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Book Review: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals” by Oliver Burkeman

Clock and illusion of four thousand weeks of life

by Stephanie Chambers

Why did I love this book?

Oliver starts his book with this chapter “Introduction: In The Long Run, We’re All Dead”. That’s because “Four Thousand Weeks” refers to the number of weeks that most people can look forward to living during their lives. This book doesn’t shy away from getting us to confront our lives.

But he writes in such a poetical and interesting way that this book review will never do justice to it. I urge you to listen to the audiobook version where Oliver reads the book himself.

How is the “Four Thousand Weeks” book structured?

The book has two parts: “Choosing To Choose” and “Beyond Control”. And it also contains and an “Afterward: Beyond Hope”. Probably my only criticism of this book is that he hides a lot of the practical advice in an appendix called “Ten Tools For Embracing Your Finitude”. I will discuss some of these tools later in this blog.

In the first part he talks about how we all think that as long as we master our time, we will succeed. Nowadays are time obsessed. Yet in the old days we didn’t even wear watches and we knew all we needed to know about time by watching the sun as it moves across the sky. And the way we lived our lives was in tune with it.

Even on exhausting days like during a harvest, you wouldn’t have been stressed about getting enough done, answering all the emails in your inbox or managing your work life balance.

Oliver destroys the illusion of efficiency with countless examples. Instead he gets us to think about time differently and to consider that perhaps “we are time” and that we can’t conquer ourselves. We just have to accept that our time on earth is finite.

The second part of the book is more about accepting our dilemma and accepting and working within the constraints which time imposes upon us. He talks about how focusing on completing one task fully before starting another one is a better approach.

Which part had the most emotional impact on me?

The chapter that hit the hardest for me was called “The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad”. He talks about how the original nomads didn’t travel alone. They travelled with their families and with their community and that the bonds they shared were incredibly important to them.

He gave the example of a digital nomad seeing a family riding bikes together in a park and how they burst out crying. They didn’t have a family or a bunch of close friends with which to share such an experience.

Yet so many of us have this fantasy of quitting our jobs and roaming the world – just working when we feel like it. Look at the popularity of books like the “Four Hour Workweek”. And some of us are already living this life and finding it sadly missing – yet not knowing why.

He talks about how in the early days of communism everyone in Russia complained when they were scheduled to work on different days and so they couldn’t spend a weekend with their families and friends. Yet nowadays everyone just accepts that the shops are open 24/7. Often families and friends find it extremely difficult to find a day and a time when they can all be together in the same physical space.

Oliver acknowledges the pressure people feel to succeed and make a difference during their limited four thousand weeks. This crushing pressure can be relieved when we let go of our egos and see ourselves as the fleeting and tiny specks in the universe that we ultimately are. This is called “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy” and many of us could do with it.

So how can we apply these insights about time?

Step more fully into reality. Embrace your limited time and your limited control on how you spend your time. This will empower you. What are Oliver’s ten tools to help you do this (I have them as eleven because I have split up the first three)?

  1. Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity. Make the tough choices and do what is really important to you first. Have two to-do lists – a long comprehensive one and a short list restricted to only ten items. Transfer items from the long list to the short one only after you complete an item on the short list and thus make room for it.
  2. Set time boundaries for your daily work. Decide what time you will start and when you will finish and stick to that (unless your boss complains). With respect to this – something which Oliver doesn’t cover – take note of what your boss cares about. If your boss doesn’t seem to care if you come to work a little later, but he/she thinks you are slacker if you leave before 6pm – then plan to work from 9:30am to 6pm rather than 8am to 5pm. As long as you get enough important things done – that’s all that really matters.
  3. Complete one big project at a time. Work on only one work project and one person project. Of course, you will still need to set aside a little time for things that can’t be put off like paying the electricity bill or going to a mandatory work meeting. You will get the satisfaction of actually finishing something quicker than if you had multiple things on the go.
  4. Decide in advance what won’t matter if you fail at. Nominate areas of your life that you won’t expect yourself to be excellent at. For example, does it really matter if the kid’s toys aren’t put away? This remove shame. Or you might temporarily let yourself off the hook for something. For example, if you’re finishing a really big project or something that has a deadline like election canvassing.
  5. Celebrate what you have already completed. Keep a done list. And the things on the list don’t need to be big ones. Sometimes getting time to cut your toenails can seem like a big win.
  6. Consolidate what you care for. Don’t give all your precious attention to a stream of causes on social media. Pick the charities or causes you want to focus on.
  7. Make your devices appear boring and less attractive. Stop them from distracting you by making the images grayscale. Remove apps from the main pages.
  8. Seek novelty in the mundane. We only remember unique experiences. Our lives tend to become mundane routines. Break free by planning a special activity each weekend. But don’t aim to do heaps of things – just one or two per week. And notice the little things like how the sunrise looks today. Maybe try and paint it or write a poem about it. Or take a different route to work.
  9. Be curious about everything. Give things (and people) your full undivided attention. Wonder what might happen rather than worrying about it.
  10. Act immediately on generous impulses. For example, if you think about emailing someone to thank them for what they’ve done for you. Do it now. Don’t put it off. And saying it has far more impact that emailing it.
  11. Practice doing nothing.

Although I certainly hope you find this list from “Four Thousand Weeks” useful, I would strongly recommend listening (or reading) the whole book as there is so much I wasn’t able to cover in this blog. Here is a link to it.