoken to groups about time management—me. If you start with a false premise—I just have to get better at managing my time—the solution is bound to be flawed. “After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.” Ouch.
Four Thousand Weeks can be a bucket of cold water in the face as Burkeman points out repeatedly that time and human life is finite but wants and dreams are infinite. What adds to the current challenge is the effort by extremely clever people at Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere to occupy more of our time. To inform, educate, and entertain.
But think about the way you spend your days. Do you need to answer every request? When you sign off social media, has it enriched your life? Did you learn something you needed to know? Or was it intellectual cotton candy, sweet and fluffy, but empty calories. Or worse, that it gives a skewed picture of reality.
Burkeman says, ““The last year left many of us feeling utterly unmoored from our familiar routines. As we re-emerge, we have a unique opportunity to reconsider what we’re doing with our time – to construct lives that do justice to the outrageous brevity, and shimmering possibilities, of our four thousand weeks.”
Four Thousand Weeks is one of the most stimulating and useful books I’ve read in a long time. I’ve already begun recommending it on Twitter, an addiction I think I have under control. Now if I can just rein in my Facebook habit . . . .