Four Thousand Weeks - by Oliver Burkeman
This book is written for me, who constantly craves to achieve more. As the author says, I have a bottomless bucket list (or endless to-do list). The book also provides the reasons why I am in this mindset (we treat time as a resource) and how to counter it (choose wisely about what I am going to procrastinate on).
Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:
In fact, I did get better at racing through my to-do list, only to find that greater volumes of work magically started to appear.
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.
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. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige.
Our struggle to stay on top of everything may serve someone’s interests; working longer hours—and using any extra income to buy more consumer goods—turns us into better cogs in the economic machine. But it doesn’t result in peace of mind, or lead us to spend more of our finite time on those people and things we care most deeply about ourselves.
Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.
Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.
You’ll then proceed to measure and judge your real life against this imaginary gauge, lining up your activities against the timeline in your head.
Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it.
(It also reflects the manner in which most of us were raised: to prioritize future benefits over current enjoyments.) But ultimately it backfires. It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives. And it makes it all but impossible to experience “deep time,” that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead.
The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.
I wouldn’t need to ask if it was all that healthy to be deriving so much of my sense of self-worth from work in the first place.
After all, it’s painful to confront how limited your time is, because it means that tough choices are inevitable and that you won’t have time for all you once dreamed you might do.
And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance; or we implement time management systems that promise to make time for everything, so that tough choices won’t be required.
the more you believe you might succeed in “fitting everything in,” the more commitments you naturally take on, and the less you feel the need to ask whether each new commitment is truly worth a portion of your time—and so your days inevitably fill with more activities you don’t especially value.
But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.
author Richard Bach: “You teach best what you most need to learn.”
So long as you continue to respond to impossible demands on your time by trying to persuade yourself that you might one day find some way to do the impossible, you’re implicitly collaborating with those demands. Whereas once you deeply grasp that they are impossible, you’ll be newly empowered to resist them, and to focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you’re in.
None of us can single-handedly overthrow a society dedicated to limitless productivity, distraction, and speed. But right here, right now, you can stop buying into the delusion that any of that is ever going to bring satisfaction.
As the law professor Daniel Markovits has shown, even the winners in our achievement-obsessed culture—the ones who make it to the elite universities, then reap the highest salaries—find that their reward is the unending pressure to work with “crushing intensity” in order to maintain the income and status that have come to seem like prerequisites for the lives they want to lead.
the tyrannical inner voice insisting that you must do everything is simply mistaken.
We would be forced to acknowledge that there are hard choices to be made: which balls to let drop, which people to disappoint, which cherished ambitions to abandon, which roles to fail at.
the problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will.
there’s no reason to believe you’ll ever feel “on top of things,” or make time for everything that matters, simply by getting more done.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law.
So getting better at processing your email is like getting faster and faster at climbing up an infinitely tall ladder: you’ll feel more rushed, but no matter how quickly you go, you’ll never reach the top.
negligent emailers frequently find that forgetting to reply ends up saving them time: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never materializes.)
Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time, it gets easier to make better ones. You begin to grasp that when there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.
The Bottomless Bucket List
The technologies we use to try to “get on top of everything” always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the “everything” of which we’re trying to get on top.
the more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.
to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.
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.
Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.
(The original Latin word for “decide,” decidere, means “to cut off,” as in slicing away alternatives; it’s a close cousin of words like “homicide” and “suicide.”)
if you actually could get everything done, you’d never have to choose among mutually exclusive possibilities.
Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteed.”
instead of an infinite number of other “thats”—because this, you’ve decided, is what counts the most right now.
“joy of missing out,”
So the point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. 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.
protect your time by scheduling “meetings” with yourself, marking them in your calendar so that other commitments can’t intrude.
The second principle is to limit your work in progress.
The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities.
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.
As soon as I start trying to live any of those lives, though, I’ll be forced to make trade-offs
“The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,”
alternatives. In consciously making a commitment, they’re closing off their fantasies of infinite possibility in favor of what I described, in the previous chapter, as the “joy of missing out”: the recognition that the renunciation of alternatives is what makes their choice a meaningful one in the first place.
“I want to stop watching so bad but I’m already committed,”
what you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.
Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention.
It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart.
One example among hundreds is the ubiquitous drag-down-to-refresh gesture, which keeps people scrolling by exploiting a phenomenon known as “variable rewards”: when you can’t predict whether or not refreshing the screen will bring new posts to read, the uncertainty makes you more likely to keep trying, again and again and again, just as you would on a slot machine.
Because the attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling—instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful—it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times.
So it’s not simply that our devices distract us from more important matters. It’s that they change how we’re defining “important matters” in the first place. In the words of the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, they sabotage our capacity to “want what we want to want.”
It was impossible to drink from Twitter’s fire hose of anger and suffering
In T. S. Eliot’s words, we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.”
By portraying our opponents as beyond persuasion, social media sorts us into ever more hostile tribes, then rewards us, with likes and shares, for the most hyperbolic denunciations of the other side, fueling a vicious cycle that makes sane debate impossible.
even if their intention is to condemn the hatemongering, finds themselves rewarding it with attention, thereby helping it spread.
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.
Something in us wants to be distracted, whether by our digital devices or anything else—to not spend our lives on what we thought we cared about the most.
The more intensely he could hold his attention on the experience of whatever he was doing, the clearer it became to him that the real problem had been not the activity itself but his internal resistance to experiencing it. When he stopped trying to block out those sensations and attended to them instead, the discomfort would evaporate.
In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief.
Mary Oliver calls this inner urge toward distraction “the intimate interrupter”—that “self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels,” promising an easier life if only you’d redirect your attention away from the meaningful but challenging task at hand, to whatever’s unfolding one browser tab away.
