In Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkman explores the concept of time and how our limited lifespan affects our perception of it. He argues that our obsession with productivity, efficiency, and control over our time actually makes us more stressed and anxious. He goes against the idea that we can achieve work-life balance or find satisfaction by trying to do more and be more productive. Instead, he suggests embracing our limitations, accepting that we can’t do everything, and focusing on what truly matters to us. The book also delves into the importance of patience, embracing discomfort, and finding meaning in the present moment. Ultimately, the author encourages us to let go of the pressure to achieve greatness and instead embrace the ordinary moments of life.
Here are some things you can do to improve your life, today:
- Embrace your limited time and accept that you can’t do everything. Focus on what truly matters to you.
- Implement a “fixed volume” approach to productivity, setting predetermined time boundaries for your work.
- Serialize your tasks and focus on one big project at a time, avoiding the temptation to multitask.
- Prioritize and decide in advance what you are willing to fail at, freeing up your time and energy for what truly matters.
- Keep a “done list” to focus on what you have already accomplished, rather than constantly worrying about what’s left to complete.
- Embrace boring and single-purpose technology to minimize distractions and stay focused on the task at hand.
- Seek novelty in the mundane by paying more attention to every moment and finding curiosity in everyday interactions.
- Cultivate instantaneous generosity by acting on generous impulses right away, whether it’s giving money, checking in on a friend, or praising someone’s work.
- Practice doing nothing and embracing moments of stillness and quiet, allowing yourself to rest and recharge.
- Let go of the pressure to achieve greatness and find meaning in the present moment, appreciating the ordinary moments of life.
I can’t exactly recall why I decided to pick up that book, but I can tell you that I was suprised when I started reading it. I expected it to be something else entirely. That was a pleasant surprise though.
If you are into producitivity stuff, you might have seen that more and more blog posts are devoted to our unhealthy relationship with productivity. I think the source for such inspiration and focus change is that book.
At times I have felt that it could have been shorter and that a similar theme is streched out over the course of the whole book, but that was a rare thought. Most of the time the author kept me interested by sharing not only his thoughts on the topic, but the thoughts and examples from many different people across the world and ages.
I definitely would recommend this book to a friend.
Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.
Surveys reliably show that we feel more pressed for time than ever before; yet in 2013, research by a team of Dutch academics raised the amusing possibility that such surveys may understate the scale of the busyness epidemic—because many people feel too busy to participate in surveys.
Even some of the very worst aspects of our era—like our viciously hyperpartisan politics and terrorists radicalized via YouTube videos—can be explained, in a roundabout way, by the same underlying facts concerning life’s brevity.
It’s because our time and attention are so limited, and therefore valuable, that social media companies are incentivized to grab as much of them as they can, by any means necessary—which is why they show users material guaranteed to drive them into a rage, instead of the more boring and accurate stuff.
A few years ago, drowning in email, I successfully implemented the system known as Inbox Zero, but I soon discovered that when you get tremendously efficient at answering email, all that happens is that you get much more email.
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. “For the first time since his creation,” Keynes told his audience, “man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares.” But Keynes was wrong. 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.
The environmentalist and spiritual writer Charles Eisenstein recalls first sensing this basic “wrongness” in our use of time as a child, growing up amid material comfort in 1970s America: Life, I knew, was supposed to be more joyful than this, more real, more meaningful, and the world was supposed to be more beautiful. We were not supposed to hate Mondays and live for the weekends and holidays. We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day. And this feeling of wrongness is only exacerbated by our attempts to become more productive, which seem to have the effect of pushing the genuinely important stuff ever further over the horizon.
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. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved “work-life balance,” whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the “six things successful people do before 7:00 a.m.”
1. The Limit-Embracing Life
The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem—or so I hope to convince you—is that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse.
This is widely held to be how the first mechanical clocks came to be invented, by medieval monks, who had to begin their morning prayers while it was still dark, and needed some way of ensuring that the whole monastery woke up at the required point. (Their earlier strategies included deputizing one monk to stay awake all night, watching the movements of the stars—a system that worked only when it wasn’t cloudy, and the night-shift monk didn’t fall asleep.)
Note: Another point for religion.
The Industrial Revolution is usually attributed to the invention of the steam engine; but as Mumford shows in his 1934 magnum opus, Technics and Civilization, it also probably couldn’t have happened without the clock. By the late 1700s, rural peasants were streaming into English cities, taking jobs in mills and factories, each of which required the coordination of hundreds of people, working fixed hours, often six days a week, to keep the machines running.
