Four thousand weeks. If we make it to 80, that’s how long we have to live our lives. Given humans’ “mental capacities to make infinitely ambitious plans” that seems “absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short”, writes Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks: Time and how to use it.
In writing this book, journalist and author Burkeman sifted through quotes, texts, anecdotes, academic studies, articles, interviews and personal experience. All to coax the reader into greater self-awareness of how our ingrained perception of time as a resource or measurement of productivity may be working against our best efforts to negotiate our busy and frenetic lives.
The productivity trap
We are faced with a paradox. Our lives are preciously short, so time management, broadly defined, should be everyone’s chief concern, yet our focus on being more productive just seems to “cause the conveyor belt to speed up”, in the words of anthropologist Edward T Hall.
For people with a busy, demanding job and an equally hectic life outside work, just how helpful is a book that begins by asking the reader to acknowledge productivity is a trap and that clearing the decks “just makes them fill up faster”?
By his own admission, Burkeman – a self-confessed “productivity geek” – came to realise he was never going to be on top of everything and, in his experience, there is no time management technique that is half as effective as just facing things as they truly are.
A change of attitude
This requires (project professionals, brace yourselves) a “limit-embracing” attitude to time. In practice, this means organising your days with the attitude that you definitely won’t have time for everything that you want to do. Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is actively deciding what to focus on and what to neglect – rather than letting decisions get made by default.
Another pertinent piece of advice in Burkeman’s book is resisting the urge to clear the decks. Rather than the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, learn to tolerate the sense of feeling overwhelmed or not being on top of everything without trying to automatically fit more in. This means focusing instead on what is most important while accepting the discomfort of knowing that the decks will be filling up with emails and other to-dos.
This allows you the freedom to drive yourself hard and squeeze more in when required, but without it becoming your default operating mode.
Be more discerning when it comes to spending time
Many of us hate to admit it, but we are all procrastinators to a degree. Accept this and then become a better procrastinator. In our lives, too many activities seem ‘somewhat important’. Principle one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time – a principle borrowed from personal finance advice. Burkeman quotes Jessica Abel, a graphic novelist, who advises spending some of your time on the things that really matter. She came to realise that she was never going to leave her job and have a go at being an artist if she didn’t allow herself time to draw.
The second principle is to limit your work in progress. While it can feel that you are making progress with multiple deadlines or projects, if one project feels too difficult, too boring or too overwhelming we have a tendency to switch to another. While this brings a sense of control, we aren’t really accomplishing that much.
Here, Burkeman refers to Personal Kanban, run by Jim Benson and Toni DeMaria, which advocates working on no more than three items, and until one of those three items is completed, incoming demands on your time must wait. This is not about forcing yourself to finish everything but enabling you to keep workload or other commitments manageable.
The third principle is resisting the allure of middling priorities. This is about saying ‘no’ even to things you want to do if they take you away from your bigger priorities.
Learn to say ‘no’ to the demands of the market economy
Modern life – specifically the individualist approach to life in the west – has left us aspiring to have the freedom to set our own schedule. Many self-help books have devised rules and hacks to help us exert control over routine and productivity. But while setting boundaries is important, being in thrall to this individualist freedom leaves us “fuelled by the demands of the market economy”, says American journalist Judith Shulevitz.
Burkeman points out that declining an invitation to have dinner, meet friends or do other social activities isn’t about not having time, but rather a reluctance to loosen schedules enough to make time for these things.
The author recalls a visit to Sweden, where he observed a ritual within companies called fika, where every employee has to down tools at the same time, ostensibly to have coffee and cake. What’s really going on is that everyone sets aside divisions dictated by status, seniority, class or age, and mingles. There is no agenda. All that is required is a willingness to relinquish individual sovereignty over one’s time for this allotted communal period in the working day.
One senior manager told Burkeman it was by far the best way to really understand what was going on in his company.