The Discomfort of What Matters
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.
No wonder we seek out distractions online, where it feels as though no limits apply—where you can update yourself instantaneously on events taking place a continent away, present yourself however you like, and keep scrolling forever through infinite newsfeeds, drifting through “a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present,” to quote the critic James Duesterberg. It’s true that killing time on the internet often doesn’t feel especially fun, these days. But it doesn’t need to feel fun. In order to dull the pain of finitude, it just needs to make you feel unconstrained.
The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.
The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.
Some Zen Buddhists hold that the entirety of human suffering can be boiled down to this effort to resist paying full attention to the way things are going, because we wish they were going differently (“This shouldn’t be happening!”), or because we wish we felt more in control of the process.
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.
But it’s a recipe for a life of unending stress to insist that you must be able to feel certain, now, that this is how your relationship is definitely going to unfold in the future.
I don’t mind what happens.
Inevitably, we become obsessed with “using it well,” whereupon we discover an unfortunate truth: the more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calmer, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives.
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.”
But in focusing so hard on instrumentalizing their time, they end up treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness.
Hence the old parable about a vacationing New York businessman who gets talking to a Mexican fisherman, who tells him that he works only a few hours per day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled at the fisherman’s approach to time management, the businessman offers him an unsolicited piece of advice: if the fisherman worked harder, he explains, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, then retire early. “And what would I do then?” the fisherman asks. “Ah, well, then,” the businessman replies, “you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.”
It may also be because he’s no longer able to conceive of an activity that can’t be commodified as something worth doing at all.
We choose to treat time in this self-defeatingly instrumental way, and we do so because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives. As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future—that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems—you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived.
Absent in the Present
You’re so fixated on trying to make the best use of your time—in this case not for some later outcome, but for an enriching experience of life right now—that it obscures the experience itself.
The regrettable consequence of justifying leisure only in terms of its usefulness for other things is that it begins to feel vaguely like a chore—in other words, like work in the worst sense of that word.
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. The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully,” focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it—to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement.
As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection, a heavenly realm in which everything runs smoothly, your limited time causes you no pain, and you’re free of the guilty sense that there’s more you need to be doing in order to justify your existence.
To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake
“It is fun to have fun but you have to know how.”
Capitalism gets its energy from the permanent anxiety of striving for more,
That discomfort isn’t a sign that you shouldn’t be doing it, though. It’s a sign that you definitely should.
When your relationship with time is almost entirely instrumental, the present moment starts to lose its meaning.
Where’s the logic in constantly postponing fulfillment until some later point in time when soon enough you won’t have any “later” left?
We might seek to incorporate into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone—to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself.
And the freedom to suck without caring is revelatory.” Results aren’t everything. Indeed, they’d better not be, because results always come later—and later is always too late.
What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task.
You know you must stop, but you also can’t stop, because the very thing that’s hurting you—alcohol—has come to feel like the only means of controlling the negative emotions that, in fact, your drinking is helping to cause.
Perhaps it seems melodramatic to compare “addiction to speed,” as Brown calls our modern disease of accelerated living, to a condition as serious as alcoholism.
Yet the only thing that feels feasible, as a way of managing all this additional anxiety, is to move faster still. You know you must stop accelerating, yet it also feels as though you can’t.
You can’t truly hope to beat alcohol until you give up all hope of beating alcohol.
Digging in to a challenging work project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice; giving a difficult novel the time it demands becomes a source of relish. “You cultivate an appreciation for endurance, hanging in, and putting the next foot forward,”
The second-order change has occurred: now that you’ve abandoned your futile efforts to dictate the speed at which the experience moves, the real experience can begin.
The first is to develop a taste for having problems.
because a life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless.
The second principle is to embrace radical incrementalism.
They cultivated the patience to tolerate the fact that they probably wouldn’t be producing very much on any individual day, with the result that they produced much more over the long term.
It was precisely the students’ impatient desire to hasten their work beyond its appropriate pace, to race on to the point of completion, that was impeding their progress. They couldn’t stand the discomfort that arose from being forced to acknowledge their limited control over the speed of the creative process—and so they sought to escape it, either by not getting down to work at all, or by rushing headlong into stressful all-day writing binges, which led to procrastination later on, because it made them learn to hate the whole endeavor.
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.
The final principle is that, more often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.
Yet the truth is that 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.
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.
You might think of it as “cosmic insignificance therapy”: When things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all?
This overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your finite time well. It sets the bar much too high.
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things.
This dream of somehow one day getting the upper hand in our relationship with time is the most forgivable of human delusions because the alternative is so unsettling. But unfortunately, it’s the alternative that’s true: the struggle is doomed to fail.
The human disease is often painful, but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure.
- Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
- Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
- 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?
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
A modified version of this insight, “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.
Hope is supposed to be “our beacon in the dark,” Jensen notes. But in reality, it’s a curse.
To give up hope, by contrast, is to reinhabit the power that you actually have.
“we no longer have to ‘hope’ at all. We simply do the work. We make sure salmon survive.
You realize that you never really needed the feeling of complete security you’d previously felt so desperate to attain.
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.
Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.
Serialize, serialize, serialize.
Decide in advance what to fail at. But the great benefit of strategic underachievement—that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself—is that you focus that time and energy more effectively.
Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete. 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.
Consolidate your caring.
Embrace boring and single-purpose technology.
Seek out novelty in the mundane.
Be a “researcher” in relationships.
Cultivate instantaneous generosity.
Practice doing nothing.
So training yourself to “do nothing” really means training yourself to resist the urge to manipulate your experience or the people and things in the world around you—to let things be as they are.
- “Nothing is harder to do than nothing,”