Book review: Four Thousand Weeks

Book cover for Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

Everything I’ve been taught about time management, everything I’ve read, everything I’ve learned is about how to organize our time to get more things done. It’s been beat into me that time management is about focus, discipline, planning, and prioritizing.

Is it possible that what I’ve been taught, that what I’ve learned is wrong? Have I’ve been managing my time incorrectly all these years?

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman challenged my relationship with time and how I manage it. Instead of laying out yet another system that shows how to squeeze more tasks and activities into the limited time we have, Burkeman turns the concept of time management inside out. He start with the premise that we have a limited amount of time, approximately 4000 weeks if we’re lucky enough to live to 80 years of age, and works backward from there to develop techniques that get the most out of those 4000 weeks. Keep in mind that I didn’t say how to get the most things done in that limited time. I simply said getting the most out of that time, which is an important distinction that I’ll come back to in a bit.

You see, I am a descendant of the Franklin Time Management System of Planning. Shortly after I started my professional career in 1991, I was trained in the system and given one of their planners. Each and every day work day started with 15-20 minutes of P & S, better known as planning and solitude, where I would transfer unfinished actions from the prior day onto my action list for the current one. Then I would plan and prioritize my tasks and activities for the day.

Every one in the company was indoctrinated in the system, and all of us had a planner. We had them out at our desks, carried them with us through the hallways, and took them to meetings. What a sight that must have been – a dozen engineers in a meeting with planners open, taking notes, and capturing actions on our to-do lists.

We eventually grew tired of carrying those planners with us everywhere they went. Eventually these were replaced with Palm Pilots by the late nineties. Wow, now that’s taking a trip down memory lane!

However, the concepts of time management didn’t change with the transition from paper to digital. The basic concept is that if you set goals, plan and prioritize the actions to achieve those goals, and apply focus and discipline, you can achieve anything you set out to do. In other words, with the right amount of planning, focus, and discipline, you can master time and get your life into perfect working order.

Burkeman, in Four Thousand Weeks, turns this notion upside down. His contention is that “you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order,” because, as he puts it – “the faster you go, the faster you’ll feel you need to go.”

Instead, Burkeman tells us to look at our time differently. I am going to piece together a few excerpts from the book that will help you understand his perspective on managing time.

Because your quantity of time is so limited, you’ll never reach the commanding position of being able to handle every demand that might be thrown at you or pursue every ambition that feels important; you’ll be obliged to make tough choices instead. And because you can’t dictate, or even accurately predict, so much of what happens with the finite portion of time you do get, you’ll never feel that you’re securely in charge of events, immune from suffering, primed and ready for whatever comes down the pike.

This observation leads to this realization:

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.

So instead of trying to control time and plan for a perfect future, we need to take a more adaptive approach to life. Or as he point outs from the classic, Tao Te Ching, that was written over two thousand years ago:

…the wise man (the reader is constantly being informed) is like a tree that bends instead of breaking in the wind, or water that flows around obstacles in its path. Things just are the way they are, such metaphors suggest, no matter how vigorously you might wish they weren’t – and your only hope of exercising any real influence over the world is to work with that fact, instead of against it.

And this leads to, possibly, the most important point Burkeman makes in the book:

And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.

Basically, what I took away from Four Thousand Weeks is that trying to figure out how to get more things done in the limited time we have is a fool’s errand. We are better off recognizing that our time is limited and working backward to determine the things that matter to each of us, knowing that we are all different and what matters to each of us is not the same. We must also recognize that life is going to throw unexpected events our way. Our reaction shouldn’t be to resist these unexpected events or problems, but to embrace them. As Burkeman points out, “the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.”

There is a lot to digest in Four Thousand Weeks. Burkeman will challenge your notion of how you should manage your time. Along the way, he will encourage you to change your relationship with time. And at the end, he leaves you with some practical tips on how to make and incorporate these changes in mentality into your life, which can be especially challenging if you’ve been raised in classical time management techniques like I have.

Overall, I didn’t necessarily agree with all of Burkeman’s points, but I found myself agreeing with way more than I disagreed with. And when a book challenges me the way Four Thousand Weeks did, I consider it a Must Read. It’s a book that I plan to put on my list to revisit in the future. Given how easy it is to slip back into old habits and ways of thinking, I’m going to need a regular tune-up in how I relate to and manage my time.

So needless to say, I highly recommend the book. It’s worth reading to get a different perspective on managing your time and getting more out of life. Bear in mind this doesn’t mean getting more things done, it means getting more out of the limited time we’ve been granted. It means doing more of what matters, and there’s a big difference between getting more done in life versus doing more of what matters to us most in life.

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