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Bill Bergeman


11 Valuable Concepts from "Four Thousand Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman

Four Thousands Weeks is a time management book for people who despise time management. It is also a cold splash of water in the face to remind us that much of what we do in our lives have little meaning and that our lives are short and fragile.

I found this book to simply be refreshing and found myself journaling over some of its most salient topics, of which I will describe below.

    1. Life on the Conveyor Belt.

    So many of us invest so much time into how to maximize time that we completely lose track of why we are trying to be so efficient with our time in the first place. Worse, all of the time efficiencies we have gained have done little to make us happier. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Burkeman notes, "...it's often more aggravating to wait two minutes for the microwave than two hours for the oven. We are optimized human beings that have been optimized to do things that don't make us happy."

    2. Facing Finitude.

    According to Burkeman, so much of the busy work in which we are engaged distracts us from what we all know as fact: we are going to die, and there are not enough spreadsheets, efficiency reports, news consumption, or addiction to work, that will save us from it. He states, "So we walk through life, doing things we ostensibly deem 'important,' of which the only real import is their ability to distract. Meaningless conversations, jobs we hate, commutes we hate just as much, chores we don't want to do, and so on, all exist to deter us from the reality of our lives - everything is finite, and anything we select to do closes the doors on an infinite number of other possibilities, and within our finitude, we choose distraction over meaning."

    Instead, Burkeman suggests we focus more on our finitude, not less. It is the shortness and rarity of our lives that makes them special and valuable.

    3. The Watermelon Problem.

    The Watermelon Problem is a follow-up concept after Facing Finitude. Burkeman describes a story from a day in 2016 when millions of people spent part of their day watching two reporters from BuzzFeed wrap rubber bands around a watermelon. After 43 minutes, the watermelon exploded. That's it. He used the story as an illustration of distraction on a mass scale. Despite all the challenges happening in the world at the time, including the highly-contentious U.S. presidential election campaign, millions of people preferred to watch an online stunt.

    4. The Discomfort of What Matters.

    We allow ourselves to be distracted because the distraction is from encountering finitude more so than the work at hand.

    Quoting the author: "When you try to focus on something you deem important, you’re forced to face your limits, an experience that feels especially uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one you value so much."

    The author's solution to this urge to distract oneself is to just accept that it's how we are. I disagree. I think we can gradually, through small habitual changes, modify this urge and steadily increase our ability to focus on critical tasks at hand with less urge toward distraction.

    5. We Never Really Have Time.

    To ally our concerns and anxieties about the future, we obsessively plan it in the folly attempt to control it. While we may be able to achieve much of what we plan, we can never fully control everything - least of all, the future. Even when things go exactly our way, at that point we can look forward to the next chunk of time that is planned and worry about that.

    6. Anything Could Happen.

    We don't "own" time the way we own any possession. It simply is, and our efforts to control it are like trying to control the flow of water through our hands. While we can and should plan to a certain degree, if we have the intention of accomplishing a goal, a life well-lived with less anxiety is one that recognizes something will always occur out of our control.

    The best approach is to plan loosely and after that go with the flow. Often, in fact, nearly always, the best aspects of our lives come from things that occur by happenstance. In fact, our very existence is certainly from an infinite number of unplanned circumstances that collided to form...you.

    7. Minding Your Business.

    The future is none of our business. We have zero control over it. Yes, we can and should do things today that will better our future odds. To do otherwise would be foolhardy towards one's future self. But know that just because you make a plan today it doesn't mean that the future has any reason to comply. It's minding its own business, and we should mind our own business - which is entirely in the present.

    8. Rediscovering Rest.

    We are increasingly using our leisure time, as little as we have, in a productive manner. Going for a run just for the sake of running, for instance, is replaced with training for a race. It's fine to train for a race, but do we need to be training on every run?

    We have been conditioned to think that we must be doing something productive with all of our time, including our leisure time, lest we be wasting our precious time on this earth. The only way to justify our time, we have come to believe, is to always be doing something that's building toward some imaginary, more perfect future.

    Perhaps the most subservice act one may undertake is to engage in an activity - a hobby, perhaps - in which the only thing that matters is the pure joy of engaging in it. One does not care if they are good or bad at it, or how others judge them, and the activity is not done to achieve some sort of result. It just is.

    9. The Impatience Spiral.

    People who try to rush other people to move that *their* speed only find frustration, and often end up going slower than they otherwise would have.

    We use speed, and increasing speed, to try and gain greater control over our lives and to avoid feelings of anxiety. But, paradoxically, our chase of speed is itself creating less control and more anxiety. Just as an alcoholic initially loves the 'chase,' the feeling is intoxicating at first - moving faster feels good. But it always catches up with us, no matter how fast we go.

    The only solution is to accept reality as it is and relax in the moment. Accept our limitations, and breathe into the fact that things take as long as they take.

    10. The Loneliness of the Digital Nomad.

    Common logic dictates that having greater control over one's time equates to greater freedom and happiness. While the former is certainly the case, the latter is not always the case.

    Most people crave greater autonomy, and there is no greater thing over which to have autonomy than one's time. However, if that time is spent almost, if not entirely, by oneself, then it may equate more to loneliness than happiness.

    The greatest amount of happiness relative to time = autonomy + communal rest. When the greatest number of people are at rest or on vacation, let's say, then there is a greater sense of shared relaxation. This equates to greater happiness. Shared experiences over individual experiences.

    Today, we pride ourselves on the greater amount of authority we have over our time, but that authority we so crave comes at the cost of the joy of collective action. We are so busy on our schedules that we find it more difficult than ever to engage in collective activities - which sometimes means we can't even find a time to get together with a buddy for a beer or have dinner with our spouse. The solution is to purposefully find in-person activities in which to engage that have been pre-planned and to schedule time in advance with people so you know that everyone involved has the time set aside to get together.

    11. Cosmic Insignificance Theory.

    Often, people who work for a period of time find themselves questioning the value of what they're doing and the importance of their work. Often considered a "midlife crisis," this change in perspective on our lives can feel like a crisis and significant change needs to take place to align our values with our actions.

    The universe doesn't care. Our thoughts, feelings, perspectives, biases, values, lives...in the scheme of the universe, they mean nothing.

    So, just relax.

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