Four Thousand Weeks – Time Management for Mortals (A Review)

I.

Old books are better than new books. Because we cannot read every new book that comes out in the niches we are interested in, a useful filter is to first absorb the books that have stood the test of time. We can, with certainty, say that books that were published 100 years ago and still being read now, are going to be read 100 or even thousand years from now.

There are exceptions to this. There are some books which, even though they were released in recent years, achieves the status of being a “classic”. The Harry Potter books are thought to be this way, and unless the woke hivemind manages to cancel JK Rowling to oblivion, it might retain it’s classic status. I personally believe that some of the books that I’ve read are going to be read in 1000 years. On the fiction side of things, it could be The Dresden Files, Wildbow’s Worm, and some of Stephen King’s books. On the non fiction side, it could be all of Nassim Taleb’s books, Thinking Fast and Slow, Almanack of Naval Ravikant (if it keeps getting updated throughout the entirety of his lifetime), The Beginning of Infinity, etc.

Of course, all the above are personal recommendations. You might feel that some books that you’ve personally read, which aren’t called classics by a majority of people, might end up being just that. But usually, reading old books that have stood the test of time is a better investment of our time than devouring every new book that’s released in our genre. And I say that as a writer who writes books in a very niche genre of science fiction that has around 10 books published by independent authors every week.

Having said that, this “No New Books” filter is one that I have absorbed from Tim Ferris. This was why it was particularly interesting to see one new book pass through his filter, Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks, which meant I had to check it out. Having read through it in three days, I can say that it was worth it.

This book might be the most interesting book that I’ve read this year, and in this review, I hope to explain why.

Remember that I write for myself and this review is riddled with my own opinions and perspectives, which may not be a part of the book too. You have to read the book for yourself to get something better from it that I couldn’t take away. This means that different things have made an impact on me which you probably know about, and a lot of things haven’t which I had already known from previous reading or life experiences which I have not written about here. Long story short, buy the book and read it.

II.

Starting this book, I was immediately caught off guard by the message it seemed to be preaching. If this was a few years ago, I wouldn’t have continued reading it thinking I might absorb the wrong ideas and become a passive monk and run off to the wilderness after finishing it.

I remember once watching a Garyvee video where he said that he doesn’t meditate because he feels it will “mess” his existing mindset up. If his current mindset is helping him remain productive, using meditation to calm him down might achieve the opposite of what he wants. I used to believe this too, but then I realized that I should be smart enough to realize when meditation was changing me to a worse or, more accurately, slow version of myself, I would stop doing it. Thankfully, it didn’t, and I probably shouldn’t listen to someone who swallows every piece of gum he’s ever chewed. (I’m just kidding, I love you, Gary.)

It is the mark of an intelligent mind to entertain thoughts that are not likely your own. These can be thoughts that you despise and ideas that you don’t believe in, but entertaining them, truly trying to think rationally through what they are preaching and why many might adapt and believe them, and then rejecting, absorbing or changing them at will is essential.

The book is divided into two parts-

“Choosing to choose” and “Beyond Control”, where the basic gist of it is to be aware of what we choose to do with our time and acknowledge that we can’t do everything that we set out to do and that is okay.

^Yes. That is my tweet-length summary of the entire book. But the book contains so much more that hammers the above point home. Reading through it feels like I know Oliver Burkeman has read equally the same or more amount of productivity and time management books that I have. He references some of my favorite people like Cal Newport, Mark Manson, Tim Ferris, Sam Harris, and it’s an absolute pleasure to walk through the book with him, dissecting general advice and figuring out what’s right.

There aren’t any time management “hacks” until the very end of the book and even then, these hacks are merely questions that you should ask yourself. Overall, it’s like reading a philosophy book for modern times, written by a productivity geek for productivity geeks.

III.

We all have four thousand weeks of time. If you’re over twenty, buckle up because you’ve already spent the first thousand weeks learning things that you’ll probably never need or worse, going into debt to learn things that you could’ve learned for free on the internet or in a library.

The first step here is acknowledging that we have four thousand weeks. Some of us won’t have that. Someone reading this today might die tomorrow, and that might even be me. None of us knows what’s in the future, and yet, everything we do ends with us. Even the richest men in the world won’t live forever, and some of the older ones will give 99% of their wealth in exchange for forty more years of time.

Time, then, is the ultimate resource. It is finite for all, and doesn’t discriminate based on caste, creed, status, fame or wealth. You will die, and so will I. The world will keep spinning, regardless, till the Sun consumes us all.

Anything that you’re doing right now, might be the last time you’re doing it. There was a time when you went out to play on the playground for the last time ever, and didn’t know it was the last time. There was a time when you ate your last chocolate chip cookie, and didn’t know it was the last time. There was a time you used to be carried around by adults on their arms and shoulders, and then they put you down, and neither them and certainly not you realized that it was the last time.

In the same way, there will be a last time you will see your best friend. There will be a last time you will take a vacation. There will be the last party, the last night of binge drinking, the last time at the zoo, and you will not realize that it’s the last time in any of these cases.

Fun fact- this might be the last time you read this post of mine, or anything of me at all.

The solution, that Oliver proposes, is to capture these moments, is to be consciously aware of everything that we devote our time and attention to. Doing this, he says, will lead to a richer experience. We don’t often get to choose how we spend our time though.

If we’re working a full time job, we are spending 8 hours of the day working for someone else in exchange of a pay check that pays for our necessities and then some. That’s not a bad thing if we enjoy where we work. In fact, living from weekend to weekend- which seems like a horrible idea to the independent business owner that’s hustling every day and takes his own vacations at his own time, is good for every one that does it.

This is because unlike capital, where it has value if you manage to accumulate it, time has no value if those close to you don’t have it.

