four thousand weeks book summary

Book Summary: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

The Book in Three Sentences

In this book summary of Four Thousand Weeks, you’ll learn to stop doing everything so that you can focus on what matters. Instead of getting everything done, you can have a meaningful life by embracing the fact that time is limited and running out fast. Oliver Burkeman’s book will make you question your relationship with time so that you can focus on the present moment and make the most out of the four thousand weeks you have.

Four Thousand Weeks Summary

Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead

The lifespan of a human being is too short. If you live to be eighty years old, you’ll have four thousand weeks. The brevity of life has been an ancient problem, we can make all the plans we want, but we’ll never have enough time to carry them out.

Nowadays, everyone’s busy and proud of it. Productivity tries to solve the pressure of doing too many activities in a limited amount of time, but it has failed. Due to online distractions and short attention spans, most people are dissatisfied with how they use their limited time. Time is the most precious asset we have, but the older we get, the faster it seems to go by.

Modern society is obsessed with productivity, life hacks, and maximizing what we do. Ironically, we feel the compulsion to do more with the time we’ve saved. The truth is, the more we try to control time, the further it goes from us. All the household items that promised to free up our time solved the problem momentarily, but it made us more impatient in the process. Life shouldn’t be about getting things done, it should be about getting the right things done. Don’t push the important stuff to an uncertain future.

This book isn’t about making the best use of time and it assumes most time management books have failed. There’s a problem with productivity and that’s the fact that efficiency makes us busier. There’s no such thing as work-life balance and you’ll never have everything under control.

Part I: Choosing to Choose

Chapter 1: The Limit-Embracing Life

Our problem isn’t we have limited time, the problem is how we think we have to use it. Hundreds of years ago, Englishmen were servants: they had to give a sizeable part of their income to their lord or the catholic church, there were mortal diseases, people’s hygiene left a lot to be desired, and work was terrible. Despite all of that, time wasn’t a problem. You could die at any minute, but time didn’t exist and work was infinite, so there was no reason to rush. Experts call this “task orientation” and it means that life happened organically from tasks rather than from a timeline.

The abstract idea of time limits what you can do. Originally, “a day’s work” was vague, but when clocks became popular, workers started getting paid by the hour. This happened because factory owners wanted to squeeze as much labor from workers as possible. Eventually, people wanted to make better use of their time to be more efficient instead of asking why they were doing what they were doing in the first place. Multitasking became appealing, postponing dreams into an uncertain future was easier, and soon, we based our self-worth on how we used our time.

Time became something to control and this was overwhelming and anxiety-inducing. The problem with seeing time as something to control is that we never feel that we’re doing enough. We should live life as it unfolds instead of valuing moments depending on how useful (or not) they are to future goals or to reward us with small moments of relaxation once work is over.

On top of that, the hypercompetitive economy encourages a sensitive use of time and it reflects the way our parents raised us: we have to prioritize the future over the present moment. Leaning too heavily on the future creates a sense of worry and anxiety that never goes away. By trying to constantly control time, time ends up controlling us.

The sooner we come to terms with the fact that we can’t do everything, the better. Most people avoid thinking about this because it means that you have some tough choices to make. Also, we have to accept that we have little control over your time. As a result, we avoid it, we work harder, we use promising time-management systems that never get us anywhere, or we procrastinate. The Paradox of Limitation says that the more we try to manage our time to get freedom, the more stressed we feel, but by confronting the fact that time’s limited, the more productive we become. Instead of using time, we can let time use us. This involves responding to our environment and every moment as it unfolds before us.

Chapter 2: The Efficiency Trap

Doing more than we can has become normal and there’s an unending pressure to work harder than we should. This is impossible to maintain and we have to face some uncomfortable truths. The problem with starting to fit everything in is that we’ll start moving the goalposts, so more things become a priority. Parkinson’s Law states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”. So becoming more efficient isn’t enough because the demands will soon increase to diminish the benefits. Experts call this “the efficiency trap”. To avoid this from happening, make hard choices. This is understanding that there’s a lot to do in a limited time, so only focus on what matters.

Doing pleasurable activities isn’t the answer either. By trying to prove that we’ve lived life to the fullest by taking advantage of experiences, we soon find out that these are unlimited. So the more experiences we have, the more we discover. Additionally, the internet gives us the illusion that there’s always something better.

The problem isn’t just quantity, but quality as well. There are many meaningless things to spend our time on. Ideally, we’d spend our limited time choosing the activities we care about the most. So don’t make yourself more efficient and resist the urge to do more. You’re the only one who can figure out the activities that will have the most impact. Don’t consume everything, only enjoy the few experiences that are most important to you and the ones you have time for.

The problem is that several industries sell us the promise that we can do everything. We can be less overwhelmed if we buy their life-changing product or service, but ironically, they usually make our lives worse. This is how it works: a company identifies a problem or minor annoyance and they promise to remove the friction by circumventing the problem in the first place. Netflix, for instance, removed the pain of going to a store to rent a film.

