Four thousand weeks is a refreshing perspective on time management. I cannot say how much I loved this book. Myself and Brian O’Kane were once asked to write a book about work-life balance for entrepreneurs (we couldn’t), and it has always been a topic of interest. For me, it is like moving the deck chairs on the Titanic and starting from the wrong end. It starts with joy, passion and doing what you love. The story of the Mexican fisherman.
Four thousand weeks
“Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals” starts with this sentence: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead. And follows with a perspective on how short life is. The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. If you make it to ninety, you will have had almost 4,700 weeks. But you could also drop dead tomorrow.
Time as a source of anxiety
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. The problem that time is you.
The book questions why you should focus those 4700 weeks on being productive, managing your life, living on a conveyer belt, being busy, hacking life, working more, making to-do lists, making more money, joyless urgency, work-life balance, employment, busyness, distraction, goal setting, efficiency, inboxes, cramming more, 99 lives, bucket lists, clearing the decks, FOMO, social media, timetables, economics, clock-time, results, etc.
Work is now seen as the real point of existence; leisure was merely an opportunity for recovery and replenishment for the purposes of further work. However, we have the right to idleness, the right to be lazy, the right to not striving, being aimless, the freedom to pursue the futile, taking a walk in the countryside, listening to a favourite song or meeting friends for an evening of conversation, just for the sake to it. Read “The end of absence“.
There are more important things
We know that there are important and fulfilling ways we could spend our time. You are not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We imagine time to be something separate from us and from the world around us, ‘an independent world of mathematically measurable sequences. Before the industrial revolution, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of.
Now, the more you try to manage your time to achieve a feeling of total control and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets. We should surrender to what in German call Eigenzeit, or the time inherent to a process itself. Realising finitude. A realisation of the limitations of our time. With the limitations of your life. You cannot do everything. Actually, you can do very little, Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer. You get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you do have time for. Being a human being. Not a production factor.
Ten tools for embracing your finitude
1. Adopt a ‘fixed volume’ approach to productivity.
2. Serialise, serialise, serialise. Following the same logic, focus on one big project at a time
3. Decide in advance what to fail at.
4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.
5. Consolidate your caring.
6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.
7. Seek out novelty in the mundane.
8. Be a ‘researcher’ in relationships.
9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
10. Practice doing nothing. Meditate.
You are borne forward on the river of time, with no possibility of stepping out of the flow, onward towards your inevitable death – which could arrive at any moment. As you make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, you are building a life – but at the same time, you are closing off the possibility of countless others forever. Any finite life – even the best one you could possibly imagine – is, therefore, a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility only real question about all this finitude is whether we’re willing to confront it or not. Time is always already running out – indeed, it may run out today, tomorrow, or next month.
Live in the moment
Live each day ‘as if it were your last. The point is that it always actually might be. You can’t entirely depend upon a single moment of the future. Therefore, the only way for a finite human being to live fully is to relate to other people as full-fledged humans and to experience the world as it truly is. Why, exactly, are we rendered so uncomfortable by concentrating on things that matter – the things we thought we wanted to do with our lives – that we’d rather flee into distractions, which, by definition, are what we don’t want to be doing with our lives?
What do you pay attention to?
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. It is the hard textures of life that make it liveable, helping nurture the relationships that are crucial for mental and physical health and for the resilience of our communities. Zen Buddhists hold that the entirety of human suffering can be boiled down to this effort to resist paying full attention to how things are going because we wish they were going differently. It is time to become a stoic.
Choose what to do
You need to consider what all this means. The crucial and basic question is choosing what to do. Embracing the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead – earn money to support your family, write your novel, bath the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk – is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect. 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. Living life to the fullest requires settling. Confine your attention to the only portion of time that really is any of your business – this one, here in the present.
Some bits from the book
- The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself, ‘and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.
- Anxiety falls away when you can no longer turn back because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.
- Philosophers have been worrying about distraction since the ancient Greeks, who saw it less as a matter of external interruptions and more as a question of character – a systematic inner failure to use one’s time on what one claimed to value the most.
- We can consciously attend to about 0.0004 per cent of the information bombarding our brains at any given moment.
- Attention is life
- We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention, with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy. Read “Like war” https://www.ronimmink.com/the-ongoing-war-for-your-mind/
- The real problem is the activity itself but the internal resistance to experiencing it.