It grows alluring to try to multitask—that is, to use the same portion of time for two things at once, as the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche was one of the first to notice: “One thinks with a watch in one’s hand,” he complained in an 1887 essay, “even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market.”
Note: How relevant for a thought from 1887
The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.
I would never succeed in marshaling enough efficiency, self-discipline, and effort to force my way through to the feeling that I was on top of everything, that I was fulfilling all my obligations and had no need to worry about the future.
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. And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless.
The more you hurry, the more frustrating it is to encounter tasks (or toddlers) that won’t be hurried; the more compulsively you plan for the future, the more anxious you feel about any remaining uncertainties, of which there will always be plenty.
All of this illustrates what might be termed the paradox of limitation, which runs through everything that follows: the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.
Perhaps most radically of all, seeing and accepting our limited powers over our time can prompt us to question the very idea that time is something you use in the first place. There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.
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. You can face the facts. You can turn on the shower, brace yourself for some invigoratingly icy water, and step in.
2. The Efficiency Trap
The reason isn’t that you haven’t yet discovered the right time management tricks or applied sufficient effort, or that you need to start getting up earlier, or that you’re generally useless. It’s that the underlying assumption is unwarranted: 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.
what “matters” is subjective, so you’ve no grounds for assuming that there will be time for everything that you, or your employer, or your culture happens to deem important.
in her book More Work for Mother, the historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to “labor-saving” devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him. “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.
the choice you can make is to stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in, because that just makes matters worse. And once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind that way, it becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you’re no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands.
As the German sociologist Hartmut Rosa explains, premodern people weren’t much troubled by such thoughts, partly because they believed in an afterlife: there was no particular pressure to “get the most out of” their limited time, because as far as they were concerned, it wasn’t limited, and in any case, earthly life was but a relatively insignificant prelude to the most important part.
When people stop believing in an afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life. And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future.
This helps explain why stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect. It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived—but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.
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. Whenever you encounter some potential new item for your to-do list or your social calendar, you’ll be strongly biased in favor of accepting it, because you’ll assume you needn’t sacrifice any other tasks or opportunities in order to make space for it.
You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.
3. Facing Finitude
As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I’m building a life—but at one and the same time, I’m closing off the possibility of countless others, forever. (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.”) Any finite life—even the best one you could possibly imagine—is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.
And so it’s not merely a matter of spending each day “as if” it were your last, as the cliché has it. The point is that it always actually might be. I can’t entirely depend upon a single moment of the future.
anyone who spends their days failing to confront the truth of their finitude—convincing themselves, on a subconscious level, that they have all the time in the world, or alternatively that they’ll be able to cram an infinite amount into the time they do have—is essentially in the same boat. They’re living in denial of the fact that their time is limited; so when it comes to deciding how to use any given portion of that time, nothing can genuinely be at stake for them. It is by consciously confronting the certainty of death, and what follows from the certainty of death, that we finally become truly present for our lives.
So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.
I happen to be alive, and there’s no cosmic law entitling me to that status. Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteed.” This kind of perspective shift, I’ve found, has an especially striking effect on the experience of everyday annoyances—on my response to traffic jams and airport security lines, babies who won’t sleep past 5:00 a.m., and dishwashers that I apparently must unload again tonight, even though (I think you’ll find!) I did so yesterday.
It is the thrilling recognition that you wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything. In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.
4. Becoming a Better Procrastinator
the core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.
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.
Thinking in terms of “paying yourself first” transforms these one-off tips into a philosophy of life, at the core of which lies this simple insight: if you plan to spend some of your four thousand weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you’re just going to have to start doing it.
The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts—because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.
in a world of too many big rocks, it’s the moderately appealing ones—the fairly interesting job opportunity, the semi-enjoyable friendship—on which a finite life can come to grief. It’s a self-help cliché that most of us need to get better at learning to say no. But as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert points out, it’s all too easy to assume that this merely entails finding the courage to decline various tedious things you never wanted to do in the first place. In fact, she explains, “it’s much harder than that. You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only 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 thought 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.
Bradatan argues that when we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we’re usually in some version of this same mindset. We fail to see, or refuse to accept, that any attempt to bring our ideas into concrete reality must inevitably fall short of our dreams, no matter how brilliantly we succeed in carrying things off—because reality, unlike fantasy, is a realm in which we don’t have limitless control, and can’t possibly hope to meet our perfectionist standards. Something—our limited talents, our limited time, our limited control over events, and over the actions of other people—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 judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.
