Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: An Overview

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What is Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks about? What is the key message to take away from the book?

In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman argues that the idea that you can wield perfect control over your time is a delusion that only fosters guilt and unhappiness. His solution is for humans to accept that they only have a finite amount of time and to operate within realistic parameters to make their lives as enjoyable and meaningful as possible.

Below is a brief overview of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

The Delusion of Time Management

In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman asserts that you and most humans live with the mistaken belief that if you try hard enough and find the right time management solutions, you should be able to gain total control over your time. 

According to Burkeman, having total control over your time encompasses 1) the ability to complete all necessary tasks and projects, both short-term and long-term, in the time you’ve allocated them and 2) the ability to decide exactly how to spend your time. 

Let’s cover the two reasons why you believe you can gain total control over your time:

Reason #1: The Industrial Revolution Transformed Time Into a Resource to Exploit

The Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally altered the way humans regarded time by transforming it into a resource that laborers were expected to use efficiently to maximize profits, asserts Burkeman. Business owners, wanting to derive the greatest amount of labor from their workforce, emphasized the importance of efficiency, hitting targets, and increasing future profits, portraying slowness and idleness as shameful. Today, this attitude manifests as the delusion that we can “use our time well” by maximizing efficiency and getting as much done as possible in a given time frame. 

The Industrial Revolution also changed the way humans view free time, adds Burkeman. Factory owners considered the free time they gave laborers as simply a way to improve laborers’ performance in factories during working hours. Therefore, free time became purpose-driven, rather than enjoyment-driven. 

Reason #2: Time-Saving Technology Makes You Believe Everything Should Be Faster

Time-saving technology contributes to the delusion that you should be able to fully master all your time, believes Burkeman. When you save time using technology, you automatically develop the expectation that you should be able to save and wield greater control over your time in other realms of your life. 

For example, your new robotic vacuum cleaner saves you twenty minutes of manual labor by detecting when there’s dirt and starting automatically. Now that your expectation of control over your time has been elevated, you might feel that you should be able to cut down your commute time, as well, or that your dishwasher should detect when it’s full and start itself.

The Reality: You’ll Never Have Total Control Over Your Time

We’ve just described the delusion you and most humans live under, which is that if you’re disciplined and use the right tools, you can gain control over your time. Now, let’s turn to the reality: Contrary to the promises of self-help gurus and time management tools, you’ll never be able to wield total control over your time, alleges Burkeman. 

Let’s discuss the three reasons why it’s impossible to have full control over your time:

Reason #1: The More Time You Free Up, the More Tasks Appear to Occupy It

According to Burkeman, the more tasks you complete, the more tasks will appear to occupy your newly freed-up time. This is because, as discussed in Part 1, humans feel they must spend their free time productively. When you have free time, you may decide that a task you might otherwise not deem important is important, because completing it feels like a productive use of your free time. In this way, you fill up your free time with unnecessary tasks.

For instance, if you finish your work for the day and could technically leave the office, you might decide instead that you need to follow up on an email, even though you hadn’t deemed it important before and it doesn’t technically require follow-up. 

Reason #2: The Faster You Work Now, The Faster You’ll Have to Work in the Future

Similarly, if you accelerate your pace of work in an effort to complete all your tasks, you’ll feel forced to increase that acceleration in the future, writes Burkeman. This happens first because others—co-workers, family members, and so on—will raise their expectations of how quickly you can work and will demand quicker output from you. Second, as discussed in Part 1, if you can complete a task more quickly, you’ll develop the expectation that everything should move more quickly. This means you’ll seek out more tasks and continue to have an incoming stream of to-do items that appear at an accelerated rate. 

Here’s an example: If you implement new software to accelerate part of your work, your colleagues will adjust to your increased pace and will send you new work faster, eliminating any time your new software might have initially freed up. Additionally, having completed your work in less time, you’ll develop the expectation that all your work should take less time, thus freeing up time to complete more tasks.