I kind of disagree with this, but I can get where this is coming from. Even as a person who has always set his schedules, it is the weekend that most of my friends with stable jobs are free, and I don’t mind keeping my weekends free to hang out with them. I also know I’d be miserable if I didn’t have that option. But I also think that submitting my time to an industry or factory, for the 9 to 5 that is highly coveted, is a losing idea for me. I may not want to work this week, and I may want to ship an entire app or write a whole book the next. For most people though, this is sound advice.

IV.

Self awareness and mindfulness are the antidote to distraction. Oliver proposes that when we are distracted, when we open our phone to check Instagram or twitter or email, leaving what we are working on- it’s not entirely social media’s fault. It’s ours.

While we can all agree that social media thrives because of their incredibly superior algorithms that are designed to show us the exact things that will keep us on the app longer, the decision to indulge in the first place is ours. Three Silicon Valley entrepreneurs aren’t jumping out of walls like ninjas and showing us our phone screens. It’s us.

We should deeply introspect why we chose to indulge in the first place, place pre-commitment packs early to stop us from doing so, and focus on the work that matters more.

This isn’t a defense of social media. It’s a critique of everyone’s human hypocrisy, of which I am guilty of the same. If I open YouTube and happen to come across a livestream of a cat being rescued from a tree, I’m watching that video till the cat gets rescued.

You could argue that watching a cat getting rescued isn’t the best of my time, but if I choose to spend it that way, it is not YouTube’s fault for recommending me that video. They’re doing their job, monetizing our attention and time, while we are watching cats getting saved. But if I do that when I’m supposed to be running tests on a new app I’m making, I’m either-

Not generally happy with how my app is going. Maybe I’m afraid of how the market will react when I release this app. Maybe I’m not confident about whether this app is even better than what the competitors offer. Maybe I have a different idea, and that seems so much better at this moment that focusing on this.

The reasons can be countless. But the only thing common is my inner monologue for not doing the work I’m supposed to do because it’s not comfortable, and choosing something that is comfortable.

Just being mindful of this, can be a game-changer. Now, I like drinking from the algorithmic soup. These algorithms know me and often suggest things that I find useful. It also suggests things that is hooking the masses to the screens, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t want to miss out on that- if only to witness objectively what the rest of the world is into. Opening the trending, or explore pages on social media sites is a nice way to see what the majority of the world cares or obsesses about.

In the end, our phones, computers and devices are tools. One time management hack is to schedule their usage and not let them schedule us. Oliver suggests also turning your phone to grayscale to make them look less like toys, but I think that’s too much. Your mileage will vary.

V.

We can’t be everything we want. We won’t all be astronauts and presidents at the same time. We won’t achieve everything in life we set out to. Oliver suggests we understand this, and limit our options. At the end of the book, he suggests keeping two lists- one with all the things we want to do, and the other with 10 things we must do. Only add to the second list when you cross something out of it, and only focus on the tasks on the second list.

That’s an excellent approach, but I also feel it’s kind of boring to live that way.

Incrementally, and especially when we’re young, I think we should explore and try as many things as possible and I don’t think Oliver would disagree with this. Too much exploration though, has it’s problems. The major problem is believing that we will be able to do whatever we want to, despite what popular self help culture will teach you.

Oliver suggests we limit the number of things to realistic amounts that we can do. He suggests focusing on the absolute essentials and get those done properly, instead of burdening ourselves beyond our limit.

He also suggests caring about the mundane, the parts of the work which seems like “the grind”, in order to work better. I agree with this, but there are many things which I disagree about.

I disagree about not accumulating capital and not being future-focused, even though the whole message of the book is to focus on the present. Of course, Oliver agrees, and tells us that it is useful to focus on long term projects, but not too much.

I disagree. I think that one day, within our lifetimes we might achieve some form of immortality. Again, this just might be me who has read too many science fiction books, but I truly believe this is possible. I also believe in the power of compound interest. That is why I read a lot, focus on long term projects a lot, and try to envision a future where I can be physically and mentally capable to meaningfully make the world a better place.

Oliver seems to think that we should limit all kinds of distractions and instead try to rule our will with an iron fist, refrain from social media and not wander endlessly. While that might be an extraordinarily good advise for most people, and I might be biased here, but for me, it is not.

I think boredom and distractions are good, and sometimes even necessary to let a person grow. Specifically, serendipitous wandering is often good, at least for me. Even though the time in serendipitous wandering may be considered wasted by most “experts” in every industry, to me, it’s the range of fields that I’ve devoured and the weird, obscure niches that I’ve dived deep into and which I’ll continue doing that expands my scope and view of the world. This is why I sometimes embrace distractions, going out of my way to deliberately indulge in them.

But Oliver, who is probably twenty years older and wiser than me, surely knows better, and I can acknowledge how limiting distractions can seem powerful.

VI.

Overall, this was an excellent book. It’s one of those books which even though it does repeat itself every few pages, it contains enough densely packed information that it’s worth a re-read, just like all great books should be.

It’s an exploration of time management, critique of usual advice, and finally few actionable steps, from someone who seems like a productivity geek just like many of us. I hope this review convinces you to give this book a try, because I don’t think you will regret it.

I spent the last hour writing this. This is an hour that I will never get back, and that is okay.

If you don’t want this essay to be the last essay of me you ever read, and want my future essays in your inbox, you can subscribe below-

Thanks for reading. Till next time, and happy holidays!

1 Comment

  1. What a timely (heh) post, as I myself have been thinking whether or not I’ve been wasting too much time on things that don’t help me reach my goals. I need to be more picky with how I spend my time, and your post reminded me of that very fact. Might even check this book out. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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