Once again, the seemingly dispiriting message here is actually a liberating one. Since every real-world choice about how to live entails the loss of countless alternative ways of living, there’s no reason to procrastinate, or to resist making commitments, in the anxious hope that you might somehow be able to avoid those losses. Loss is a given. That ship has sailed—and what a relief.
The received wisdom, articulated in a thousand magazine articles and inspirational Instagram memes, is that it’s always a crime to settle. But the received wisdom is wrong. You should definitely settle.
“You must settle, in a relatively enduring way, upon something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,” he writes: you can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first “settling” on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them.
5. The Watermelon Problem
to describe attention as a “resource” is to subtly misconstrue its centrality in our lives. Most other resources on which we rely as individuals—such as food, money, and electricity—are things that facilitate life, and in some cases it’s possible to live without them, at least for a while. 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.
At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been. So when you pay attention to something you don’t especially value, it’s not an exaggeration to say that you’re paying with your life.
But the crucial point isn’t that it’s wrong to choose to spend your time relaxing, whether at the beach or on BuzzFeed. 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. The proper response to this situation, we’re often told today, is to render ourselves indistractible in the face of interruptions: to learn the secrets of “relentless focus”—usually involving meditation, web-blocking apps, expensive noise-canceling headphones, and more meditation—so as to win the attentional struggle once and for all. But this is a trap. When you aim for this degree of control over your attention, you’re making the mistake of addressing one truth about human limitation—your limited time, and the consequent need to use it well—by denying another truth about human limitation, which is that achieving total sovereignty over your attention is almost certainly impossible.
Note: I love how thos book talks aboit things very differently from how eveyone else talk on the subject.
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. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things—and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well. If social media convinces you, for example, that violent crime is a far bigger problem in your city than it really is, you might find yourself walking the streets with unwarranted fear, staying home instead of venturing out, and avoiding interactions with strangers—and voting for a demagogue with a tough-on-crime platform. If all you ever see of your ideological opponents online is their very worst behavior, you’re liable to assume that even family members who differ from you politically must be similarly, irredeemably bad, making relationships with them hard to maintain. 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.”
6. The Intimate Interrupter
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.
When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much.
you couldn’t have known in advance that it was going to do so, so you’ll still have had to give up the feeling of being the master of your time. To quote the psychotherapist Bruce Tift once more, you’ll have had to allow yourself to risk feeling “claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality.” 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.
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 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.
The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.
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. There is a very down-to-earth kind of liberation in grasping that there are certain truths about being a limited human from which you’ll never be liberated. You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.
Part II Beyond Control
7. We Never Really Have Time
The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future—but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future.
The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine: that your partner won’t leave you, that you will have sufficient money to retire, that a pandemic won’t claim the lives of anyone you love, that your favored candidate will win the next election, that you can get through your to-do list by the end of Friday afternoon. But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitations when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win.
And even if you do end up getting the full three hours, precisely in line with your expectations, you won’t know this for sure until the point at which those hours have passed into history. You only ever get to feel certain about the future once it’s already turned into the past.
Note: Decide what to do in the moment.
you just find yourself in each moment as it comes, already thrown into this time and place, with all the limitations that entails, and unable to feel certain about what might happen next. Reflect on this a little, and Heidegger’s idea that we are time—that there’s no meaningful way to think of a person’s existence except as a sequence of moments of time—begins to make more sense.
The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it. The future just isn’t the sort of thing you get to order around like that, as the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal understood: “So imprudent are we,” he wrote, “that we wander in the times which are not ours…We try to [give the present the support of] the future, and think of arranging matters which are not in our power, for a time which we have no certainty of reaching.”
What we forget, or can’t bear to confront, is that, in the words of the American meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, “a plan is just a thought.” We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.
8. You Are Here
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 author and podcast host Sam Harris makes the disturbing observation that the same applies to everything: our lives, thanks to their finitude, are inevitably full of activities that we’re doing for the very last time. Just as there will be a final occasion on which I pick up my son—a thought that appalls me, but one that’s hard to deny, since I surely won’t be doing it when he’s thirty—there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it. And indeed there’s a sense in which every moment of life is a “last time.” It arrives; you’ll never get it again—and once it’s passed, your remaining supply of moments will be one smaller than before. To treat all these moments solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.
