Book Review: Four Thousand Weeks, Time Management for Mortals
You are mortal, your entire life consists of (probably) no more than 4,000 weeks, and in this lifetime you will continually struggle against time. Stay humble :)
Ah, the struggle against time. It’s a universal struggle, but one that feels deeply personal and martyr-like in its “me against the world, and the world is entirely on my shoulders, and mine only” selfish kinda way. The kind where everyone around you seems to be doing just fine while you’re barely hanging on to the rim and whim of your fourth cup of coffee for breakfast.
I can’t exactly pinpoint the first time I discerned an identifiable point in my life when ‘time’ produced moments where I felt it was the bane of my existence. It may have been when I first cracked a sweat as a teenager upon feeling the constraints of standardized testing for university prep exams. Sometime since then, to my mental detriment, I began adopting shallow, self-help gimmicky time management techniques that every pomodoro enthusiast—in a vein similar to those pyramid-scheme advocates, or a circus clown visually confirming the pointlessness of juggling balls—shoved into my anxiety-ridden undergraduate life and beyond. Nothing worked. Life was still, if not more so, anxiety-ridden, only now with the added daily pressure of endlessly ticking things off to-do lists, meticulously doing so as though my life and I were infinite, and feeling generally and increasingly overwhelmed.
Why or how we’ve come to associate time management with self-help shortcuts and techniques akin to get-rich-quick schemes, I do not know. But we’ve done so at the cost of depth, because we’ve by default foregone the idea that time management as a concept is worth examining philosophically, socially, in a way that’s more than just the blanket statement that we all suck at time management, but that a select few of us will learn to untie the Gordian knot and then live to write the tale to those willing to venture into the no man’s land that is the self-help section of bookstores and online search histories.
Burkeman’s 4,000 Weeks helped me dissociate and render the problem (and anxiety) (somewhat?) moot by entertaining the idea that there is no untying the knot of Time. The book then gave me better connective tissue between the practical realization that something in my daily scheduling of things was off (read: needed fixing) and the liberating realization that there is no fixing it, only waxing philosophic about it with humor and humility. Here are some of the book notes I took on the topic:
There are more meaningful things to do (infinite things) than there is time do them (we are finite beings). That hurts. As does the fact that we remain at the whim of things outside our control. But who said we need to achieve one-hundred percent dominion over Time anyway? If we were to do so, without the budging and nudging our schedules to synchronize our time with others, what of it? Boredom.
Because we humans crave security and stability, our go-to approach is to come up with clever hacks and solutions that offer a false sense of comfort and control. But in trying to avoid the claustrophobic feeling of mortality, we deprive ourselves of the fact that there will always be too much to do. Seeing time as a resource intensifies the allure of multi-tasking. As Nietzsche earlier than us pinpointed our modern understanding of FOMO, “One thinks with a watch in one's hand, even as one eats one's midday meal while reading the latest news on the stock market; one lives as if one always ‘might miss out on something.’”
Renouncing alternatives is a good thing. As is settling. As is the fact that you won’t get to mark everything off your to-do list. There is liberation in this sort of defeat. It ameliorates the drowning feeling of being overwhelmed and paralyzed, fearful of the future. It helps you understand you are not central to the unfolding of the universe, and that you do not operate in a vacuum.
Turn FOMO on its head: Every choice you make comes with a wave goodbye to all the other possibilities out there, a cutting out of alternative life paths, and it’s exactly this—that you have to miss out on some things—that makes your choice that much more significant and worthwhile. Embracing the choice you make is a gift worth affirming, even though the comfort of drifting or procrastinating is easier than being compelled to make decisions because we want to cling on to ideals and fantasies rather than be dashed or disappointed by the gravity of our choices. But then, it’s precisely that you get to choose that makes life meaningful, and can make it a joy to miss out on other things.
Stuffing life with pleasure isn’t all that pleasurable. Nor is it likely that eliminating friction points in your life will be all that satisfying. Yes, it is easy to order groceries online. But in doing so you eliminate the textures of life that make the ‘unlivable, livable.’ It’s texture that helps us nurture relationships necessary for our mental and physical wellbeing.
Being efficient has its traps: quantitatively, the better you are at optimization, the more there will be on your plate; and qualitatively, the better you are at being efficient, the worse you will be at reaching the actually important things as you almost by osmosis adopt the strategy of constantly knocking out the smaller things that are in the way. Resisting this urge to clear the decks is the mental switch that gets you from overwhelm to calm. Try staying with one activity that matters to you despite there being a million other things you should be doing or exist in your life unresolved. Also, don’t be the pest who nitpicks at things rather than reveling in the beauty of the moment. Instead, adopt the author’s reference to Keats’s negative capability and what Keats himself described in a letter: “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
Consciously make decisions: Burning bridges is more satisfying and fulfilling in the long run. It feels calming to commit, because it takes you only in one direction—forward into the consequences of your choice.
With reading as an example: reading something properly just takes the time it takes. As Tim Parks observed, “it is not simply that one is interrupted; it is that one is actually inclined to interruption. Hence more and more energy is required to stay in contact with a book, particularly something long and complex.” It’s a good way of practicing how to neglect the right things by (1) claiming time for yourself and scheduling non-negotiable meetings with yourself to do X, Y, Z; (2) putting a hard ceiling on things to prevent half-finished projects from bubbling up on the back burner—not moving on to task A before honing in on a certain important activity; (3) resisting middling priorities—those errand-like things that prevent you from doing the important things you actually need to get done.
Life is about ‘winging it from crisis to crisis.’ As Jung observed, “One lives as one can. There is no single, definite way for the individual which is prescribed for him or would be the proper one.” Think of choices using the question, “Will this diminish or enlarge me?” Err on the side of cultivating instantaneous generosity toward others.
Transcending the mundane may be futile. When we are open enough to confront things as they really are, we also open ourselves up to the good things, too. George Orwell provided us with the wartime observation that “At any rate, Spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.”
Phew, that was long. And likely a ramble of sorts. I’m testing out a weekly dispatch of musings in addition to my regular seven-links curation. My apologies. More precise bookish notes in a YouTube video soon. In the meantime, though, I hope you found this useful!
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