The Biggest Time Management Myth, Debunked

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Four Thousand Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you feel in control of how you spend your time? Do you believe it’s possible to have full control over your time?

Time management is an important skill to have, but it’s also important to temper your expectations about it. Contrary to self-help gurus and time management experts, you’re not really in control of your time. In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman debunks the biggest time management myth you’ve been led to believe—that you can have full control over how you spend your time provided you have the right tools.

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

#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. 

(Shortform note: Burkeman outlines one arguably negative effect of the Industrial Revolution on contemporary society. Other harmful aspects of the Industrial Revolution’s legacy live on today, too: Gender-based wage discrimination can be traced in large part to the Industrial Revolution, for example. Factory owners paid women only half of men’s salaries because women weren’t considered the primary breadwinners of their families and therefore didn’t need as much income. Further, the Industrial Revolution established a pattern of sacrificing the health of the environment—and the people living in it—for monetary gain.) 

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. 

(Shortform note: Burkeman asserts that we feel even our free time should be spent in service of a productive pursuit. In Your Money or Your Life, Vicki Robin and Joel Dominguez describe an even less leisure-oriented relationship to free time: We actively value free time less than working time. They explain that the Great Depression created mass joblessness, which made people value the ability to work over the ability to rest. This attitude has never fully gone away—many of us see paid work as the best way we could possibly spend our time.) 

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

Time-saving technology contributes to the biggest time management myth you’ve been led to believe: 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.

(Shortform note: Burkeman describes how time-saving technology elevates your expectation of how fast other things should move in your life. This experience of becoming accustomed to greater speed is a facet of the psychological phenomenon called hedonic adaptation: the process of acclimating to changed circumstances so that your general level of happiness returns to its base level. When this occurs, you don’t value the new circumstances as much as you did initially. For example, if you eat a doughnut every morning, you’ll soon adjust to the pleasure of a daily doughnut and will need two doughnuts to get the same amount of joy you got initially.)   

The Biggest Time Management Myth, Debunked

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Oliver Burkeman's "Four Thousand Weeks" at Shortform.

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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