9. Rediscovering Rest
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. In order to most fully inhabit the only life you ever get, you have to refrain from using every spare hour for personal growth.
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.
10. The Impatience Spiral
The Tao Te Ching is full of images of suppleness and yielding: the wise man (the reader is constantly being informed) is like a tree that bends instead of breaking in the wind, or water that flows around obstacles in its path. Things just are the way they are, such metaphors suggest, no matter how vigorously you might wish they weren’t—and your only hope of exercising any real influence over the world is to work with that fact, instead of against it.
We tend to feel as though it’s our right to have things move at the speed we desire, and the result is that we make ourselves miserable—not just because we spend so much time feeling frustrated, but because chivying the world to move faster is frequently counter-productive anyway. For example, traffic research long ago established that impatient driving behavior tends to slow you down. (The practice of inching toward the car in front while waiting at a red light, a classic habit of the restless motorist, is wholly self-defeating—because once things start moving again, you have to accelerate more slowly than you otherwise would, so as to avoid rear-ending the vehicle ahead.) And the same goes for many of our other efforts to force reality’s pace. Working too hastily means you’ll make more errors, which you’ll then be obliged to go back to correct; hurrying a toddler to get dressed, in order to leave the house, is all but guaranteed to make the process last much longer.
(It has been calculated that if Amazon’s front page loaded one second more slowly, the company would lose $1.6 billion in annual sales.)
The reason that technological progress exacerbates our feelings of impatience is that each new advance seems to bring us closer to the point of transcending our limits; it seems to promise that this time, finally, we might be able to make things go fast enough for us to feel completely in control of our unfolding time.
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. Some people definitely get offended when she does so. But her point isn’t that compulsive hurry is as physically destructive as an excess of alcohol. It’s that the basic mechanism is the same. As the world gets faster and faster, we come to believe that our happiness, or our financial survival, depends on our being able to work and move and make things happen at superhuman speed. We grow anxious about not keeping up—so to quell the anxiety, to try to achieve the feeling that our lives are under control, we move faster. But this only generates an addictive spiral. We push ourselves harder to get rid of anxiety, but the result is actually more anxiety, because the faster we go, the clearer it becomes that we’ll never succeed in getting ourselves or the rest of the world to move as fast as we feel is necessary. (Meanwhile, we suffer the other effects of moving too fast: poor work output, a worse diet, damaged relationships.) 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. This way of life isn’t wholly unpleasant: just as alcohol gives the alcoholic a buzz, there’s an intoxicating thrill to living at warp speed. (As the science writer James Gleick points out, it’s no coincidence that another meaning of the word “rush” is “a feeling of exhilaration.”) But as a way of achieving peace of mind, it’s doomed to fail. And whereas if you find yourself sliding into alcoholism, compassionate friends may try to intervene, to help steer you in the direction of a healthier life, speed addiction tends to be socially celebrated. Your friends are more likely to praise you for being “driven.”
11. Staying on the Bus
In practical terms, three rules of thumb are especially useful for harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life. The first is to develop a taste for having problems. Behind our urge to race through every obstacle or challenge, in an effort to get it “dealt with,” there’s usually the unspoken fantasy that you might one day finally reach the state of having no problems whatsoever. As a result, most of us treat the problems we encounter as doubly problematic: first because of whatever specific problem we’re facing; and second because we seem to believe, if only subconsciously, that we shouldn’t have problems at all. Yet the state of having no problems is obviously never going to arrive. And more to the point, you wouldn’t want it to, 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. The psychology professor Robert Boice spent his career studying the writing habits of his fellow academics, reaching the conclusion that the most productive and successful among them generally made writing a smaller part of their daily routine than the others, so that it was much more feasible to keep going with it day after day. 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. They wrote in brief daily sessions—sometimes as short as ten minutes, and never longer than four hours—and they religiously took weekends off. … 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.
That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for 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. The implications of this insight aren’t confined to creative work. In many areas of life, there’s strong cultural pressure to strike out in a unique direction—to spurn the conventional options of getting married, or having kids, or remaining in your hometown, or taking an office job, in favor of something apparently more exciting and original. Yet if you always pursue the unconventional in this way, you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing those other, richer forms of uniqueness that are reserved for those with the patience to travel the well-trodden path first. As in Jennifer Roberts’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. Those are the kinds of meaningful and singular accomplishments that just take the time they take.
