The Futile Quest to Control Your Time
A book report on Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
Have you ever read a book that gives you goosebumps every few pages? Each page oozes a truth you’ve known all along, but here for the first time, you see it expressed, clear as day. Where every sentence flows seamlessly from start to finish in what almost feels like poetry.
I feel this way about a time management book.
I've often thought my superpower is getting things done. I can handle complexity. I can handle big projects. A blank page doesn't scare me.
My getting shit done muscle is strong AF.
But recently I've been feeling overwhelmed. (Hence the break from writing.)
Time has felt outside my control. And despite prioritization, it wasn’t feeling better.
This bothered me.
I wondered if I needed a refresh on time management protocols so I did what any productivity obsessed individual would do: I googled “best time management books” and picked one from the pack.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals is quite possibly the best "self help" book I've ever read.
It's certainly the most thought-provoking one of late, not to mention, a joy to read.
It starts by confronting some hard truths.
Our lives are short, productivity–as it is typically touted–is a trap, and the day we will have everything under control will never come. Never. Never.
The book didn’t leave me hating this unavoidable factoid. Rather, now I see how I can take my superpower too far. It left me asking myself how I can nurture my focus, without attempting to master my time (which again is a trap).
Chapter after chapter, I found myself practicing what author Oliver Burkeman preaches.
For one, I had no attachment to finishing it.
I let myself relish every second, not for the future benefit, just for the moment of it.
The happiness I felt reading it brought tears to my eyes on several occasions.
And remember, we’re talking about a time management book.
Since reading it, there have been very real shifts in how I live my time as of late:
Laughing at a stream of problems at work and finding calm as I worked through them, even though my default would have been to get angry about the "wasted" time.
Sitting down to read when there were more “productive” things to do or lists to check off and not feeling guilty.
Finding myself wanting to rush through a set in the gym because I wanted to be done, but resetting my focus and enjoying each rep.
Hell, I (almost) found joy in dealing with AT&T customer support.
Despite such wins, I know I'm far from enlightenment. But my paradigm has shifted and I won’t go back because the time management game has new, more fair rules.
Clearly, I recommend you read the book, especially if you constantly feel stressed, constantly pulled in too many directions, and constantly behind.
But for my sake as much as yours, I pulled out some highlights by chapter.
Chapter 1: The Limit-Embracing Life
A lot of this book is about confronting our mortality.
The problem with feeling like we never have enough time isn’t limited time, it’s the set of rules we have blindly accepted about how to use our time.
In our productivity obsessed world, it has become “difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal, or for some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally out of the way”.
I am guilty of this future focused living. I’ve dreamt of achieving a state where every second is used perfectly, never wasted. Maybe you can relate?
Unfortunately, this is futile. We have a mere 4,000 weeks on this planet (on average) and no matter how hard we try, we can’t optimize ourselves into immortal beings.
The time we are here is all we have.
Chapter 2: The Efficiency Trap
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by a long list of things to accomplish, this chapter will change your life.
Simply put: “It’s irrational to feel troubled by an overwhelming todo list.”
Why? Because you can’t do more than you can do.
Let that seep in. Maybe reread that last part.
“Once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind [by cramming more in], it comes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you're no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands. Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones.”
Some moments in life require you to push hard to get more done, but Burkeman advocates for us to stop letting this be our default. And the reward for letting go is that you might actually have time for the things you care about most.
Chapter 3: Facing Finitude
Ok, so let’s assume we’re along for the ride. Well, that means we have to make hard choices about how we spend our time. Burkeman encourages us to embrace the “joy of missing out”.
By being deliberate about how we live our time, we inevitably must accept that we can’t do it all. But do not despair!
“It’s not that we’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.”
Chapter 4: Becoming a Better Procrastinator
My favorite takeaway from this chapter is: “The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.”
Burkeman describes “The Art of Creative Neglect”:
Pay yourself first. There is no future moment when you will have done everything you need to do, leaving you time to do what matters most. Start with what matters most to you.
Limit your work in progress. Fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time.
Resist the allure of middling priorities. He recounts a Warren Buffet story.
Make a list of the top 25 things you want in life. Arrange them in order from most important to least. The top five should be how you organize your time. The remaining 20 are not second tier priorities. They are what you should actively avoid because they are “insufficiently important” yet “seductive enough”.
