When I told my partner the premise of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman, he immediately covered his ears and told me he didn’t want to hear anything more about it.
This perfectly illustrates our visceral reaction to the main idea of the book: Each of us has an “absurdly, insultingly brief” amount of time on this planet. The average human lifespan is just about 4,000 weeks long, and that fact makes most people (my partner included) very uncomfortable. “We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action,” explains Burkeman.
While this is a reality everyone grapples with (“philosophers from ancient Greece to the present day have taken the brevity of life to be the defining problem of human existence,” says Burkeman), it can feel particularly harsh for multihyphenate folks, who have even more varied passions and aspirations to try and squeeze in.
So what can we do about it, short of spiraling into existential despair? Here are three lessons from the book that I think could benefit any polymath—or person—feeling stressed about getting it all done (without getting burnt out).
1. You’re going to have to make some hard choices about where you spend your time, so make them intentionally
Burkeman argues throughout the book that coming to terms with our limited time can actually be freeing instead of terrifying, empowering us to thoughtfully prioritize. “Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all,” he explains.
“A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected ‘lawn care’ or ‘kitchen tidiness’ as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.”
While this can mean being very intentional about the limited things you say yes to, such as by digging into your values or understanding your ikigai, Burkeman argues a better strategy can be learning “how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.”
“Maybe you can’t keep your current job while also seeing enough of your children; maybe making sufficient time in the week for your creative calling means you’ll never have an especially tidy home, or get quite as much exercise as you should, and so on,” he says. “A poorly kept lawn or a cluttered kitchen are less troubling when you’ve preselected ‘lawn care’ or ‘kitchen tidiness’ as goals to which you’ll devote zero energy.”
He adds that your focus can shift over time, such as by doing the bare minimum at work for a few months while you get your side hustle off the ground, or putting your passion project on pause to devote more time to your family. “Then switch your energies to whatever you were neglecting,” says Burkeman. “To live this way is to replace the high-pressure quest for ‘work-life balance’ with a conscious form of imbalance, backed by your confidence that the roles in which you’re underperforming right now will get their moment in the spotlight soon.”
Before you say yes to another project or start a new side hustle, get real on what you’re going to have to deprioritize to make it happen, and make sure the tradeoff feels worth it. Instead of letting this feel limiting, “embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead…is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time.”
2. Cultivate the superpower of patience
Another common way people try to gain control of their limited time is by rushing through projects instead of allowing them to take the time they need to take. Instead, Burkeman advocates for “harnessing the power of patience as a creative force in daily life.”
“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.”
For instance, he shares how the need to feel like we’re making progress quickly often prevents people from solving challenging and meaningful problems. As a solution, he suggests developing “a taste for having problems”—enjoying the (sometimes slow) process of working through things instead of succumbing to the “urge to race through every obstacle or challenge.”
“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,” Burkeman explains. “Digging into a challenging work project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice.”
Another approach to cultivating patience despite your limited time? “Embrace radical incrementalism,” says Burkeman, sharing the research of psychology professor Robert Boice, who found that the most productive and successful academics “made writing a smaller part of their daily routine than the others, so that it was much more feasible to keep going with it day after day. They cultivated the patience to tolerate the fact that they probably wouldn’t be producing very much on any individual day, with the result that they produced much more over the long term.”
If there’s a new skill you want to grow or project you want to launch but you don’t really have time for it, can you find the smallest possible way to scratch that itch every day? Can you celebrate every small step forward instead of feeling like you need to hurry to finish a project at the expense of doing it justice? “If a certain activity really matters to you—a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause—the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little.”
3. Find ways to enjoy the process rather than waiting for the results
One way too many of us miss out on our limited time is by being stuck in a “future-chasing mindset.”
“It turns out to be perilously easy to…focus exclusively on where you’re headed, at the expense of focusing on where you are—with the result that you find yourself living mentally in the future, locating the ‘real’ value of your life at some time that you haven’t yet reached,” says Burkeman.
“In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit.”
One way of overcoming this is, counterintuitively, to spend time on projects that could never possibly be completed in your lifetime. “What actions—what acts of generosity or care for the world, what ambitious schemes or investments in the distant future—might it be meaningful to undertake today, if you could come to terms with never seeing the results?”
He also advocates for incorporating more things into our daily lives that we do for their own sake alone, such as hobbies and leisure activities. “In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit,” explains Burkeman.
“It’s worth spelling out that none of this is an argument against long-term endeavors,” adds Burkeman. “But it’s an argument that even those things can only ever matter now, in each moment of the work involved, whether or not they’ve yet reached what the rest of the world defines as fruition. Because now is all you ever get.”
Next time you’re considering a new project to add to your plate, make sure you’re excited about the work itself and not just looking forward to the intended outcome. Or, ask yourself whether there needs to be an intended outcome at all: Would this endeavor be more fulfilling as a hobby? “Life is a succession of transient experiences, valuable in themselves, which you’ll miss if you’re completely focused on the destination to which you hope they might be leading.”
Further reading from Polywork's Book Report series
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