Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals | Oliver Burkeman

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Doing more and the race against time

In 1930, in a speech titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren,” the economist John Maynard Keynes made a famous prediction: Within a century, thanks to the growth of wealth and the advance of technology, no one would have to work more than about fifteen hours a week. The challenge would be how to fill all our newfound leisure time without going crazy.

But Keynes was wrong. It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up.

[The medieval farmer] got up with the sun and slept at dusk, the lengths of their days varying with the seasons. There was no need to think of time as something abstract and separate from life: you milked the cows when they needed milking and harvested the crops when it was harvesttime, and anybody who tried to impose an external schedule on any of that—for example, by doing a month’s milking in a single day to get it out of the way, or by trying to make the harvest come sooner—would rightly have been considered a lunatic.

There was no anxious pressure to “get everything done,” either, because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion.

This is widely held to be how the first mechanical clocks came to be invented, by medieval monks, who had to begin their morning prayers while it was still dark, and needed some way of ensuring that the whole monastery woke up at the required point.

Soon, your sense of self-worth gets completely bound up with how you’re using time: it stops being merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control, if you’re to avoid feeling guilty, panicked, or overwhelmed.

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, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all. It also means resisting the seductive temptation to “keep your options open”—which is really just another way of trying to feel in control—in favor of deliberately making big, daunting, irreversible commitments, which you can’t know in advance will turn out for the best, but which reliably prove more fulfilling in the end.

Choosing what to do - and not to do

“You teach best what you most need to learn.” - Richard Bach

To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all.

Apart from anything else, they make it clear that the core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.

The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.

Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.

The second principle is to limit your work in progress.

Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts—because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.

In their book Personal Kanban, which explores this strategy in detail, the management experts Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry suggest no more than three items. Once you’ve selected those tasks, all other incoming demands on your time must wait until one of the three items has been completed, thereby freeing up a slot.

The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities.

Buffett’s advice is different: he tells the man to make a list of the top twenty-five things he wants out of life and then to arrange them in order, from the most important to the least. The top five, Buffett says, should be those around which he organizes his time. But contrary to what the pilot might have been expecting to hear, the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs—because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.


The good procrastinator accepts the fact that she can’t get everything done, then decides as wisely as possible what tasks to focus on and what to neglect. By contrast, the bad procrastinator finds himself paralyzed precisely because he can’t bear the thought of confronting his limitations.

Since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses. Loss is a given.

Irreversible commitments

And not only should you settle; ideally, you should settle in a way that makes it harder to back out, such as moving in together, or getting married, or having a child. [...] when people finally do choose, in a relatively irreversible way, they’re usually much happier as a result.

“joy of missing out”: the recognition that the renunciation of alternatives is what makes their choice a meaningful one in the first place.

When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.


[...] the contemporary online “attention economy” [...] is essentially a giant machine for persuading you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, and therefore with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn’t want to care about.

It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things—and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well.

As the technology critic Tristan Harris likes to say, each time you open a social media app, there are “a thousand people on the other side of the screen” paid to keep you there—and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone.

Distractions and boredom

[...] when we succumb to distraction, [...] we’re motivated by the desire to try to flee something painful about our experience of the present.

This is why boredom can feel so surprisingly, aggressively unpleasant: we tend to think of it merely as a matter of not being particularly interested in whatever it is we’re doing, but in fact it’s an intense reaction to the deeply uncomfortable experience of confronting your limited control.

Even if you quit Facebook, or ban yourself from social media during the workday, or exile yourself to a cabin in the mountains, you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or—the preferred option of the productivity geek—redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.

The reason it’s hard to focus on a conversation with your spouse isn’t that you’re surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table. On the contrary, “surreptitiously checking your phone beneath the dinner table” is what you do because it’s hard to focus on the conversation—because listening takes effort and patience and a spirit of surrender, and because what you hear might upset you, so checking your phone is naturally more pleasant. Even if you place your phone out of reach, therefore, you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself seeking some other way to avoid paying attention. In the case of conversation, this generally takes the form of mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, as soon as the other person has finished making sounds with their mouth.

The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.


“Hofstadter’s law,” which states that any task you’re planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect, “even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again—as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine:

So a surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied—no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport.

In his book Back to Sanity, the psychologist Steve Taylor recalls watching tourists at the British Museum in London who weren’t really looking at the Rosetta Stone, the ancient Egyptian artifact on display in front of them, so much as preparing to look at it later, by recording images and videos of it on their phones.


The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the “causal catastrophe,” which he defines as the belief “that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces.”

Likewise, the question of whether or not it’s okay to let your nine-year-old spend hours each day playing violent video games doesn’t turn solely on whether or not it’ll turn him into a violent adult, but also on whether that’s a good way for him to be using his life right now;

Hourly work

the notorious case of corporate lawyers. The Catholic legal scholar Cathleen Kaveny has argued that the reason so many of them are so unhappy—despite being generally very well paid—is the convention of the “billable hour,” which obliges them to treat their time, and thus really themselves, as a commodity to be sold off in sixty-minute chunks to clients.