Throughout this book, I find a repeated calling out of the status quo. At first, the advice is anxiety inducing (I don’t want to let go of the idea I can do it all). But quickly that dissipates into a peaceful flow of freeing acceptance.
One such moment comes at the end of Chapter 4 when Burkeman explains the “inevitability of settling”. I’ll let you discover that one directly.
Chapter 5: The Watermelon Problem
This chapter is about distractions. Yes, the digital ones, but also anything that takes you away from what you value.
I read this book in the midst of reading several books about our society’s shrinking ability to focus. Some come down hard on technology’s role in usurping our attention. Others advocate for more individual control.
Burkeman articulates a rational middle ground. Yes, digital technologies are powerfully engineered to distract us. But, “something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else–to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most”.
In what ways have you avoided doing what you value most?
Chapter 6: The Intimate Interrupter
Here we look into why we allow ourselves to be distracted from what matters most to us.
The reason: Distraction is relief.
Paradoxically, we experience discomfort when we focus on what matters most to us. (Heck, I feel uncomfortable, or rather anxious, sitting down to edit this post…)
Burkeman attributes this to our desire to “flee a painful encounter with our finitude”. When you commit to doing something that matters to you, you open yourself up to the risk that it doesn’t work out.
I’ve read this chapter three times because the message hits hard.
I’ve spent years avoiding the things I cared about most out of fear of failure. When I finally started doing them, I would get through them with a knot in my heart, forcefully keeping my focus on the task at hand, and actively separating myself from the desire to get distracted.
Burkeman makes the point that it’s not hard to listen to another person because we’re checking our phones. We’re checking our phones because listening is hard.
“Distractions aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting our limitations.”
And I’m sorry to say, there isn't an easy fix.
The solution is, and here I paraphrase Burkeman, to accept that unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for a human to commit to a demanding and valuable task.
I’m cool with this.
Chapter 7: We Never Really Have Time
We don’t “have” time. We can’t possess it. And our anxiety to control it comes from our desire to know that our plans will be successful.
Which of course we can’t know.
Burkeman offers some solace:
“We successfully arrived at this moment without having the certitude that we would so we will likely be able to weather what comes at us in the uncontrollable future.”
Chapter 8: You Are Here
This one is particularly deep, especially if you’ve ever had the thought–and who hasn’t–that “when I finally” do X, I’ll be happy.
In short, Burkeman explains, we are instrumentalizing time. That time is only valuable in so far as it makes some future state desirable.
Now, Burkeman acknowledges that there are very undesirable situations where focusing on getting out makes sense. But why is it that those who are purportedly doing what they want, spend so much time wishing for a future state?
It’s this “waiting to start living” mentality that is so commonplace, yet so absurd when you stop to think about it.
He goes so far as to purport that our obsession with personal productivity is about not wanting to die…
…And yet, trying to live in the moment can be almost as detached as living for the future if we are trying too hard.
This chapter is full of seemingly doomsday statements like:
“Life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order.”
But it is uplifting if you open yourself to his message.
Chapter 9: Rediscovering Rest
Rest is something I struggle with. I’m not convinced I know how to do it.
(Please leave any book recommendations on this topic in the comments.)
Chapter 9 explains I am not alone. Many people see rest as a way to recover so we can do more work versus rest for the sake of rest or feel guilty about not using the time to improve ourselves.
Burkeman speaks of atelic activities–ones you do merely for the sake of doing them. An example given is walking. Another example would be a hobby. One you do for its own sake, without concern for results.
Over the last 18 months, I’ve been going for walks almost every day. During this time, I have also become a happier person…
Chapter 10: The Impatience Spiral
Here we are reminded how futile impatience is.
Honking won’t get us to our destination faster. Nor should we be upset when obstacles slow us down at work. The fact is things are the way they are and we can only control ourselves.
But the world keeps speeding up and Burkeman makes a convincing case that we are addicted to this fast pace and it’s only getting worse.
“As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness, or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed.”
This leads to rushed work, constant checking of our phones, and the urge to move faster in hopes of controlling time.
But we can’t.
Things take the time they take. If we can surrender into this reality, the impatience melts away.
