Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

by Oliver Burkeman

We live in an era where appliances and software supposedly make our lives easier. “Yet, paradoxically, you only feel busier, more anxious… And becoming ‘more productive’ just seems to cause the belt to speed up.”

We all have a finite amount of time in our lives—in the neighborhood of 4,000 weeks, assuming an 80-year lifespan and rounding to 50 weeks per year. “Our limited time… what Heidegger calls our ‘finitude’… isn’t just one among various things we have to cope with; rather, it’s the thing that defines us, as humans.”

“The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”

CHOICES. The author addresses FOMO, the fear of missing out. “You come to realize that missing out on something—indeed, on almost everything—is basically guaranteed. Which isn’t actually a problem anyway, it turns out, because ‘missing out’ is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place.”

“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…The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not is helps you neglect the right things.”

ATTENTION. “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.”

DISTRACTIONS. “What we think of as ‘distractions’ aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.”

PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE. “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.”

“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.”

“The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it… Whatever you value most about your life can always be traced back to some jumble of chance occurrences you couldn’t possibly have planned for.”

ATELIC ACTIVITIES. “When your relationship with time is almost entirely instrumental, the present moment starts to lose its meaning.”

“Taking a walk in the countryside, like listening to a favorite song or meeting friends for an evening of conversation, is thus a good example of what the philosopher Kieran Setiya calls an ‘atelic activity,’ meaning that its value isn’t derived from its telos, or ultimate aim. You shouldn’t be aiming to get a walk ‘done’; nor are you likely to reach a point in life when you’ve accomplished all the walking you were aiming to do.”

“And so the only reason to do them is for themselves alone… There’s a less fancy term that covers many of the activities Setiya refers to as atelic: they are hobbies… It’s fine, and perhaps preferable, to be mediocre at them.”

IMPATIENCE. “Meaningful productivity often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take, surrendering to what in German has been called Eigenzeit, or the time inherent to a process itself.”

“Working too hastily means you’ll make more errors, which you’ll then be obliged to go back to correct.”

“There may be no more vivid demonstration of this ratcheting sense of discomfort, of wanting to hasten the speed of reality, than what’s happened to the experience of reading… It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule. You can’t hurry it very much before the experience begins to lose its meaning.”

“You surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take, and that you can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster… Psychotherapists call it a ‘second-order change,’ meaning that it’s not an incremental improvement but a change in perspective that reframes everything. When you finally face the truth that you can’t dictate how fast things go, you stop trying to outrun your anxiety, and your anxiety is transformed.”

“You begin to acquire what has become the least fashionable but perhaps most consequential of superpowers: patience.”

TIME SOVEREIGNTY. “Time is also a ‘network good,’ one that derives its value from how many other people have access to it, too, and how well their portion is coordinated with yours… The value of time comes not from the sheer quantity you have, but from whether you’re in synch with the people you care about most.”

“‘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. And so, he goes on, ‘step one in your search for happiness is to continually work toward having control of your schedule.’”

COSMIC INSIGNIFICANCE. “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.”

LIVING YOURS OWN LIFE. “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.’”

“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.”

Burkeman, Oliver. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. Buy from

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Books mentioned:

Being and Time by Martin Heidegger

This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom by Martin Hägglund

The Iceberg: A Memoir by Marion Coutts

Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Back To Sanity: Healing the Madness of Our Minds by Steve Taylor

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig

Radically Condensed Instructions for Being Just as You Are by J. Jennifer Matthews

The Decline of Pleasure by Walter Kerr

Midlife: A Philosophical Guide by Kieran Setiya

The World as Will and Idea by Arthur Schopenhauer

The Road Less Traveled and Beyond: Spiritual Growth in an Age of Anxiety by M. Scott Peck

The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You by J. Truant

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

Embracing Uncertainty: Breakthrough Methods for Achieving Peace of Mind When Facing the Unknown by Susan Jeffers