Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman

Four Thousand Weeks is a book that leans against a recent trend—in non-fiction literature but also in podcasts and Youtube videos—in finding hacks to boost our productivity. It is not really an anti-productivity book. The central message is that the feeling of being overwhelmed—at work, in life—cannot be solved using productivity-enhancing hacks—if anything, this hacks will worsen this feeling as one is packs even more work in the limited time we humans have. We have to deal with the feeling directly.

Four thousand weeks is the number of weeks in around 77 years. Given that life expectancy—for the US at least—is around this mark, it is a good way to visualise the finitude of human life. As I was talking to a friend of mine, upon thinking about four thousand weeks, his reply was: really, only 4,000? It is astonishing that this crucial piece of information is not stuck in our heads as we decide how to spend our time.

The book does a great job convincing us to start facing our finitude. In many passages, it seemed like the author was talking directly and personally to me. It remarks how people tend to live for a future where they think they’ll be able to live better… and of course when this future becomes present, they’ll be focusing on the future again. Here is where the productivity hacks are counterproductive: if only I could deal with e-mails faster, maybe I can block some time after a put the kids to sleep, maybe… and one ends up feeling like the day is just a succession of items in a long to-do list. Even putting the kids to sleep, something that can be enjoyable if one is present, becomes a chore with a clear time limit in it.

This uncomfortable feeling of not being in control of our time leads us to seek distractions. And, boy, there are so many! Here comes another batch of recent books trying to help you avoid distraction. Some of the hacks are useful. Reducing the availability of distractions help. But the need for a distraction is not removed by deleting Twitter from your phone. You can’t realistically remove all distractions. Understanding why one is feeling like this, facing this feeling and overcoming it—over and over again—is the real work. There is no future in which we are in control of our time. It is not our time. It is time—and we should focus on doing things that are meaningful to us without expecting to be in control of the agenda.

The more I think about how to broadly organise my days, the more I see the the right approach is probably a minimalist one—and that this is just the very beginning. The real work comes during the day, to withstand urges to get distracted, to switch to easier tasks, or to continue doing something that is working. It is incredibly hard. I can set my goal of working for two hours in a particular research project. This is a completely reasonable goal. But then, if I am not making that much progress, maybe I should get a coffee to refresh my mind? Maybe I can take a look at my phone—there could be some important emails from work. Maybe I can finish this other task that is not super important? Maybe, maybe, maybe… the truth is that none of this would help with the underlying feeling. It is just a short-term relief that makes things harder later on as I did not work enough on my research project. Distraction is a way to feel in control, even if for a short time, while making it harder to do what is meaningful to us, thus increasing our anxiety at the lack of progress and time later on.

So I liked the book. Do not go there if you look for tips on who to better organise your work. There are some, for sure, but that’s not the strength of the book. The focus is on stepping back and thinking about your finitude, and what it means for how you live your life, with a focus on the feeling of overwhelm that appears to be more and more common nowadays. I found myself underlying and writing down in my journal—yes, I have a journal—extensive parts of the book. I leave a couple of quotes here:

On our finitude: “We are a limited amount of time. A decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths. Any finite life is, therefore, a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibilities.

On attention and distraction: “To describe attention as a resource is to subtly misconstrue its centrality in our lives… Attention just is life. The distracted person isn’t really choosing at all.”

On the present: “To treat all these moments solely as stepping stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.”

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