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Book Review #001: Four Thousand Weeks

Burkeman, Oliver, Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It (London: The
Bodley Head, 2021) 245pp

Burkeman starts with a bang: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.” Assuming you live to be 80, you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks. But regardless of how many years you or I might live, we all have the same dysfunctional relationship with time: most of us are more concerned with being efficient and productive than with being fulfilled and satisfied.

The fundamental problem, says Burkeman, is that we have all fallen victim to the idea that time is a resource and, like any resource, we have a duty to use it well. As a result, “it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough.” Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time, we get sucked into a mindset of valuing each moment according to its usefulness in taking us towards a goal, or to “some future oasis of relaxation you hope to reach once your tasks are finally ‘out of the way.’”

For some – the more disciplined and goal-oriented among us, perhaps – that might seem like an efficient and productive way to live, but for Burkeman, it “wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped- for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.” It’s what the essayist Marilynne Robinson describes as ‘joyless urgency.’ If that isn’t the zeitgeist of our age, I don’t know what is.

Four Thousand Weeks is Burkeman’s attempt to help us all improve our relationship with time. He wants to see if “we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.”

To do that, we must abandon the impossible idea that we can – and must – do
everything, and accept that hard choices about what we do with our lives must be
made. That means standing firm in the face of FOMO, realising that missing out on some things is guaranteed, and that understanding that ‘missing out’ is actually a good thing because ‘missing out’ is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place.

So, having described the main problem, Burkeman breaks it down into smaller
challenges that must be dealt with. For some it is the ‘efficiency trap’, for others it is a propensity to procrastinate (guilty!) or being easily distracted (also guilty), and for others, still, it is an unwillingness to stop and rest. His chapter on ‘rediscovering rest’, and allowing ourselves to enjoy doing things badly, is one of the most powerful in the book.

And Burkeman has a real knack for selecting great examples to illustrate the points he’s making. For those of you who enjoy (if ‘enjoy’ is the right word…) cold water immersion, he has a great anecdote about Steve Young, an American Asian Studies PhD student, who, in 1969, decided he wanted to become a Buddhist monk.

His training involved a 100-day solo retreat which entailed, among other things, dousing himself three times a day with gallons of melted snow as part of a purification ritual. As he endured this ritual, Young came to realise that he could make it more bearable by giving his complete focus to the sensation of intense cold, as Burkeman explains: “After a few days, he began preparing for each drenching by first becoming as focused on his present experience as he possible could, so that when the water hit, he would avoid spiralling from mere discomfort into agony.” And it seemed to work.

This demonstrates an important point about what’s going on when we succumb to distraction, which is that “we’re motivated by the desire to try to flee something
painful about our experience of the present.” This is easy to see when we’re talking about some form of physical discomfort, but it applies also to the tedium of things that we have to do or that we thought we wanted to do.

More broadly, Burkeman argues, whenever we succumb to distraction, “we’re
attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude – with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, limited control over that time.” ‘Finitude’ is the subject of one of the more philosophical chapters in the book where we are introduced to the German philosopher Martin Heidegger. His idea of finitude is that the limited amount of time we have on this planet isn’t just something we have to manage; it’s the defining feature of human life. The fact that our existence is finite means that every choice we make is both an affirmation and a sacrifice – by committing to one person or opportunity, we reject countless others – but making those choices is the very essence being human. And accepting that truth, says Burkeman, is liberating.

Again, the point is not to make us feel rueful about the choices we have made.
Instead, it is to convey that living a truly authentic life – becoming fully human –
means facing up to that fact that our lives are defined by our finitude. For those of you who aren’t convinced that this is the way to go, Burkeman provides ten tools for you to try, which include: deciding in advance what to fail at (I like this one), focusing on one big project at a time (sensible), and developing the capacity to do nothing at all without needing to distract yourself or to evade how reality feels here and now.

Four Thousand Weeks is a really uplifting and hopeful book with a very simple
message: life is finite and it is short, but you don’t have to fit everything in. Embrace your finitude and your limits. Work out what gives your life meaning, and accept that to make time for what matters, you will need to give things up. You do not have to be the “optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be”. Once you accept that, “you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”

This review was written by the fantastic Sarah W.

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