Jan 30 • 14M

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

Pomp's notes on Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

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To investors,

I have been reading one book per week this year. This past week’s book was Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Highly recommend reading it. If you are interested in the individual highlights that I made in the physical book, you can read those here. Hope you enjoy these notes every Monday morning.


Book’s main argument:

You have approximately four thousand weeks to live if you reach the age of 80 years old. Rather than focus on productivity, efficiency, and life hacks, we should optimize our life for enjoying the short, precious time we get. Modern society has prioritized getting more done, working harder, and spending more time on what other people think is important, but that may not be the best way to spend your four thousand weeks.

5 Big Ideas:

💡 Idea #1 — Our lives are much shorter than we realize. Measuring this time in weeks has a powerful way of hammering the point home. Burkeman writes:

The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.

Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.

Expressing the matter in such startling terms makes it easy to see why philosophers from ancient Greece to the present day have taken the brevity of life to be the defining problem of human existence: we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.

Some people respond to this shortness of time with a desire to pack as much action into the weeks and years as possible.

Busyness has been rebranded as “hustle”—relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media.

It’s hard to imagine a crueler arrangement: not only are our four thousand weeks constantly running out, but the fewer of them we have left, the faster we seem to lose them.

Society has evolved over time and modern citizens are born into a world of ever-increasing demands.

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.

💡 Idea #2 — The goal throughout history was for individuals to accumulate enough wealth to enjoy their remaining days. This changed at some point. Everyone is chasing productivity today, but that may not be ideal. Burkeman writes:

For almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.

Productivity is a trap.

In a weird twist, this pursuit of more work has become a virtue signalers dream.

Busyness has been rebranded as “hustle”—relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media.

It is natural to think you can work your way out of the backlog of work, but that is unlikely. Parkinson’s Law applies.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955. [This is known as “Parkinson’s Law]

The process of “getting through your email” actually generates more email. The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.”

Rending yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits.

💡 Idea #3 — Planning for the future may not be as valuable as you have been taught by society. Burkeman explains:

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.

Planning is a luxury of those who believe they have time on their side.

When we claim that we have time, what we really mean is that we expect it. Any number of factors could confound your expectations, robbing you of the three hours you thought you “had” in which to complete an important work project: your boss could interrupt with an urgent request; the subway could break down; you could die.

Our entire society is built on the goal of doing things today that will benefit us in the future.

One way of understanding capitalism, in fact, is a giant machine for instrumentalizing everything it encounters—the earth’s resources, your time and abilities (or “human resources”)—in the service of future profit.

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. And so their days are sapped of meaning, even as their bank balances increase.

Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now.

💡 Idea #4 — Digital addiction is real, but not for the reason you may think. Critics will point to use of smartphones and social media as a big problem in society. They yell and scream at the technology companies. They say we should cure the addiction. But what if people are simply trying to escape the difficulty of having to listen to humans face-to-face & do the hard work of having a real conversation? Burkeman writes:

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.

It is important that we learn to embrace boredom, rather than fight it.

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. 

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.

💡 Idea #5 — Everyone can benefit from Cosmic Insignificance Therapy. We like to think our work is important, but for the majority of us, it won’t matter in the end. Burkeman writes:

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. 

No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn't reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization isn’t merely calming but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a “life well spent,” you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your finite time. 

Once you realize that your contribution won’t matter once you are dead, you become freed. You can work on the things that you want to do. You can invest your four thousand weeks under the pursuit of happiness and enjoyment, rather than productivity and efficiency.

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.

Memorable quotes:

  1. We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally. 

  2. The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.

  3. “You teach best what you most need to learn.” — Richard Bach

  4. Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time.

  5. What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is. 

  6. By trying too hard to make the most of his time, he misses his life.

  7. “Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up. But a child’s purpose is to be a child.” – Alexander Herzen

Pomp’s Takeaways:

This book was unique in the way that is presented an old idea — our time is our most valuable resource. By measuring our life in the number of weeks, it feels long enough to pursue our goals, but short enough to have a sober view of what is truly important.

My first big takeaway was the efficiency trap. Burkeman talks about Parkinson’s Law and the likelihood that getting through your email will just create more email. It reminds me of the Wall Street lesson that market selection is usually more important than asset or security selection. Same thing in life. Are you working on the right things? Or are you optimizing to win the wrong game?

My second big takeaway was a quote from cartoonist Scott Adams that Burkeman shares — “a person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule.” So many of us, myself included, use our calendars as gospel. If an event, meeting, or call is not on the calendar, it may as well not be happening. But this rigid approach to our time leaves very little room for flexibility and serendipity. This reminded me of Paul Graham’s 2009 blog post on Maker and Manager schedules.

My third big takeaway was our busyness and digital addictions may be coverups for our distaste in the lives we are living. Are you pulling your phone out to check your email for the 2,845th time today because you really want to see who messaged you or are you trying to avoid an uncomfortable, silent elevator ride? Humans are social creatures, but phones have made it simple for us to hide from each other. Maybe we would be better off trying to put the phone down and engage with one another.

My last big takeaway was the finality of life. As many of you know, I deployed overseas in the Army and there was a situation early on in the trip that left a solider dead. I’ve always said that my life changed that day because I realized that we were all going to die. This is a major point that Burkeman hammers home throughout the book. He starts and ends with “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” He also discusses Cosmic Insignificance Therapy. Both of these are shared to remind us that we have a final deadline — make sure you enjoy the time you are allotted while you are here.

Before I let you go, Burkeman lists five questions at the end of the book to ask yourself. I thought some of you who will not have time to read the entire book would like to go through the exercise. Here are the questions:

  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?

  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?

  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

Have a great day!


As I mentioned, this past week’s book was Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. Highly recommend reading it. If you are interested in the individual highlights that I made in the physical book, you can read those here. Hope you enjoy these notes every Monday. Feel free to leave a comment - I read all of them.

-Pomp

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