Living more fully in the present may be simply a matter of finally realizing that you never had any other option but to be here now.

It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for itself alone, without regard for any potential future benefits, because rest that has no instrumental value feels wasteful.

In his book Sabbath as Resistance, the Christian theologian Walter Brueggemann describes the sabbath as an invitation to spend one day per week “in the awareness and practice of the claim that we are situated on the receiving end of the gifts of God.”

“Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness,” writes the philosopher John Gray. He adds: “How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?”

In such an era, it’s virtually guaranteed that truly stopping to rest—as opposed to training for a 10K, or heading off on a meditation retreat with the goal of attaining spiritual enlightenment—is initially going to provoke some serious feelings of discomfort, rather than of delight. That discomfort isn’t a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it, though. It’s a sign that you definitely should.

One critical aspect of the radical incrementalist approach, which runs counter to much mainstream advice on productivity, is thus to be willing to stop when your daily time is up, even when you’re bursting with energy and feel as though you could get much more done.

If you’ve decided to work on a given project for fifty minutes, then once fifty minutes have elapsed, get up and walk away from it. Why? Because as Boice explained, the urge to push onward beyond that point “includes a big component of impatience about not being finished, about not being productive enough, about never again finding such an ideal time” for work. Stopping helps strengthen the muscle of patience that will permit you to return to the project again and again, and thus to sustain your productivity over an entire career.

Relationship with time

[...] time is also a “network good,” one that derives its value from how many other people have access to it, too, and how well their portion is coordinated with yours.

treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share, even if that means surrendering some of your power to decide exactly what you do with it and when.

what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your finite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.


1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?

James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”

2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?

What would you do differently with your time, today, if you knew in your bones that salvation was never coming—that your standards had been unreachable all along, and that you’ll therefore never manage to make time for all you hoped you might?

3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

Once you’ve earned your right to exist, you tell yourself, life will stop feeling so uncertain and out of control.

"At a certain age, it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.” - ” Stephen Cope“

4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

How to live

But I sometimes think of my journey through adulthood to date as one of incrementally discovering the truth that there is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn’t just winging it, all the time.

“Dear Frau V.,” Jung began, “Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way…If that’s what you want, you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what.”

By contrast, the individual path “is the way you make for yourself, which is never prescribed, which you do not know in advance, and which simply comes into being itself when you put one foot in front of the other.”

“quietly do the next and most necessary thing. So long as you think you don’t yet know what that is, you still have too much money to spend in useless speculation. But if you do with conviction the next and most necessary thing, you are always doing something meaningful and intended by fate.”

“Do the next right thing,” has since become a slogan favored among members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a way to proceed sanely through moments of acute crisis.

“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,”

Once you no longer need to convince yourself that the world isn’t filled with uncertainty and tragedy, you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. 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.

Techniques for adopting a limit-embracing philosophy

1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.****

It’s better to begin from the assumption that tough choices are inevitable and to focus on making them consciously and well.

[...] keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed. (You may also require a third list, for tasks that are “on hold” until someone else gets back to you.) You’ll never get through all the tasks on the open list—but you were never going to in any case, and at least this way you’ll complete plenty of things you genuinely care about.

establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. To whatever extent your job situation permits, decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work

2. Serialize, serialize, serialize.

focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one nonwork project) and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next.

train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing. Soon, the satisfaction of completing important projects will make the anxiety seem worthwhile—and since you’ll be finishing more and more of them, you’ll have less to feel anxious about anyway.

3. Decide in advance what to fail at.

strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself

fail on a cyclical basis: to aim to do the bare minimum at work for the next two months, for example, while you focus on your children, or let your fitness goals temporarily lapse while you apply yourself to election canvassing. Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting.

To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for “work-life balance” with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.

4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete.

you begin each morning in a sort of “productivity debt,” which you must struggle to pay off through hard work, in the hope that you might reach a zero balance by the evening. As a counterstrategy, keep a “done list,” which starts empty first thing in the morning, and which you then gradually fill with whatever you accomplish through the day.

5. Consolidate your caring.

We’re exposed, these days, to an unending stream of atrocities and injustice—each of which might have a legitimate claim on our time and our charitable donations, but which in aggregate are more than any one human could ever effectively address.

consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics

6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.

making your devices as boring as possible—first by removing social media apps, even email if you dare, and then by switching the screen from color to grayscale.

choose devices with only one purpose, such as the Kindle ereader, on which it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read.

7. Seek out novelty in the mundane.

pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have.

Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long.

8. Be a “researcher” in relationships.

The desire to feel securely in control of how our time unfolds causes numerous problems in relationships, where it manifests not just in overtly “controlling” behavior but in commitment-phobia, the inability to listen, boredom, and the desire for so much personal sovereignty over your time that you miss out on enriching experiences of communality (chapter 12).

try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.”

9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity.

whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind—to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work—act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.

10. Practice doing nothing.


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