Review of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

Picture of the cover of the book - Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

I’ll admit upfront that I’m not sure how many folks will read this and my writing this review is more to help me synthesize and retain the learning that Burkeman presents in this book than to provide a full review of his book. That said, if you are reading this, I appreciate it and hope that you gain something from my write-up. And I’d suggest that you both listen to Krista Tippet’s interview of Burkeman – https://onbeing.org/programs/oliver-burkeman-time-management-for-mortals/ – and read the whole book – if you feel it’s important enough, otherwise – use this short write-up to help you improve your approach to time management.

I was introduced to Oliver Burkeman’s work by Krista Tippet’s interview with him in her On Being show/podcast. I personally spend lots of effort trying to organize my time and found Burkeman’s approach and thinking on this subject very useful, particularly because he hit on exactly the largest issue I have with time management – confronting the limited time we have. I am still trying to completely internalize and live out what this means in my life, but I have already begun to make significant changes in my life based on this book.

Burkeman has a lot to say about time management and rather than summarize the entire book, I want to focus on the parts of his writing that specifically spoke to me and the issues I have with time management. This is definitely a poor summation – each time I page through the book I remember more and more gems and I don’t want to cover them all.

You Can’t Do it All

Just like you can’t have it all (where would you put it?) you can’t do it all. He writes “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 this is exactly the trap I fall into. I want to think that I will have time to read all the books I want to, go on all the trips I want to, listen to all the podcast episodes that are interesting to me, and many more things. But that’s entirely unrealistic. The problem is that not only can you not do it all, but you can’t even do all the important things.

He recounts the standard time management story that perhaps you’ve heard countless times (and maybe even used yourself as an example) that supposedly demonstrates how you should approach fitting all of your tasks in the time you have. It’s the one about the teacher who brings in a jar and some large rocks, pebbles and sand. The idea the teacher is trying to get across is that in order to fit everything in the jar, you must first put the large rocks in – which represent the most important things in your life – then the pebble and lastly the sand. If you put the unimportant sand in first, you can’t get all the rocks in. Burkeman blasts this example by writing “it’s a lie. The smug teacher is being dishonest. He has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar. The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many [big] rocks.”

We have to accept that we can’t do everything we might want to do, which means the important thing is to make those tough choices and really focus on what matters. As he says in the interview with Krista Tippet – “you do have to go through some kind of a defeat or a surrender.”

So how has this helped me and how have I implemented his philosophy in my life? The first change I immediately made is to remove the guilt about not being able to keep up with everything. That guilt makes me hold on to old emails from different information sources that I “might read when I have the time.” The reality is that those emails will never be read because there never will be the time. And the information is probably out of date at this point anyway. I will admit I have one crutch here. If I really do think it’s interesting, I have the crutch of a folder of “Things to Read/Listen To” where I can put the email. It still won’t be seen again, but there’s always the chance.

Not Caring About Everything

Social media tends to tell us about all sorts of things that we could care about. Too many in fact. So one thing I’m trying to do is focus my attention and energy on a couple of things rather than trying to care about all of it. It’s not that fires in the Amazon aren’t important, but my attention is limited.

Don’t Wait Until the Decks Are Cleared

There’s no way to “clear the decks” and have everything done so you can sit down and do what you really want to do. Instead, you should do those things first. And understand that some things won’t get done – because you will never clear the decks. There will always be something else to do.

Lastly, this sentence hits home with me now more than ever – “We should rejoice that we have the opportunity to make a choice about how we spend the time.” I have a couple of friends with unexpected health issues and now the most important thing in their life isn’t how many emails they have in their inbox, but what the biopsy report says or when their next PT appointment is. To some extent, we are all living on borrowed time. We should enjoy our time now because that is the only time we have.

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