Reason #3: You Gladly Distract Yourself From Important Tasks

You also lack control over your time because you allow yourself to be distracted from important tasks that matter to you by minor tasks that don’t, writes Burkeman. This is because when tackling a task you want to execute well (like being a good parent or writing a novel), you risk falling short (by taking your anger out unfairly on your child or writing a bad novel, for instance). When you fall short of achieving your ideal, you’re forced to confront the unpleasant possibility that you may not be good at the task and that you might never master it in your lifetime, claims Burkeman. By distracting yourself with minor tasks, you can avoid facing these disturbing thoughts—but you lose control over how you spend your time.

Distraction and the Ego

Burkeman believes that you distract yourself from important tasks because you fear that doing them might reveal a personal weakness. Burkeman doesn’t elaborate much further on this idea, but Eckhart Tolle goes into greater detail on why and how humans engage in behaviors like self-distraction in his exploration of the ego in A New Earth
Tolle claims your ego fears the threat of being rendered insignificant, so it compels you to prove your ego is significant and valued. Your ego does this by forcing you to acquire material possessions, ideologies and opinions, and a set of feelings. It then seeks validation of those feelings, possessions, ideologies, and opinions in the external world, which can lead to negative behaviors. 

We can now see how self-distraction helps validate an opinion about yourself: For example, if you believe you’re an exceptional soccer player, you risk having that belief invalidated if you attempt to play soccer and fail. You might therefore distract yourself from trying to play so you never have to risk having an opinion invalidated and your ego threatened. 

So, how do you overcome negative ego-driven behaviors? Tolle recommends practicing mindfulness, the ability to be present and in touch with your inner self. When you can be present enough to recognize that you’re engaging in an ego-driven behavior, you can stop it. 

The Result of the Delusion: 4 Forms of Suffering

The delusion of perfect time control you and most humans live under causes four forms of suffering, argues Burkeman:

Form of Suffering #1: You Feel Guilty About Not Being More Productive

According to Burkeman, one form of suffering is that you feel perpetually guilty for not “getting everything done” and not “using your time well,” even though doing so is impossible. This guilt causes you to try even harder to complete all your work by doing more, faster—which, as we discussed in the last section, only begets more work. 

Form of Suffering #2: You Isolate Yourself to Gain Control Over Your Time

The harder you work to increase your control over your day, the less tolerance you have for interruptions and the more you isolate yourself as a way to maintain control, asserts Gilbert. This has negative consequences for your mental health and causes you to suffer. For instance, imagine that to gain control over your day, you get to the office at 5 a.m., before any colleagues who might bother you have arrived, and work with your door closed to avoid interruptions. This lets you get more done, but it also makes you extremely lonely. 

Form of Suffering #3: You Don’t Get to the Most Important Tasks

Additionally, you suffer because the harder you try to fit everything into your schedule, the less likely it is you’ll get to the most important tasks, Gilbert feels. This is because when you believe you can get everything done, you don’t prioritize the critical over the non-critical. 

Form of Suffering #4: You Obsess About the Future at the Expense of the Present

Finally, Burkeman believes that the delusion that you can get everything done makes you suffer because it causes you to spend all your present time working toward an unattainable future goal. Rather than dedicating your present to enjoyable pursuits that add richness to your life, you dedicate it to the less-rewarding act of catching up on work, because you believe if you try hard enough, you can one day get on top of it all. 

Burkeman adds that capitalism causes you to think in this future-oriented way because it’s designed to utilize present resources to make future profits. As a member of a capitalist society, you’re compelled to think about the present in terms of how it can improve the future. 

The Solution: Accept Your Limitations and Work Within Them

Now that you know why you’ll never have enough time to do everything you want and how believing that you do causes you to suffer, let’s move on to the solution Burkeman proposes to this problem. The solution involves accepting two unpleasant facts and using tactics to work within the limitations those facts set up. 

We’ll describe each fact you must accept and the tactics Burkeman proposes for working within them:

Fact #1: You’ll Never Feel as Though You’ve Mastered Your Time

The first fact about your time you must accept is that you’ll never have enough time to complete all the tasks and work you want to, insists Burkeman. Relatedly, you’ll never be able to meet your and society’s expectation of “getting everything done,” and you’ll never have total control over how you spend your time. When you accept this, you free yourself from the burden of trying to meet unrealistic expectations, and you’ll become happier.