Services like this have had a tremendous impact on local communities where people had to interact with one another to help each other out. Things are unquestionably easy, but you have to think about what you’re giving up for that convenience. When you make something convenient, it has no meaning. We’re often told to never fix something that isn’t broken, but every large corporation in the world is making millions doing exactly that. The more you use these services, the less likely you are to give them up.

Convenience culture has tricked us into believing that we can do everything because they’ve been fixing minor annoyances. Still, the truth is that we only have time for a few select activities and we have to sacrifice everything else to do them and deal with the consequences. Whether we like it or not, this is a choice we have to make.

Chapter 3: Facing Finitude

Philosopher Martin Heidegger was obsessed with the idea of having finite time. Unfortunately, you don’t hear about him often because he was a member of the nazi party and he’s difficult to read. According to Heidegger, we often forget how impressive the world we live in is. We’ve lost the ability to be amazed. His work also deals with what being a human being means. To the German philosopher, being is intrinsically tied to our limited time. We exist temporarily and our life will end, but we don’t know when. In a way, we are limited time. Our limited time is what defines us. Before we can ask ourselves what to do with our time, we are thrown into it and it makes us who we are.

Heidegger believes that the challenge of human existence is whether to confront our finitude or not. Ideally, we would live our lives recognizing our limitations and accepting that saying “yes” to one thing also means saying “no” to countless others. Time is running out and we have to make countless sacrifices. Yet most of us avoid or deny our finitude and this is what Heidegger calls “falling”. This makes life more comfortable, but in exchange, we give up on excitement and enthusiasm. The point is to value what it’s finite because it’s finite.

It’s almost impossible to live life thinking about your mortality all the time. But you can try to think about the amazing fact that you’re alive. Treat your life as borrowed time. Making mistakes when you choose what to focus on is what gives it meaning.

Chapter 4: Becoming a Better Procrastinator

How do you decide what not to do and how do you feel comfortable about your choice? By getting better at procrastinating. Procrastination is an inevitable part of life but the goal is not to remove it completely but to become better at it. There are three principles to consider when it comes to time.

  1. Pay yourself first. This means doing the most important tasks first and accepting the consequences of doing them. To do so, you work on your most important project for at least an hour and as early as possible.
  2. Limit your work in progress, so you don’t have too many projects at once. Never have more than three items on your projects list at any given moment.
  3. Resist middling activities. This means ignoring all semi-enjoyable activities and only focusing on the truly appealing ones.

One of the reasons why we procrastinate on our dreams is because, even if they become true, reality will never match the perfection we see in our imagination. The author calls the phenomenon of giving up on all the other alternatives to choose one as “the joy of missing out”. Once you do that, you have one path to go through, one that involves accepting the consequences of your choice.

Chapter 5: The Watermelon Problem

The biggest problem with time management is distractions. People have struggled with distractions for thousands of years, so this is nothing new. The problem with distractions is that they take away your ability to pay attention and that’s essentially what being alive is. When we pay attention to something we don’t value, we pay that with a portion of our life.

Distractions are not our choice. Someone else is behind them and usually, they don’t have our best interests in mind. We don’t have to become “indistractable”, we have to have a clear definition of what’s important. In some cases, we prefer to be distracted instead of spending our time engaged in what we value most.

Chapter 6: The Intimate Interrupter

When something bothers us (such as getting a vaccine or being too cold), common sense tells us to focus on something else. But we can always concentrate on the present moment to try and make the experience more tolerable. Daily, distractions such as social media, appeal to us because we’re not engrossed in our work, so we’re hoping for something that lets us escape. Mary Oliver calls this predisposition to distractions “the intimate interrupter”. Most people look for an escape even from the things they genuinely love doing.

This can happen because we’re bored. Boredom can be almost unbearable because it forces us to confront the limited control we have. Also, technology offers the perfect escape: there are no limits, and we can scroll forever, go anywhere and be anyone. We can try to limit your use of technology or a detox, but the urge will remain. In fact, the author doesn’t suggest a solution because he believes there isn’t one. We just have to accept that being in a constant state of unpleasantness is part of being human.

Part II: Beyond Control

Chapter 7: We Never Really Have Time

Hofstadter’s Law says that any task we’re planning to do will take longer than we expect it to. Regardless of how much planning we do, we’ll never relax knowing that everything will go according to plan. Worrying is your mind’s way of creating security about the future, but when it fails, it tries over and over. Worrying is a constant struggle to control the future.

Most people assume they’ll have time, but no one is certain of this. This puts us in a constant state of anxiety because our expectations clash with reality. The problem isn’t planning, but failing to remember that everything can change in an instant. The fact that something is a certain way now, doesn’t mean it’ll stay like that forever.

To mitigate this constant sense of anxiety, think that you’ll never get the exact result you expect from the future. It’s impossible to know what will happen, so don’t even engage in the thought that you can predict or control the future. Our attention should be confined to the only point in time that we know and can control: the present moment. The author defines a plan as a “present-moment statement of intent”. In other words, plans are an idea of what might happen in an uncertain and uncontrollable future.

