Recap + Review: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals”

by | Jan 2, 2022 | Mindset

This month’s Athletic Bookworms felt appropriate for heading into the new year: “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals” by Oliver Burkeman. I admit, I was really psyched when I started reading it, and I felt like I did get a lot out of it from a work and training and life perspective…

Sometimes, it felt like I was reading a journal entry of my own:

“My productivity obsession had been serving a hidden emotional agenda. For one thing, it helped me combat the sense of precariousness inherent to the modern world of work: if I could meet every editor’s every demand, while launching various side projects of my own, maybe one day I’d finally feel secure in my career and my finances. But it also held at bay certain scary questions about what I was doing with my life, and whether major changes might not be needed.”

I appreciated that he dove into the concept that the idea of ‘having experiences’ might be working against us. Everyone got big into the ‘experiences’ idea back when minimalism started to gain popularity, but now, we’ve almost gone waaaaay too maximal in our pursuit of ‘more’ experiences, which turns having experiences into a stress. Anyone else feel pressure to perform on vacation?

The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.

And then, there’s the weird ‘leisure’ time debate. (I wrote about a study about leisure a couple of months ago that reminds us that actually enjoying leisure time is important—Feeling Guilty About Leisure Time? You May Be Missing the Health Benefits). He writes:

Enjoying leisure for its own sake—which you might have assumed was the whole point of leisure—comes to feel as though it’s somehow not quite enough. It begins to feel as though you’re failing at life, in some indistinct way, if you’re not treating your time off as an investment in your future… perhaps one reason we don’t experience life that way is that leisure no longer feels very leisurely. Instead, it too often feels like another item on the to-do list.

The more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calmer, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives… for as long as I could remember, my days had been spent striving for future outcomes—exam results, jobs, better exercise habits: the list went on and on—in the service of some notional time when life would run smoothly at last.

The book gave me a lot of food for thought. However, I have to agree with a couple of the grumpier reviews that I did feel a bit like a switcheroo was pulled on me and the book wasn’t exactly what I expected. I kept waiting for the author’s productivity/time management advice to slip in amongst the philosophy and how we are all living our lives with skewed perspectives, but he didn’t really get prescriptive until the very end, when a 10-tip type list was crammed into the appendix section. I think, had the book been organized differently and the actionable advice had been blended into each chapter, it would have had an entirely different feel.

However, that’s not to say there weren’t nuggets of wisdom that are usable sprinkled throughout. In particular, I liked these two points, both from other experts Burkeman brings into the conversation. First, asking if something is diminishing you or enlarging you (a broader, perhaps more meaningful question than ‘is it a hell yes or hell no?’ And second, the idea that ultimately, no one else really gives a $hit what you’re doing with your life (though I’d add the nuance that people do care about what you’re doing with your life, but not because they really care what it is that you’re doing, but rather, how they compare to/relate to you and what you’re doing).

James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” The question circumvents the urge to make decisions in the service of alleviating anxiety and instead helps you make contact with your deeper intentions for your time. If you’re trying to decide whether to leave a given job or relationship, say, or to redouble your commitment to it, asking what would make you happiest is likely to lure you toward the most comfortable option, or else leave you paralyzed by indecision. But you usually know, intuitively, whether remaining in a relationship or job would present the kind of challenges that will help you grow as a person (enlargement)…

“At a certain age,” writes the psychotherapist Stephen Cope, “it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”

So, I would say if there was one issue I took with the book—and surely this won’t be a surprise to Burkeman—I felt as though he could have gone another step further in the actual applicable ‘time management for mortals’ side of things. I kept waiting for the book to shift from philosophical musings to a bit more useful time management intel, Getting Things Done style, but it only really materialized in the last few pages, and it felt like a bit of an ‘my editor made me make this list’ add-on of fairly cliche time management tools and suggestions. I think he left a lot on the table not adding in more practical prompts in each chapter, and the book itself isn’t terribly long, so it was definitely not for lack of space. (As one reviewer aptly put it, “I now realize how cleverly deceptive the book’s subtitle, “Time Management for Mortals” is. Like I imagine many buyers did, I interpreted the subtitle to mean that the book would provide time-management tactics for people who are “mere mortals”—i.e., not naturally great time managers.”)

That said, I do thing it’s well worth the read, but it left me wanting a bit more practicality. That’s just my brain though—other people might love that!

…. And just to drive home the fact that this book is, in fact, a worthwhile read even if it didn’t change my to-do list:

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.

Get it here: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman


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