Let’s now turn to the six tactics Burkeman proposes for both getting the most done and maximizing your happiness:

Tactic #1: Make Time for Critical Tasks Now

Prioritize tasks that matter most by making time for them before you do anything else, advises Burkeman. Don’t wait until time opens up (as discussed in Part 2, new tasks will always pop up to occupy freed-up time). Instead, just do them now, accepting that, due to opportunity costs, you likely won’t get to other tasks that matter to you. 

Tactic #2: Limit Your In-Progress Projects

As part of working effectively within your time limitations, don’t take on more commitments than you can handle just to feel that you’re being productive, recommends Burkeman. Limit yourself to three projects, and only take on new ones once old ones are done. Because you only have a few items to do, this will relieve you of a feeling of overwhelm. 

Tactic #3: Resist Distraction by Being Okay With Discomfort

To work within your time constraints, avoid distracting yourself from high-priority tasks that force you to confront your limitations (as discussed in Part 2) by developing a tolerance for discomfort, suggests Burkeman. This makes the task less unpleasant and allows you to see it through to completion. For instance, when editing a movie you made (which is important to you), you feel you fell short of achieving your vision. This could cause you to distract yourself from editing by watching TV so you don’t have to confront the limitations of your talent and skill. Instead, if you acclimate to the discomfort of editing your sub-par movie, you can see the task through to the end.

To develop a tolerance for discomfort, Burkeman proposes that when you notice yourself being distracted from an important task, immerse yourself more in it by paying closer attention to it. For example, if you become distracted from the important task of learning how to play the violin, pay even more attention to the details of your practice: Notice how some of the notes sound bad and others good, how your hands feel, and how the bow glides across the strings. 

Tactic #4: Stop Expecting the Future to Unfold Exactly as Planned

Having accepted that you’ll never master your time, work within that restraint by being open to the future veering from the plans you’ve created, advises Burkeman. The future is unknowable, and you have little real control over it. When you develop expectations of what should happen in the future and those expectations aren’t met, you both waste time planning and also become unhappy. 

For example, you might build an in-home panic room to assure your future safety. However, a new job might force you to move into a new home, rendering your attempt to control the future futile and leaving you unhappy over your wasted efforts.

Burkeman adds that you can help yourself become okay with the idea of not having control over the future by considering how little control you’ve had over your life until now. Most of your life has been a series of events over which you had no say: the event of being born, your upbringing in a certain area, your chance meeting with your partner-to-be, and so on. If you’ve succeeded thus far in life merely by happenstance—not through your iron control—then it will probably be okay in the future when things occur by happenstance, too. 

Tactic #5: Develop Patience for the Current Pace of Life

Rather than expecting the pace of everything in your life to accelerate (as discussed in Part 2), cultivate patience for how long activities take now, advises Burkeman. 

According to Burkeman, you can strengthen your patience muscle by breaking a large task into short periods of work and forbidding yourself from doing any additional work after that period has elapsed. Every time you force yourself to stop working before you want to, you confront the feeling of impatience and become a little more comfortable with it. Over time, you’ll get much more accomplished than those who rush through all their tasks and burn themselves out. 

Tactic #6: Align Your Free Time With That of Your Friends 

Finally, having accepted that you’ll never wield total control over your time, align your schedule with that of the people you want to spend time with, counsels Burkeman. Even though structuring your free time around other people’s schedules initially seems restrictive, you’ll be much happier and feel less isolated.

Burkeman suggests you sacrifice control for community by joining after-work activities that force you to be with people at a set time. You might join an amateur theater troupe or running group that meets regularly, for example. 

