6 Lessons from Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

If you are going to live for 80 years, you get roughly 4,000 weeks. You might get more. You might get less. Most of us don’t want to think about the finitude of life – that it will end. In his book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman encourages us to embrace finitude not to be morose but to recognize that the limitedness of life is what makes it valuable and precious. This finitude can nudge us toward living more in our limited time. This book complements Greg McKeown’s Essentialism, bringing a deeper philosophical exploration of finding out what really matters. This has been something I have referenced and recommended to some of my coaching clients. Here are six lessons I took away from Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman.

1. Escaping Capitalist Mindsets

Capitalism is both an organizing economic system beyond us and a mindset within us. Burkeman points out the many basic assumptions that extend from a capitalist mindset including prioritizing productivity, perfectionism, leisure as a productivity tool, and the very idea of lifehacks. You don’t have to oppose capitalism as an economic system to want to avoid it as a way of organizing your inner life. And, those politically opposed to a capitalistic economic system might still have internalized many aspects of a capitalistic mindset.

How do you make the most of this week – not for productivity or the future but for itself? I listened to this book mostly while on a three-day end-of-the-year solo retreat in nature. I found myself asking, could you just read the book, go for the hike, or listen to the music without thinking about the social media post, who you might recommend it to, or looking forward to the satisfaction of declaring “finished” even to just yourself? This was harder than I wanted it to be. I’ve since been noticing all the messages I get about doing this, that, or the other thing to increase my productivity. This notion that we exist to be productive seems to be pervasive both beyond me and within me. I’m grateful that this book has helped me wake up to this.

snowy hiking trail

2. Leisure for Leisure’s Sake

One capitalistic mindset, Burkeman helped me discover is that I often unconsciously frame leisure, rest, and vacation as necessary for productivity. I hear myself saying to myself, “you need to recharge your batteries” all for the implied things I “should” get done. Burkeman points out that we can just rest for resting’s sake. We can vacation just to enjoy the vacation, rather than a needed break to be refreshed for work. If this sounds ridiculous to you, it seems ridiculous to me too. Listen to your own inner monologue. I have lots of unlearning to do.

3. Are You Choosing What Gets Your Attention?

In many ways, our life is what we pay attention to. We live in an attention economy. I’m hoping this blog post got your attention. Social media is designed to get our attention – using outrage, hyperbole, and extremes to grab our attention. As Burkeman, Tristan Harris, and others have pointed out we are not the consumers of social media, we are the product – specifically our attention.

I often ask myself, “are you using your phone or is your phone using you.” The answer is too often disappointing. There is a difference between directing your attention with intention or resonant choice and letting it just be a default habit. Over the past several years, I’ve been in environments where I know I will have zero cellular or WiFi signal. Knowing that I have no signal or access to the outside world, I still find myself mindlessly hitting the Twitter app – a default habit. How can you be conscious of what gets your attention, what doesn’t, and when?

4. Perspective

A big part of embracing our finitude is the perspective it can bring. There are many ways to embrace perspective. You can zoom in and zoom out. At times, it might be useful to be reminded about how small and insignificant you and your problems are in a universe that is 13.9 billion years old and where all of humanity is a relatively brief blip on the timeline. Or you might find utility in remembering how significant and remarkable you are to be an assemblage of stardust cobbled together with the spark of life and consciousness. Or perhaps you just find it helpful to ask yourself if this argument or this grievance will matter to you in 10 years, in 10 months, or tomorrow?

5. Don’t Let Perfect, Be the Enemy of Good

Burkeman reminds us that you have to settle or commit. Perfectionism is the enemy of progress. You have to commit to a relationship to have one. You have to commit to writing a book to write one. This was a very helpful reframing for me as I have been trying to perfect an outline and a plan for a book for years. Instead, Burkeman nudged me to commit to writing an imperfect book. Trying to write a perfect one hasn’t been working. This means giving up some control. It also means eliminating a major procrastination justification.

6. What are you willing to give up?

Committing to something also means giving up on other things. We can’t have it all, do it all, or be it all. What are you willing to give up? – newer car, newer house, more stuff, nicer clothes, updated gadgets, busyness? And what would you give it up for? -freedom, quality of life, experiences?

If you are interested in more, you can read a succinct summary from Burkeman in this short article published by The Greater Good Science Center. You can also check out this exploration with many snippets from the book in The Marginalin by Maria Popova.


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