Four thousand weeks

Embracing my finitude and living my life

I wrote about the book Four Thousand Weeks several times earlier this year and I felt like I had to write a post about it because it has the potential to change my life.

But I kept putting it off and wondering what to write. I mean, I could share the whole book as a post, but that’s not very practical, is it? How to fit it into one post when I found so much value in the book?

TLDR: Go read the book, stop trying to get everything done because you never will, and get on with doing what’s important while you still can.

The book Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman with assorted green and pink sticky flags on many pages
A lot I wanted to remember

I first heard about this book from my work friend, who sent me this article earlier in the year. This made me want to find out more about it and its author Oliver Burkeman.

Oliver, I learned, is a British author of three books and was a columnist for The Guardian until 2020.

He wrote this book “about making the most of our radically finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distraction and political insanity (and ‘productivity techniques’ that mainly just make everyone feel busier)”.

Productivity no more

Oliver describes himself as a former “paid-up productivity geek, who squandered countless hours in service of the belief that if only [he] could find the right time management system, build the right habits, and apply sufficient self-discipline, [he] might actually be able to win the struggle with time”.

The book is not only about how it’s impossible to “win the struggle with time” in order to get everything done, but suggests we shouldn’t even engage in this struggle at all. We should, it says, build a meaningful life by embracing, rather than denying, our limitations.

Ouch! As someone who isn’t a completely paid-up up productivity geek, but is dangerously close to the edge, that hurt.

Oliver tells us that if we live to about 80, which is more or less the average human life span, we’ll be alive for about 4000 weeks. In the grand scheme of the universe, this is basically no time at all. I mean we all know this, right? We are specs in time who simply don’t register on the universe’s timeline. (Check out the time-lapse of the entire universe on this page if you don’t believe me.)

For some reason, however, he says, we don’t behave like we know this. Consequently, most people use most of their time in ways they’d rather not. “Our days are spent trying to ‘get through’ tasks in order to get them ‘out of the way’ [and] we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get round to what really matters,” says Oliver.

Text from the book Four Thousand Weeks about living life as prepartaion for the future rather than living in the moment

The book is basically saying, let’s stop this. The more we ‘clear the decks’ the quicker they fill up again, and there will never come a day when you get everything under control. And that’s what the book is about: to acknowledge that truth (that we probably really know) that there will never be enough time to do everything and, rather than struggle against this, we’re better off accepting it, and focusing our 4000 weeks on things that really matter to us.

Facing our finitude

One of the problems, Oliver says, is that people try to deny this reality and become lost in “busyness and the daily grind”, failing to make the choices they need to make. This is because avoiding the truth of our finitude is more comfortable than facing it.

Giving in to distractions is another way we seek relief from the discomfort of confronting our limitations. He says even if we do overcome those types of distractions, we’ll find something else to relieve the discomfort, so quitting Facebook and going into hermit mode isn’t the answer. (Interestingly, another book I’ve recently read, Stolen Focus by Johann Hari, has a take on this issue as well, which I want to cover in my next post.)

Facing your own finitude means making choices about what you won’t do, which means closing the door on most of your fantasy/ideal/want-to lives so that you can fully connect to and live the life you’re in.

It also means giving up on perfectionism and stopping procrastinating on things you’re not starting because you’re worried you won’t make it as good as you imagine you should.

You can also give up on on the idea that you’re not completely irrelevant in terms of the universe and, instead, accept your own irrelevance. Thinking you might actually be important sets too high a bar around what you think you ought to be able to achieve. Oliver notes that it’s almost guaranteed that none of us will “put a dent in the universe” and, rather than expecting ourselves to make a difference, we need to embrace our insignificance, do what’s meaningful to us and let the universe take care of itself.

What to do instead

Oliver’s suggestions on how to make the most of your 4000 weeks are scattered throughout the book. At last count, I’d extracted 29 practical tips and mindset shifts that I want to work on in my own quest to best use what’s left of my own time.

It’s true, the fact that I’m going to be dead someday is something I don’t want to think about. Contemplating my own mortality and the fact that over half of my 4000 weeks have already been used up is challenging. I totally get why he says we distract ourselves and engage in mundane activities so we don’t get reminded of this inevitability. We procrastinate by doing low value things rather than making choices that rule out most of the other things we want to do. And by making these choices and going out and doing the work we’ve chosen, we’re acknowledging that our time is limited and that we’ll never achieve everything we hope for.

That’s scary!

But Oliver says it doesn’t have to be. He says it can be a relief, because you get to give up on the impossible quest of becoming the “optimised, infinitely capable . . . person you’re officially supposed to be” and you get to starting working “on what’s gloriously possible” instead.

I guess the point is, we’re going to die anyway. We aren’t going to get many more than 4000 weeks and some of us will get a lot fewer. And the longer we put off doing “whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was [we] came here for”, the less time we’ll have to do it.

The message isn’t new but I related to everything in the book, and the way Oliver presented it spoke very strongly to me.

As 2022 draws to a close, I realise it’s taken me eight months to write this post, and I’ve only vaguely done some of the things the book suggested.

That means 32 of my 4000 weeks has passed with me having done very little in the way of what’s important to me. I’ve sorted a lot of emails in that time, which is one of the topics covered in the book. I’ve watched a lot of watermelons too (you’ll need to read chapter five to find out about that), but I still feel like my to-do lists are too long and I definitely don’t focus on one thing at a time. The lessons from Cal Newport’s book Deep Work are also relevant —this was supposed to be the purpose of thing 12 from my 22 for 2022 list, my “instruction manual”.

Much as I dislike (but still find myself doing) new year planning, it just happens that now is almost the new year, I have a week off, so why not figure some of this stuff out now, stop mucking about and get to work?

But not too much planning . . .

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