We live in a time-obsessed age. We want to control it, to conquer it, to use it wisely. If you’re a reluctant self-help enthusiast like me, you’ve tried everything to streamline your schedule and increase efficiency: read books like The Checklist Manifesto and The 4-Hour Work Week, used apps to track your calories and your sleep, been convinced by tech bro podcasts that the key to success was to emulate billionaires’ morning routines.
Sadly, most self-help convinces us we can optimize our lives as if humans were nothing more than yet-to-be-perfected machines. In his part how-to guide, part philosophical treatise Four Thousand Weeks, British journalist Oliver Burkeman rallies against such misdirected self-help and suggests there’s more to life than crossing items off a to-do list in the name of productivity.
The New York Times observes Burkeman’s work can sit comfortably on the “shelf next to the books published by Alain de Botton, literary-flavored advice on love, friendship, work and other conundrums.” The comparison to Botton is apt: both are British, both are charmingly cynical, and both fuse together the wisdom of the ages into how-to guides for modern mortals.
Though its premise (life is short— we should make the most of each day) seems unbearably commonplace, Four Thousand Weeks manages (for the most part) to escape self-help’s empty cliches. In fact, I dare say Burkeman will inspire you to look at time in a whole new way.
A self-proclaimed “productivity geek,” Burkeman was at one time a devoted believer in the religion of productivity: he used highlighters to color code his planner, broke down his day into 15 minute increments, and tried countless efficiency systems such as Inbox Zero and the Pomodoro technique.
Then one winter in 2014, he had an unsettling epiphany: he was never going to scale the mountain of all his “to-do” tasks and blissfully arrive at the summit of “being on top of everything.”
According to Burkeman, the problem with most time management philosophies is they rest on the erroneous premise that we can do everything. If only we could find the most efficient way to structure our day/tackle our inbox, we could launch our 6-figure business, have a happy marriage and regularly run marathons. If only we could find the most aesthetically-pleasing Pinterest-worthy planner, we could systematically prioritize our to-do list and “get it all done.”
But the reality is we can’t do it all.
Staying late at the office means we can’t have game night with our family. Opting to go with our friends to a bar Friday night means we most likely can’t go running early Saturday morning. If we only have 2 weeks of vacation a year, we can’t possibly go to every one of our “must-see” destinations: we have to choose between the endless excitement of New York and the majestic turquoise waters of Bali.
The problem with the be/do/have it all mentality is it encourages us to say “yes” to every opportunity: social invitations, networking events, more and more responsibility. The result? We have full calendars of other people’s priorities. Because we said “yes” to Sarah’s dinner party, we spend our Saturday night nibbling on quiche instead of working on our 3 act play. And because we said “yes” to yet another project at work, we can no longer take a romantic holiday to wine country.
Ultimately, time management isn’t about “doing it all” (which is impossible)— it’s about coming to terms with the fact that you’re never going to. You’re never going to have a bustling social life and work 60 hours a week. You’re never going to have the picture-perfect marriage and a high-powered career. You’re never going to be a world-class pianist and a Harvard PhD. Perhaps a few super humans among us can do many things, but the rest of us mortals must make choices. Time management requires you face your finitude: as Burkeman asserts, “your time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice— the sacrifice of all the other things you could have been doing with that stretch of time.”