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  • Writer's pictureLars Christensen

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

I finished this book in July 2022. I recommend this book 7/10.

If you are looking for the next productivity hack that will stop the endless flow of emails or help you finish your to-do list, this book is for you. Well, the book will not solve those problems, but it will make you realize that you are chasing your tail and that time constraint, as we think of it, is like a fish unaware of the water.

Get your copy here.

My thoughts and notes:

  • Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they're really just ways of furthering the avoidance. 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. It's also painful to accept your limited control over the time you do get: maybe you simply lack the stamina or talent or other resources to perform well in all the roles you feel you should.

  • Time pressure comes largely from forces outside ourselves: from a cut-throat economy; from the loss of social safety nets and family networks that used to help ease the burdens of work and childcare; and from the sexist expectation that women must excel in their careers while assuming most of the responsibilities at home. None of that will be solved by self-help alone; as the journalist, Anne Helen Petersen writes in a widely shared essay on millennial burnout, you can't fix such problems "with vacation, or adult coloring book, or 'anxiety baking,' or the Pomodoro Technique, or overnight fucking oats."

  • When you're trying to Master Your Time, few things are more infuriating than a task or delay that's foisted upon you against your will, with no regard for the schedule you've painstakingly drawn up in your overpriced notebook. But when you turn your attention instead to the fact that you're in a position to have an irritating experience in the first place, matters are liable to look very different indeed. All at once, it can seem amazing to be there at all, having any experience, in a way that's overwhelmingly more important than the fact that the experience happens to be an annoying one.

  • The art of creative neglect:

    • Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time. If you try to find time for your most valued activities by first dealing with all the other important demands of your time, in the hope there'll be some leftover, in the end, you'll be disappointed.

    • The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Fix a hard upper limit on the number of things that you allow yourself to work on at any given time.

    • The third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you only have one life.

  • 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 thoughts of confronting his limitations; for him, procrastination is a strategy of emotional avoidance—a way of trying not to feel the psychological distress that comes with acknowledging that he's a finite human being.

  • Will always render our creation less than perfect. Dispiriting as this might sound at first, it contains a liberating message: if you're procrastinating on something because you're worried you won't do a good enough job, you can relax—because judging by the flawless standard of your imagination, you definitely won't do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.

  • 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.

  • Despite our total lack of control over any of these occurrences, each of us made it through to this point in our lives—so it might at least be worth entertaining the possibility that when the uncontrollable future arrives, we'll have what it takes to weather that as well. And that you shouldn't necessarily even want such control, given how much of what you value in life only ever came to pass thanks to circumstances you never chose.

  • If Amazon's front page loaded one second more slowly, the company would lose $1.6 billion in annual sales. And yet, at first glance, as I mentioned in the introduction, this seems exceedingly strange. Virtually every new technology, from the steam engine to mobile broadband, has permitted us to get things done more quickly than before. Shouldn't this therefore have reduced our impatience by allowing us to live at something closer to the speed we'd prefer?

  • What's the solution? "It's simple," "Stay on the bus, stay on the fucking bus." A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki's bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That's where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience.

  • As in Jennifer Robert's three-hour painting-viewing exercise, this begins with the willingness to stop and be where you are—to engage with that part of the journey, too, instead of always badgering reality to hurry up. To experience the profound mutual understanding of the long-married couple, you have to stay married to one person; to know what it's like to be deeply rooted in a particular community and place, you have to stop moving around.

  • Five questions:

    • Where in your life or 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?

  • In holding yourself to standards, nobody could ever reach (and which many of us would never dream of demanding of other people). The more humane approach is to drop such efforts as completely as you can. Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.

  • Ten tools for embracing your finitude:

    • Adopt a "fixed volume" approach to productivity.

    • Focus on one big project of the time.

    • Decide in advance what to fail at.

    • Focus on what you've already completed, not just on what's left to complete.

    • Consolidate your caring. (Forget about social media, concentrate on your inner circle)

    • Embracing boring and single-purpose technology. (Greyscale your iPhone)

    • Seek out novelty in the mundane.

    • Be a "researcher" in relationships.

    • Cultivate instantaneous generosity.

    • Practice doing nothing.

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