- Hofstadter’s law states that any task you’re planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect, ‘even when you consider Hofstadter’s Law.
- Yet since the beginning of the modern era of acceleration, people have been responding not with satisfaction at all the time saved but with increasing agitation that they can’t make things move faster still.
- It has been calculated that if Amazon’s front page loaded one second more slowly, the company would lose $1.62 billion in annual sales.
- Fika is the Swedish daily moment when everyone in a given workplace gets up from their desks to gather for coffee and cake.
Planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life and for exercising our responsibilities toward other people. The real problem isn’t planning. It’s that we take our plans to be something they aren’t. 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. 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.
About too much focus on the future
If you focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are – the result is that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the ‘real’ value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached, and never will. You treat everything we’re doing – life itself, in other words – as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else. This future-focused attitude often takes the form of what the author once heard described as the ‘”when-I-finally” mind’, as in: ‘When I finally get my workload under control/get my candidate elected/find the right romantic partner/sort out my psychological issues, then I can relax, and the life I was always meant to be living can begin.’ Treating the present solely as a path to some superior future state. Our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. We should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it.
About living in the moment
Attempting to ‘live in the moment, to find meaning in life now, brings its challenges too. Have you ever actually tried it? It turns out to be bewilderingly difficult to do. The problem is that the effort to be present in the moment is making you fixated on trying to make the best use of your time – in this case, not for some later outcome, but for an enriching experience of life right now – that it obscures the experience itself. You’re too busy self-consciously wondering whether you’re present enough or not. Trying to have the most intense possible present-moment experience is a surefire way to fail. A more fruitful approach to the challenge of living more fully in the moment starts from noticing that you are, in fact, always already living in the moment anyway, whether you like it or not. Living more fully in the present may be simply a matter of finally realising that you never had any other option but to be here now.
When you surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take. You can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster because it isn’t within your power to force reality’s pace as much as you feel you need to. Because the faster you go, the quicker you’ll feel you need to go. When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety. Your anxiety is transformed into the most consequential of superpowers: patience.
The three principles of patience
- The first is to develop a taste for having problems. Life is not picnic.
- The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism. Mastery takes time.
- The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. To experience the profound mutual understanding of the long-married couple, you have to stay married to one person; To know what it’s like to be deeply rooted in a particular community and place, you have to stop moving around.
About the loneliness of the digital nomad
A ‘digital nomad’ – is someone who liberates themself from the rat race in order to travel the globe with a laptop, operating the internet business from a Guatemalan beach or Thai mountaintop, as the fancy dictates. In their more candid moments, digital nomads will admit that the chief problem with their lifestyle is acute loneliness. The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root.
There is a connection between synchronisation and life satisfaction. How much of the value of time comes not from the sheer quantity you have but from whether you’re in sync with the people you care about most? As dancers know, when they lose themselves in the dance, synchrony is also a portal to another dimension – to that sacred place where the boundaries of the self grow fuzzy, and time seems not to exist. The unbridled reign of this individualist ethos, fuelled by the demands of the market economy, has overwhelmed our traditional ways of organising time, meaning that the hours in which we rest, work and socialise are becoming ever more uncoordinated. For the least privileged, the dominance of this kind of freedom translates into no freedom at all: it means unpredictable gig-economy jobs and ‘on-demand scheduling’. The result is a vacuum of collective action, which gets filled by autocratic leaders who thrive on the mass support of people who are otherwise disconnected.
About cosmic insignificance therapy
That what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much – and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less. Human civilisation is about six thousand years old. We’re in the habit of thinking of this as a staggeringly long time: Now for the arresting part: by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs – an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own – took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. Contemplate ‘the massive indifference of the universe, The anxieties that clutter the average life – relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries – shrink instantly down to irrelevance. The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You. You also have to accept that there will always be too much to do; from a cosmic viewpoint, when it’s all over, it won’t have counted for very much anyway. And it is likewise ‘implausible, for almost all people, to demand of themselves that they be a Michelangelo, a Mozart, or an Einstein.
Time is all you have
Life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death. We don’t get or have time at all – that instead, we are time. And in exchange for accepting all that? You get to be here. Because now is all you ever get. Quietly do the next and most necessary thing. Fortunately, precisely because that’s all you can do, it’s also all that you ever have to do.