book review Culture Philosophy Time

Oliver Burkeman on Time (“Four Thousand Weeks”)

I have selected ten excerpts from Oliver Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. The book is a series of meditations on time and how we relate to time. What makes the book engaging and enlightening is Burkeman’s decision not to answer off-the-shelf questions about time management, but instead to treat our common problems about time as symptoms of deeper problems. He invites us to think about time, to question our desires about time, and to search for better ways of relating to time. To begin, we can recognize that our desire to manage time flawlessly, to set and accomplish super-human goals, to envision and execute countless plans is, at heart, a wish to deny or forget the limits of our finite human life.

Thinking about Time

(1) “The details differ from person to person, but the kernel is the same. We recoil from the notion that this is it–that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.” (p. 29)

(2) “Our troubled relationship with time arises largely from this same effort to avoid the painful constraints of reality. And most of our strategies for becoming more productive make things worse, because they’re really just ways of furthering the avoidance.” (p. 30)

Our limited control and our desire for more control over time, and our mistakes about time are related to how we view others and our relation to others. Stated differently, our mistakes about time can be related to our mistakes about our relationships with other people.

(3) “… most of us seek a specifically individualistic kind of mastery over time–our culture’s ideal is that you alone should control your schedule, doing whatever you prefer, whenever you want–because it’s scary to confront the truth that almost everything worth doing, from marriage and parenting to business or politics, depends on cooperating with others, and therefore on exposing yourself to the emotional uncertainties of relationships.” (p. 31)


Turning to the topic of distractions, Burkeman challenges the belief that distractions come from outside and that we ought to feel helpless against our present-day digital distractions. He links distractibility with a desire to escape from here-and-now.

(4) “Consider the archetypal case of being lured from your work by social media: It’s not usually that you’re sitting there, concentrating rapturously, when your attention is dragged away against your will. In truth, you’re eager for the slightest excuse to turn away from what you’re doing, in order to escape how disagreeable it feels to be doing it; you slide away to the Twitter pile-on or the celebrity gossip site with a feeling not of reluctance but of relief. We’re told that there’s a ‘war for our attention,’ with Silicon Valley as the invading force. But if that’s true, our role on the battlefield is often that of collaborators with the enemy.” (p. 104)

(5) “… what we think of as ‘distractions’ aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.” (p. 107)

(6) “The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise–to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.” (p. 108)

On Boredom

(7) “This is why boredom can feel so surprisingly, aggressively unpleasant: we tend to think of it merely as a matter of not being particularly interested in whatever it is we’re doing, but in fact it’s an intense reaction to the deeply uncomfortable experience of confronting your limited control. Boredom can strike in widely differing contexts […] but they all have one characteristic in common: They demand that you face your finitude. You’re obliged to deal with how your experience is unfolding in this moment, to resign yourself to the reality that this is it.” (p. 106)

On Reading

(8) “People complain that they no longer have ‘time to read,’ but the reality, as the novelist Tim Parks has pointed out, is rarely that they literally can’t locate an empty half hour in the course of the day. What they mean is that when they do find a morsel of time, and use it to try to read, they find they’re too impatient to give themselves over to the task. ‘It is not simply that one is interrupted,’ writes Parks. ‘It is that one is actually inclined to interruption.’ It’s not so much that we’re too busy, or too distractible, but that we’re unwilling to accept the truth that reading is the sort of activity that largely operates according to its own schedule.” (p. 165)

On Purpose

Burkeman’s discussions are relevant to how we think of the purpose(s) of living, the purpose of a week, a month, a particular task. While we tend to seek the purpose outside what we do, beyond our activity, it is possible to find purpose in the activity. This attitude doesn’t demand a justification from life. Your life doesn’t become more or less legitimate, more or less worthwhile, because of your accomplishments. Your don’t owe a debt of servitude to any purpose.

(9) “We treat everything we’re doing–life itself, in other words–as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.” (p. 126)

(10) “In his play The Coast of Utopia, Tom Stoppard puts an intensified version of this sentiment into the mouth of the nineteen-century Russian Philosopher Alexander Herzen, as he struggles to come to terms with the death of his son, who has drowned in a shipwreck–and whose life, Herzen insists, was no less valuable for never coming to fruition in adult accomplishments. ‘Because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up,’ Herzen says. ‘But a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t distain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment … Life’s bounty is in its flow.” (p. 132)

Note 1. Many thanks to Peyman who brought this book to my attention in his comment under my post about efficiency and meaning.

Note 2. The AMZN links provided are affiliate links, which means I’ll earn from qualifying purchases.

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