📅 July 21, 2022
Book Review | Four Thousand Weeks
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals was a fantastic read. I found myself nodding along with many of the author's viewpoints and struggles. The main takeaway I came away with was a need to more fully realize the limits of my productivity.
The author thought if only he could formulate the perfect system, then he could stay on top of everything thrown his way. His epiphany was that there will never be the perfect system to meet the demands if the demands on you are inherently unreasonable.
You need to "...learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in. To approach your days in this fashion means, instead of clearing the decks, declining to clear the decks, focusing instead on what’s truly of greatest consequence while tolerating the discomfort of knowing that, as you do so, the decks will be filling up further, with emails and errands and other to-dos, many of which you may never get around to at all."
Things take the time they take.
Some of my favorite highlights from the book are below.
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.
When there’s too much to do, and there always will be, the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.
Despite my thinking of myself as the kind of person who got things done, it grew painfully clear that the things I got done most diligently were the unimportant ones, while the important ones got postponed—either forever or until an imminent deadline forced me to complete them, to a mediocre standard and in a stressful rush.
I happen to be alive, and there’s no cosmic law entitling me to that status. Being alive is just happenstance, and not one more day of it is guaranteed.
Wouldn’t it make more sense to speak not of having to make such choices, but of getting to make them? From this viewpoint, the situation starts to seem much less regrettable: each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with.
Embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.
If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week, there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.
I found myself effortlessly breaking down my projects into manageable chunks, a strategy I’d long agreed with in theory but never properly implemented. Now it became the intuitive thing to do: it was clear that if I nominated “write book” or “move house” as one of my three tasks in progress, it would clog up the system for months, so I was naturally motivated to figure out the next achievable step in each case instead.
If you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax—because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.
Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again—as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine.
A surprisingly effective antidote to anxiety can be to simply realize that this demand for reassurance from the future is one that will definitely never be satisfied—no matter how much you plan or fret, or how much extra time you leave to get to the airport. You can’t know that things will turn out all right. The struggle for certainty is an intrinsically hopeless one—which means you have permission to stop engaging in it.
A plan is just a thought. We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.
As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future—that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems—you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived. Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order. And that therefore you had better stop postponing the “real meaning” of your existence into the future, and throw yourself into life now.
To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake—entails first accepting the fact that this is it: that your days aren’t progressing toward a future state of perfectly invulnerable happiness, and that to approach them with such an assumption is systematically to drain our four thousand weeks of their value. “We are the sum of all the moments of our lives,” writes Thomas Wolfe, “all that is ours is in them: we cannot escape it or conceal it.” If we’re going to show up for, and thus find some enjoyment in, our brief time on the planet, we had better show up for it now.
Results aren’t everything. Indeed, they’d better not be, because results always come later—and later is always too late.
Surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take, and that you can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster, because it isn’t within your power to force reality’s pace as much as you feel you need to, and because the faster you go, the faster you’ll feel you need to go.
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. Digging in to a challenging work project that can’t be hurried becomes not a trigger for stressful emotions but a bracing act of choice; giving a difficult novel the time it demands becomes a source of relish. “You cultivate an appreciation for endurance, hanging in, and putting the next foot forward,” Brown explains. You give up “demanding instant resolution, instant relief from discomfort and pain, and magical fixes.” You breathe a sigh of relief, and as you dive into life as it really is, in clear-eyed awareness of your limitations, you begin to acquire what has become the least fashionable but perhaps most consequential of superpowers: patience.
We’re made so uneasy by the experience of allowing reality to unfold at its own speed that when we’re faced with a problem, it feels better to race toward a resolution—any resolution, really, so long as we can tell ourselves we’re “dealing with” the situation, thereby maintaining the feeling of being in control.
Yet the state of having no problems is obviously never going to arrive. And more to the point, you wouldn’t want it to, because a life devoid of all problems would contain nothing worth doing, and would therefore be meaningless.
Life just is a process of engaging with problem after problem, giving each one the time it requires—that the presence of problems in your life, in other words, isn’t an impediment to a meaningful existence but the very substance of one.
The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.
Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.
Maybe you’re afraid you’ll be fired and lose your income if you don’t stay on top of your impossible workload. But this is a misunderstanding. If the level of performance you’re demanding of yourself is genuinely impossible, then it’s impossible, even if catastrophe looms—and facing this reality can only help.
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.
It’s alluring to try to alleviate the anxiety of having too many responsibilities or ambitions by getting started on them all at once, but you’ll make little progress that way; instead, train yourself to get incrementally better at tolerating that anxiety, by consciously postponing everything you possibly can, except for one thing.
When presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position.
Not knowing what’s coming next—which is the situation you’re always in, with regard to the future—presents an ideal opportunity for choosing curiosity (wondering what might happen next) over worry (hoping that a certain specific thing will happen next, and fearing it might not) whenever you can.
Whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind—to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work—act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.