Has the pursuit of efficiency turned you into a nervous wreck? Are you perpetually dissatisfied with how productive you've been? Do you struggle with managing your time? These thoughts, feelings and experiences are more common around the world than you might imagine.
Oliver Burkeman, a British writer based in New York, has been engaging with these questions for a while. For many years, he wrote a weekly column titled “This Column Will Change Your Life” for The Guardian. He has now written a book titled Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Allen Lane, 2021).
Burkeman's book will not teach how you to pack more activities into your waking hours so that your impossible to-do list can be tackled. He is not interested in converting you into a supermom, superdad, or super-whatever-else who has the miraculous ability to please one and all. He has no magic tricks for people whose bucket list grows with every novel thing they hear about. Before you reject the book for these reasons, check out what he does have to offer
“I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are,” he says. If you pride yourself on being pragmatic, this statement might seem too impractical to serve you. In a workplace or a household that always demands more than you feel able to give, asking people to just accept things the way they are can be tough. They may think that you not only take them for granted but are also unapologetic about your absence.
Burkeman says, “In practical terms, a limit-embracing attitude to time means organizing your days with the understanding that you definitely won’t have time for everything you want to do, or that other people want you to do—and so, at the very least, you can stop beating yourself up for failing. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously.”
His book focuses on how to make these choices rather than letting them get made by default.
One of the impediments that many urban professionals face today is the fear of missing out (FOMO). There are movies to watch, trainings to participate in, weddings to show up at, friends to catch up with, yoga classes to attend, parties to be seen at, in addition to work hours and family time. According to Burkeman, FOMO is not a problem at all if one realizes that choosing to miss one thing for another is “what makes our choices meaningful in the first place.”
Burkeman has a philosophical explanation. He writes, “When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future. And so they try to quell their anxieties by cramming their lives with experience.”
He also makes the crucial observation that time management techniques are often guided by an excessive focus on the ‘I’ rather than ‘We’. When efficiency is put on a pedestal, relationships are often seen as less important and therefore neglected. We view the time that we spend with people in transactional terms. Instead of allowing ourselves to learn about other people, and listen to what they have to say, we try to gauge whether they are worth investing in or not.
Burkeman lists technological inventions – dishwashers, microwaves, jet engines – meant to help human beings “gain the upper hand over time”. With all the hours that have been freed up, “time ought to feel more expansive and abundant”. It doesn’t. He writes, “It’s somehow vastly more aggravating to wait two minutes for the microwave than two hours for the oven—or ten seconds for a slow-loading web page versus three days to receive the same information by mail.”
This book will make you reconsider your relationship with time, and check whether you have fallen into the trap of wearing busyness as a badge of honour. If your self-worth is bound up with how you are “using time”, is this approach benefiting you and others? Is your “productivity obsession” helping you combat the precariousness of life itself? Are you using work to numb yourself emotionally? Burkeman asks these questions from a place of care, not condescension.
If you are hoping for an “oasis of relaxation” after all your tasks are out of the way, Burkeman strikes a note of caution. According to him, this attitude “wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.” Burkeman encourages us to make peace with “the shortness of human life.”
This is a quiet, introspective book. It does give you “ten tools to embrace your finitude” but Burkeman’s most precious insight is this: “it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.” Accepting this can liberate us from wanting to be in control and on top of everything.
Here is the toolbox if you are looking for take-aways: 1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity. 2. Serialize, serialize, serialize. 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. Practise Doing Nothing.
Burkeman does not pretend to have perfected what he is offering here. He draws on the work of several philosophers, psychologists, spiritual teachers, environmentalists, scholars and poets – including Seneca, Hannah Arendt, Alan Watts, Pema Chödrön, Raina Maria Rilke, Martin Heidegger, Henri Bergson, Sylvia Keesmaat, Friedrich Nietzsche, Kieran Setiya, among others.Buddhist scholar Geshe Shawopa – one of the people Burkeman is inspired by – says, “Do not rule over imaginary kingdoms of endlessly proliferating possibilities.” This is an invitation to stop agonizing over possible futures, to make a choice, and to gracefully accept the consequences.