12. The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad
But having all the time in the world isn’t much use if you’re forced to experience it all on your own. To do countless important things with time—to socialize, go on dates, raise children, launch businesses, build political movements, make technological advances—it has to be synchronized with other people’s. In fact, having large amounts of time but no opportunity to use it collaboratively isn’t just useless but actively unpleasant—which is why, for premodern people, the worst of all punishments was to be physically ostracized, abandoned in some remote location where you couldn’t fall in with the rhythms of the tribe.
might nonetheless be guilty of the same basic mistake—of treating our time as something to hoard, when it’s better approached as something to share, even if that means surrendering some of your power to decide exactly what you do with it and when.
“A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule,” advises the cartoonist turned self-help guru Scott Adams, summarizing the ethos of individual time sovereignty.
“Last year, I visited 17 countries; this year, I will visit 10,” the author Mark Manson wrote, back when he was still a nomad himself. “Last year, I saw the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu in the span of three months…But I did all this alone.” A fellow wanderer, Manson learned, “burst into tears in a small suburb in Japan watching families ride their bikes together in a park,” as it dawned on him that his supposed freedom—his theoretical ability to do whatever he wanted, whenever he chose—had put such ordinary pleasures beyond reach.
The point, to be clear, isn’t that freelancing or long-term travel—let alone family-friendly workplace policies—are intrinsically bad things. It’s that they come with an unavoidable flip side: every gain in personal temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in how easy it is to coordinate your time with other people’s. The digital nomad’s lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root. For the rest of us, likewise, more freedom to choose when and where you work makes it harder to forge connections through your job, as well as less likely you’ll be free to socialize when your friends are.
One of his two central findings was unremarkable: when Swedes take time off work, they’re happier (as measured by their being less likely, on average, to need antidepressants). But the other was revelatory: antidepressant use fell by a greater degree, Hartig demonstrated, in proportion to how much of the population of Sweden was on vacation at any given time. Or to put things slightly differently, the more Swedes who were off work simultaneously, the happier people got. They derived psychological benefits not merely from vacation time, but from having the same vacation time as other people. When many were on vacation at once, it was as if an intangible, supernatural cloud of relaxation had settled over the nation as a whole.
On a work trip to Sweden a few years back, I experienced a micro-level version of the same idea in the form of the fika, the daily moment when everyone in a given workplace gets up from their desks to gather for coffee and cake. The event resembles a well-attended coffee break, except that Swedes are liable to become mildly offended—which is the equivalent of a non-Swede becoming severely offended—if you suggest that’s all it is. Because something intangible but important happens at the fika. The usual divisions get set aside; people mingle without regard for age, or class, or status within the office, discussing both work-related and nonwork matters: for half an hour or so, communication and conviviality take precedence over hierarchy and bureaucracy. One senior manager told me it was by far the most effective way to learn what was really going on in his company.
As one worker rather daringly complained to the official newspaper Pravda: “What are we to do at home if the wife is in the factory, the children in school, and no one can come to see us? What is left but to go to the public tea room? What kind of life is that, when holidays come in shifts, and not for all workers together? That’s no holiday, if you have to celebrate it by yourself.”
The experience stuck with McNeill, and after the war, when he became a professional historian, he returned to the idea in a monograph called Keeping Together in Time. In it, he argues that synchronized movement, along with synchronized singing, has been a vastly underappreciated force in world history, fostering cohesion among groups as diverse as the builders of the pyramids, the armies of the Ottoman Empire, and the Japanese office workers who rise from their desks to perform group calisthenics at the start of each workday. Roman generals were among the first to discover that soldiers marching in synchrony could be made to travel for far longer distances before they succumbed to fatigue. And some evolutionary biologists speculate that music itself—a phenomenon that has proved difficult to account for in terms of Darwinian natural selection, except as a pleasurable by-product of more important mechanisms—might have emerged as a way of coordinating large groups of tribal warriors, who could move in unison by following rhythms and melodies, where other forms of communication would have proved too cumbersome for the job.
The question is, What kind of freedom do we really want when it comes to time? On the one hand, there’s the culturally celebrated goal of individual time sovereignty—the freedom to set your own schedule, to make your own choices, to be free from other people’s intrusions into your precious four thousand weeks. On the other hand, there’s the profound sense of meaning that comes from being willing to fall in with the rhythms of the rest of the word: to be free to engage in all the worthwhile collaborative endeavors that require at least some sacrifice of your sole control over what you do and when.
