Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman, Vintage Press, 2021
Reading a book that reminds you that you don’t have much time, and that, essentially, you’re not in control of the time you do have, might, at first glance, seem counter-productive. But I’d venture to say that this is a book worth taking time at least to speed read (as I did).
After those first two insights — you’re finite, and you don’t know when your life will end — Oliver Burkeman, a British journalist whose reflections on his own life prompted him to put together this antithesis of the average self help book — blasts through the typical guru’s advice on time management with the finesse and speed of a fighter pilot on amphetamines. Busy-ness, for instance, is, he says, an emblem of prestige. Instead, it’s worth remembering that for the vast sweep of human history, our ancestors experienced deep time, unfolding leaves, and the shadows of skeins of geese migrating in the unending cycle of seasons. A time for everything, rather than time torn off unused like toilet paper, or torture.
What if, Burkeman asks, we were to ask ourselves, are we on the right path? Would this make us anxious? In recognising the brevity of our lives, we must confront the fact that we have to make tough choices, because time is very limited. We cannot get it right, because sometimes there is no right to get. There is only the fact of a decision to be made. We have to learn to stay with the anxiety of being overwhelmed by choice, and by the guarantee that we will miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer.
Learning to live with this is the deep paradox of the book. Rather than becoming downhearted by the knowledge that the world is going to kill us, and rather than attempting to squeeze as much in as possible, by falling for the trickery of convenience culture and sending an e-card at a click of a button, Burkeman advocates the recognition that it is the inconvenience of making an effort that counts as caring. It is not the ease with which something can be done that makes it worth doing. It is, rather, the thought that you put in that makes the work an act of care.
This kind of thoughtfulness is central to Zen philosophy too. Graham Parkes, a philosopher who wrote How to think about the climate crisis, described how he and his wife lived in a small apartment in Japan, and learned to embrace and even turn into an art, a skill, with grace, the act of folding bedclothes and carefully turning the mattress back into a sofa every morning, and then reversing the process at the end of each day. Slowing down and doing things carefully, with awareness, brings us into a different relationship with time. Rather than avoidance or denial, boredom or irritation at the daily tasks that occupy us, he recommends we plunge into the astonishment of being here at all. You only happen to be here. There is no cosmic law entitling you to this status. Of course, being alive can be just as much a curse as a blessing. We did not choose it either way. So how we live is really a matter of how we approach our lives from the perspective of the chance encounter it offers of being alive right now.
Principle number one, he suggests, is to pay yourself first. This is true of stuff and it’s true of time itself. Do what you really want to do first. The book, The Richest Man in Babylon first came up with the concept that if you put a small proportion of your salary aside first, you won’t even notice that you don’t have it to spend, and therefore you will accumulate wealth without really trying. It is the same principle with deciding on what your most important project is, whether it’s writing a novel, painting a landscape, training for a marathon, or taking a course in management or meditation. Decide on one thing, and schedule it into your day, preferably first thing, then deal with the fact that other things, like the housework, might not get so much attention. The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Three tasks at any one time is enough. There will be serious choices to make here. He uses Warren Buffet’s phrase, “the allure of middling priorities”, and suggests making a list of 25 things you’d like to have achieved. Underline the first five and put a line through all the rest. That’s all you’re going to achieve. The trick is to actively avoid the rest, and that is hard work. Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Work, Pray) pointed out that it’s not the things you don’t want to do that are hard to say no to, it’s the things you would quite like to do that require your resistance.
Making these choices is hard because humans are hardwired to have to choose quickly, or not at all. Indecision is easier than commitment. Carmela in The Sopranos sums this up well: a wrong decision is better than no decision at all.
Once we have decided, we will still have trouble focusing on what we have decided to do. This is because, as Timothy Wilson said, we’re capable of paying attention only to about 0.0004 percent of the information bombarding our brain at any moment. It is also because, as Burkeman pointed out, we lack the kind of control we think we have over our lives. We didn’t choose our parents, or our early experiences, and they shaped, to a huge extent, our personalities and choices. We do have control over one thing, though. Viktor Frankl described this in his experience in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. He was able to direct the one thing that the prison guards couldn’t control: his inner life. Attention is the beginning of devotion, as Mary Oliver, the poet, put it. In Zen terms (Burkeman tells a story of an American novice pouring ice water over himself as part of his monastic training), you are rewarded each time you remain undistracted. You are punished — with further suffering — each time you are distracted.
The book hits on some fundamental questions: why do we not feel motivated to do the things we say we want to do? The answer is provided in another book, Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art: the more you focus on a particular task, the more obstacles appear to materialise to obstruct your progress. He calls this resistance, and both Burkeman and Pressfield recognise that there is a spiritual, or attitudinal, aspect to how we tackle this conundrum. We tell ourselves we really want to do something, and yet we avoid just as assiduously as we avoid the things we say we don’t want to do, like cleaning out the lavatory bowl, or ending a relationship. This is because we have to face the fact that we might fail at the task we have set ourselves and a bit like indecision, it is easier not to commit oneself to the possibility of failure, than to remain in the land of ‘if only’.
The theme of time echoes throughout the book, but nowhere is it better stated than in Hofstader’s law — every task will take longer than you expect, even when you take into account this law. And yet, the book resounds ultimately with a kind of consoling optimism. By learning how not to dodge and scheme to avoid the inevitable truth of our demise, and to commit to tasks nonetheless, we reach a state of peace. The spiritual leader Krishnamurti is quoted as having said, “I don’t mind what happens”, not because he didn’t care, but because he knew he had done his best, and remained attentive at each moment.
And yet Burkeman cautions us not to try too hard. Being creatively idle is a dying art: watching the clouds, lying back and listening to birdsong, walking slowly and watching other species are all wonderful ways to spend time well. So are hobbies (apparently Rod Stewart is into model railways: who knew?) And the attention to detail that these kinds of pastimes teach is that long forgotten art: patience.
Patience is the kid brother of perseverance. Keep going. And then keep going some more. When you think a project is derivative, or unoriginal, that it lacks anything significant to offer, keep working at it in incremental steps. Interestingly, Burkeman delves into philosophical topics throughout the book, but only once does he sound deeply esoteric. That is when he says that we do not exist in time: we are time.
There are a list of practical actions at the end to take to align yourself with the principles that he uncovers in the book, including a self enquiry about pursuing comfort where discomfort might be what’s needed, holding yourself to impossible standards, and asking yourself when you are going to accept who you are, and not who you think you ought to be.
How would you spend your days if you didn’t care if your work reached fruition? Perhaps the tasks you’ve taken on will last longer than just one lifetime. And that’s okay too, says Burkeman. We exist in time, as time, and we are not alone in the tasks we undertake. This is a great thought as we face into the post-pandemic realities of climate change and all the anxieties that we have to deal with as a result: slow down. Pay attention. And spend some time deliberately doing something that doesn’t feed the relentless machine of personal development. You’ll thank yourself for it in the end.