Chapter 8: You Are Here

The problem with treating time as something we own is that we become obsessed with it and we’re pursuing a promising future of calm and fulfillment. Don’t treat time as a means to an end and don’t live in the future. An example is taking a picture of something instead of appreciating the moment as it unravels before us. Don’t postpone happiness because you’ll constantly move the goalpost and never achieve it. Also, you see the present as a means to an end instead of something to enjoy. We’ve been conditioned to do this because there’s always something coming up in education. To avoid this, we can try to think that what you’re doing right now might be the last time we do it.

Chapter 9: Rediscovering Rest

For a lot of people, resting means using leisure time productively. We don’t view activities such as running, meditating, taking time off from work, or napping as enjoyable in and of themselves, but we see them as an opportunity to be more productive afterward or because they might lead to a future goal. Historically, we’ve never had more leisure time, but it often feels like another item on our to-do list. Leisure shouldn’t be about productivity, but about relaxing for relaxing’s sake. Some people are unable to relax. Psychologists call this “idleness aversion”.

When you do a task whose value isn’t achieving an ultimate goal, you’re engaging in an “atelic activity”, but some people just call them hobbies. When you have a hobby, you’re allowed to be mediocre and even embarrassingly bad.

Chapter 10: The Impatience Spiral

Some people feel entitled to the point that they wish everything went according to their desires. Technology made this worse because it allows us to do things quicker than ever. Even if you can keep impatience under control, you might suffer from societal impatience.

The world around us is moving faster and faster, therefore, we feel the compulsion to move all the time to survive. We do this because it creates the illusion that our lives are under our control, but it leads to a spiral of addiction. We’re doing everything faster to get rid of the anxiety, but this gives us even more anxiety.

Chapter 11: Staying on the Bus

We often associate patience with a lack of power. But in a society where everyone’s moving faster, patience is a highly coveted skill, a superpower of sorts. To acquire the power of patience. we have to be comfortable having problems and working in small chunks to obtain big results over time and staying in the trial-and-error phase of copying others. Eventually, we’re going to gather enough experience to do something unique.

Chapter 12: The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad

To find freedom in the temporal limits, we need time and others to share it with. Never hoard time for yourself. Having control of your own time is good as long as you’re part of a community. If you can do anything and go anywhere but your schedule doesn’t match anyone else’s, that freedom is devoid of meaning.

Chapter 13: Cosmic Insignificance Therapy

The 2020 pandemic gave us a “possibility shock”, the understanding that things can be different if we all want them to be. Weirdly, the pandemic showed us the magic of simplicity, such as baking bread with your children, seeing a carless LA, or rediscovering childhood hobbies.

What you do doesn’t mean that much in the grand scheme of things. The “egocentricity bias” explains why we think we’re seeing everything from our perspective as if we’re the center of the universe. Essentially, we think we’re important because this motivates us to survive. Due to this, we expect to have a terrific life filled with extravagant experiences, but it’s liberating to know we’re insignificant. By adopting this mindset, what we’re doing is significant enough as long as it helps others.

Chapter 14: The Human Disease

Time feels like a struggle because we think we can dominate it to feel safe and secure. By the time we’re old, we want to think we have truly lived and that our existence mattered to the universe, but this is a delusion. In reality, we’ll never have time to do everything and whether we like it or not, we have to make some hard decisions. There’s a danger to living the present moment as a mere means to an end, as something we have to go through to reach a better future. The author calls this crisis, “the human disease”, and the only way to cure it is by accepting the fact that there is no cure. This is an inevitable fact of life that we all have to go through.

Appendix: Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude

  1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity. You need two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed”. The open list is where you have everything you want to do at some point and the closed one is a list with all the things you have to work on more immediately. The idea is that you move tasks from the open list to the closed one, but you can’t have more than ten items on the latter. Additionally, you should add time boundaries to your daily work and this usually means setting a specific schedule.
  2. Serialize. This is focusing on one project at a time and postponing everything else except that one thing.
  3. Decide what you’re going to fail at. This is called strategic underachievement and it involves choosing areas where you’ll perform badly.
  4. Focus on what you’ve completed and not on what’s left to do. Apart from a to-do list, keep a “done list” as well to see your past achievements.
  5. Pick your battles when it comes to activism, charity, and politics.
  6. Use single-purpose technologies and make your devices boring. Embrace devices like the Kindle which only lets you do one thing and make other devices less appealing, such as switching from color to grayscale on your smartphone.
  7. Engage in novel experiences often to get back the childlike wonder we all lost when we became adults, especially when it comes to the mundane.
  8. Make the time for “research” when it comes to relationships. Be curious when talking about others, even if you’re bored.
  9. Whenever you have an impulse to be generous, act on it as soon as you can.
  10. You have to tolerate doing nothing if you want to make good choices with your time. 

Further Reading

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