I’ve experienced this many times. A daunting project in front of me. I get so annoyed and stressed. But then I accept that it is what it is and somehow it becomes enjoyable (and gets done).
Apparently this is what it means to be patient.
Chapter: 11 Staying on the Bus
Here we go deeper into patience. I appreciate that he first calls out the wrong kind of patience. The one “ to help you to resign yourself to your lowly position” while waiting for something better.
Instead, he paints a picture of what it can mean to find power in patience.
“In a world geared for hurry, the capacity to resist the urge to hurry–to allow things to take the time they take–is a way to gain purchase on the world, to do the work that counts, and to derive satisfaction from doing itself, instead of deferring all your fulfillment to the future.”
He shares three Principles of Patience:
Develop a taste for having problems. You can’t deal with everything and get to a point where you have nothing left to deal with. Life is dealing with problems.
Embrace radical incrementalism. Make small but consistent progress. This could not be more evident than in the gym…
Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. Your early forays into something will likely be down a beaten path. By staying the course you give yourself a chance to push beyond the end of that established trail into the new.
Chapter 12: The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad
Have you ever felt burdened by the demands others place on your time?
Sure, it would be simpler if our significant others, friends, coworkers, and family members didn’t mess up our ideal schedule. But would a life without others be worth it?
Burkeman points out how “digital nomads” are not nomadic at all–to be so would require them to travel with a community instead of solo globe trotting, which turns out can be a very lonely experience for many.
Productivity literature often encourages ultimate control over your schedule.
“To be free from other people’s intrusion into your precious four thousand weeks”.
But Burkeman encourages us to fall into rhythm with others or “to be free to engage in all the worthwhile collaborative endeavors that require at least some sacrifice” of your time.
Chapter 13: Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
When the pandemic hit and lockdown went into effect, we were abruptly forced into a period of pause. If there was a silver lining to be had, it was how the “great pause” shocked us into living our time differently.
As one of the truly fortunate (I stayed healthy and I had a job), I experienced this pause as one of the greatest gifts. I remember loving the quiet. Not traveling. No commutes. Long deep discussions with nowhere else to be. I had more time to cook and eat healthy.
It definitely set me on a course I wouldn't have found had the pandemic not happened. For many, it was a forcing function in grappling with the question of what really matters to us.
But when you start to ask those types of questions, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of feeling like our lives must be wildly remarkable to be worthy. So then we become frozen.
Cosmic insignificant therapy is a reminder that:
“When it comes to how you're using your finite time, the universe absolutely couldn't care less.”
Like with most points in this book there is a seemingly depressing theorem thrown out, that when you unpack it, offers a sense of calm and surrender.
Burkeman is prodding us to let go of absurdly unrealistic goals such as “putting dents in the universe” and in doing so create space to experience our finite time just for what it is.
Last year, I read another book called The Great Work of Your Life by Stephen Cope. If you struggle, as I have, to bring your dreams to fruition because they don’t feel “big enough”, I highly recommend it.
Chapter 14: The Human Disease
“Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves.”
It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control.
In the Appendix, Burkeman provides 10 tools for “embracing your finitude”. In the ultimate click bait move, I’ll leave them for you to discover if you chose to read the book.
I hope you do because it's freaking mind blowing. It’s not the message we are fed day in and day out.
This book turns time management on its head.
Burkeman’s goal isn’t to defeat you. It’s to defeat the impossible standards we’ve set as our time management ideals and in doing so empower us to embrace our finite time, do more of what matters and feel fulfilled.
I’ve read it twice.
It’s a trip.
Also, hello, and thank you for getting all the way here.
I took a few months off writing because I had to neglect this part of my life while other things took front and center. Having read this book during that time (and learned a few things), I can honestly say that even though I am not thrilled to have lost my publishing rhythm, I am crystal clear on why I didn’t write and I don’t feel bad about what I would have considered a lack of productivity before.
Anyways, I’m back now with 3000+ words on strengthening your time management skills!
I can not finish this article without addressing one more thing. This book is not about giving up your dreams. It’s not about shying away from hard work. Quite the contrary. This book is a roadmap for actually doing the things you really want to do.
Four Thousand Weeks may seem depressing on the surface, but I found it freeing.
I can’t wait to hear what you think of it.