For one thing, you can make the kinds of commitments that remove flexibility from your schedule in exchange for the rewards of community, by joining amateur choirs or sports teams, campaign groups or religious organizations. You can prioritize activities in the physical world over those in the digital one, where even collaborative activity ends up feeling curiously isolating. And if, like me, you possess the productivity geek’s natural inclination toward control-freakery when it comes to your time, you can experiment with what it feels like to not try to exert an iron grip on your timetable: to sometimes let the rhythms of family life and friendships and collective action take precedence over your perfect morning routine or your system for scheduling your week. You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own.
13. Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
On the level of politics and social change, it becomes tempting to conclude that only the most revolutionary, world-transforming causes are worth fighting for—that it would be meaningless to spend your time, say, caring for an elderly relative with dementia or volunteering at the local community garden while the problems of global warming and income inequality remain unsolved. Among New Age types, this same grandiosity takes the form of the belief that each of us has some cosmically significant Life Purpose, which the universe is longing for us to uncover and then to fulfill. Which is why it’s useful to begin this last stage of our journey with a blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: that 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.
Human civilization is about six thousand years old, and we’re in the habit of thinking of this as a staggeringly long time: a vast duration across which empires rose and fell, and historical periods to which we give labels such as “classical antiquity” or “the Middle Ages” succeeded each other in “only-just-moving time—time moving in the sort of way a glacier moves.” But now consider the matter a different way. In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans, stretching all the way back through history, with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough. Now for the arresting part: by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.” From this perspective, human history hasn’t unfolded glacially but in the blink of an eye. And it follows, of course, that your own life will have been a minuscule little flicker of near-nothingness in the scheme of things: the merest pinpoint, with two incomprehensibly vast tracts of time, the past and future of the cosmos as a whole, stretching off into the distance on either side.
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? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.
novelist who secretly thinks her work will count for nothing unless it reaches the heights, and
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. To embrace it, to whatever extent you can. (Isn’t it hilarious, in hindsight, that you ever imagined things might be otherwise?) Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and overdemanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is.
14. The Human Disease
The reason time feels like such a struggle is that we’re constantly attempting to master it—to lever ourselves into a position of dominance and control over our unfolding lives so that we might finally feel safe and secure, and no longer so vulnerable to events.
people hold off entirely from starting on important projects or embarking on intimate relationships in the first place because they can’t bear the anxiety of having committed themselves to something that might or might not work out happily in practice. We waste our lives railing against traffic jams and toddlers for having the temerity to take the time they take, because they’re blunt reminders of how little control we truly have over our schedules. And we chase the ultimate fantasy of time mastery—the desire, by the time we die, to have truly mattered in the cosmic scheme of things, as opposed to being instantly trampled underfoot by the advancing eons.
Five Questions To make this all a little more concrete, it may be useful to ask the following questions of your own life. It doesn’t matter if answers aren’t immediately forthcoming; the point, in Rainer Maria Rilke’s famous phrase, is to “live the questions.” Even to ask them with any sincerity is already to have begun to come to grips with the reality of your situation and to start to make the most of your finite time. 1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort? … 2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? … 3. 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? … 5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition? … Any strategy for limiting your work in progress will help here (this page), but perhaps the simplest is to keep two to-do lists, one “open” and one “closed.” The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one—that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. … A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected “lawn care” or “kitchen tidiness” as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.
we naturally tend to make decisions about our daily use of time that prioritize anxiety-avoidance instead. Procrastination, distraction, commitment-phobia, clearing the decks, and taking on too many projects at once are all ways of trying to maintain the illusion that you’re in charge of things.
This quest to justify your existence in the eyes of some outside authority can continue long into adulthood. But “at a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”
I’m convinced, in any case, that it is from this position of not feeling as though you need to earn your weeks on the planet that you can do the most genuine good with them. Once you no longer feel the stifling pressure to become a particular kind of person, you can confront the personality, the strengths and weaknesses, the talents and enthusiasms you find yourself with, here and now, and follow where they lead.
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
It’s alarming to face the prospect that you might never truly feel as though you know what you’re doing, in work, marriage, parenting, or anything else. But it’s liberating, too, because it removes a central reason for feeling self-conscious or inhibited about your performance in those domains in the present moment: if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.
Jung began, “Your questions are unanswerable, because you want to know how to live. One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way…If that’s what you want, you had best join the Catholic Church, where they tell you what’s what.”
Afterword: Beyond Hope
You could think of this book as an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope. Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it—that this is just a dress rehearsal, and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.