Fact #2: Your Life Is Finite

For Burkeman, the second fact about time to accept is that your life is finite and extremely brief in the context of the universe. If you live to be 76, you’ll only have about 4,000 weeks on Earth. This has two implications, continues Burkeman. First, because you only have limited time on Earth, you’ll never be able to accrue all the experiences you want to have. This is due to opportunity cost: Whenever you make a choice about what to do with your life, you preclude other choices. For example, if you choose to pursue a career in music, you can’t also pursue a career as an astronaut.

The second implication of a finite life is that you must use your time carefully and in service of projects and activities that matter to you and make you happy, stresses Burkeman. Don’t waste time trying to get through your to-do list, but rather dedicate it toward meaningful activities—like spending time with family, for example. 

Let’s now discuss the four tactics Burkeman provides for working within the limitations of a finite existence: 

Tactic #1: Commit to Your Life Choices

Make and strongly commit to your life choices, insists Burkeman. As we just discussed, you’ll never be able to do everything you want in life, so it will make you happier to choose one option and do it well. 

Burkeman elaborates that many people fear committing to choices because they think something better will come up if they keep their options open. However, this makes people unhappy because they constantly worry if there’s a superior alternative to what they’re doing, and it keeps them from experiencing the deeper joy of commitment. 

For example, if you’re deciding between becoming a lawyer or a business owner, don’t spend years indecisively trying jobs in both fields or seeking jobs that give you the best of both worlds. Instead, commit to one career and dedicate yourself fully to being good at it. You’ll experience greater joy from being good at your work than from keeping your options open. 

Tactic #2: Focus on What’s Happening in the Present, Not the Future

As another solution to making the most of your limited time on earth, Burkeman suggests you focus on the only period of time you can completely control: the present. As discussed in Part 2, the delusion of control over your time encourages you to sacrifice your present time in service of improving your future time use. But because you can’t control the future, instead spend more time thinking about how you can make the most of the present. 

For instance, if you’re tempted to spend your free afternoon preparing your business’s marketing campaign for next month rather than enjoying the nice weather, consider that you can guarantee your happiness now by going outside, but you can’t guarantee that your marketing campaign will be successful next month: Perhaps your competitors will lower their prices, and you’ll have to change the campaign to include a deal. You might thus opt to go outside, rather than work.  

Living in the Past, Present, and Future

Burkeman suggests that you should focus more on the present than the past or future because you can take action now to make the present better. However, others feel that you shouldn’t focus on existing merely in the present and instead balance living in the past, present, and future. In The Lucifer Effect, Philip Zimbardo argues that you should consciously apply a past-, present-, or future-oriented perspective depending on the situation you’re in. For example, when planning a trip, you should likely apply a future-oriented perspective to create an effective itinerary. However, if spending time with family, it’s better to be past-oriented, as your shared experiences will help you appreciate them more, and present-oriented, to better enjoy the moment.)

Tactic #3: Incorporate Purposeless Time Into Your Schedule

To spend your limited time pursuing activities that matter to you, Burkeman advises intentionally incorporating purposeless time into your schedule. Purposeless time is time spent doing something you like to do for its own sake, which doesn’t promise a payoff. This could be a hobby or activity like reading or knitting. 

Incorporating purposeless time into your life keeps you from thinking exclusively about the future in a way that erodes your ability to enjoy the present, elaborates Burkeman. You refrain from orienting all your present pursuits toward a future outcome and instead orient yourself toward deriving the most enjoyment from the present. 

Tactic #4: Don’t Dedicate Your Time to Changing the World, Because You Can’t

Finally, refrain from trying to live your life in a grand, meaningful way because you will fail at this, asserts Burkeman. In the broader context of the universe, your life has very little significance, and you won’t be able to make long-lasting change. When you recognize this, you free yourself from the pressure of having to make a huge difference and can focus on making a difference in the smaller ways available to you, writes Burkeman. For example, you might simply visit your grandparents more frequently to bring them joy. 

Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: An Overview

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Here's what you'll find in our full Four Thousand Weeks summary :

  • Why humans will never have perfect control over how they spend their time
  • Why you shouldn't feel guilty when you can't get everything done
  • How to best use the finite amount of time you have on Earth

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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