The key to what Chödrön calls “getting the hang of hopelessness” lies in seeing that things aren’t going to be okay. Indeed, they’re already not okay—on a planetary level or an individual one. The Arctic ice is already melting. The pandemic has already killed millions, and crashed the economy. The question of how ill-qualified you can be for the American presidency yet still end up in the White House has already been definitively answered. Thousands of species are already gone. As one woman said, in a New York Times article about city-dwellers learning how to survive in the woods on deer meat and berries: “People say, ‘Oh, when the apocalypse comes…’ What are you talking about? It’s here.” The world is already broken. And what’s true of the state of civilization is equally true of your life: it was always already the case that you would never experience a life of perfect accomplishment or security. And your four thousand weeks have always been running out.
“Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning,” Chödrön says. You realize that you never really needed the feeling of complete security you’d previously felt so desperate to attain. This is a liberation. Once you no longer need to convince yourself that the world isn’t filled with uncertainty and tragedy, you’re free to focus on doing what you can to help. And once you no longer need to convince yourself that you’ll do everything that needs doing, you’re free to focus on doing a few things that count.
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.
Appendix: Ten Tools for Embracing Your Finitude
- Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity.
A complementary strategy is to establish predetermined time boundaries for your daily work. To whatever extent your job situation permits, decide in advance how much time you’ll dedicate to work—you
Serialize, serialize, serialize. Following the same logic, focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one nonwork project) and see it to completion before moving on to what’s next.
Decide in advance what to fail at. You’ll inevitably end up underachieving at something, simply because your time and energy are finite. 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.
Part of the problem here is an unhelpful assumption that you begin each morning in a sort of “productivity debt,” which you must struggle to pay off through hard work, in the hope that you might reach a zero balance by the evening. 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. … consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics: to decide that your spare time, for the next couple of years, will be spent lobbying for prison reform and helping at a local food pantry—not because fires in the Amazon or the fate of refugees don’t matter, but because you understand that to make a difference, you must focus your finite capacity for care.
We’re exposed, these days, to an unending stream of atrocities and injustice—each of which might have a legitimate claim on our time and our charitable donations, but which in aggregate are more than any one human could ever effectively address.
(Worse, the logic of the attention economy obliges campaigners to present whatever crisis they’re addressing as uniquely urgent. No modern fundraising organization would dream of describing its cause as the fourth-or fifth-most important of the day.)
- Embrace boring and single-purpose technology. … as far as possible, choose devices with only one purpose, such as the Kindle ereader, on which it’s tedious and awkward to do anything but read. If streaming music and social media lurk only a click or swipe away, they’ll prove impossible to resist when the first twinge of boredom or difficulty arises in the activity on which you’re attempting to focus.
Digital distractions are so seductive because they seem to offer the chance of escape to a realm where painful human limitations don’t apply: you need never feel bored or constrained in your freedom of action, which isn’t the case when it comes to work that matters
- Seek out novelty in the mundane. … Shinzen Young explains, is to pay more attention to every moment, however mundane: to find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have. Experience life with twice the usual intensity, and “your experience of life would be twice as full as it currently is”—and any period of life would be remembered as having lasted twice as long. Meditation helps here. But so does going on unplanned walks to see where they lead you, using a different route to get to work, taking up photography or birdwatching or nature drawing or journaling, playing “I Spy” with a child: anything that draws your attention more fully into what you’re doing in the present.
It turns out that there may be a way to lessen, or even reverse, the dispiriting manner in which time seems to speed up as we age, so that the fewer weeks we have left, the faster we seem to lose them (this page). The likeliest explanation for this phenomenon is that our brains encode the passage of years on the basis of how much information we process in any given interval. Childhood involves plentiful novel experiences, so we remember it as having lasted forever; but as we get older, life gets routinized—we stick to the same few places of residence, the same few relationships and jobs—and the novelty tapers off.
- Be a “researcher” in relationships.
One useful approach for loosening your grip comes from the preschool education expert Tom Hobson, though, as he points out, its value is hardly limited to interactions with small children: when presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, “to figure out who this human being is that we’re with.” Curiosity is a stance well suited to the inherent unpredictability of life with others, because it can be satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike—whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way.
Cultivate instantaneous generosity. … meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein: whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind—to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work—act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.
Practice doing nothing. “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber,” Blaise Pascal wrote. When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable, because if you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting—choices