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Four Thousand Weeks

By: Oliver Burkeman

This book made a huge impact on me. Because I'm guilty of each of the various 'vices' that Four Thousand Weeks addresses, I have, and probably always will, believe that I can fit more into my day than I can. I have always believed that by working harder, I can get more done, and until reading this book, I didn't like 'failing' in my day – not accomplishing the task I had set out to do. Not all of that has changed; some of it probably never will. But I'm starting on the journey.

Let go of the idea that you'll put a "dent in the universe". You won't.

So what does Oliver Burkeman say? The core of his argument is that you need to let go. Let go of accomplishing everything that you want to. Let go of having a massive impact. Focus instead on how you add value to the world. Our job is to "leave footprints on the beach" and to be okay with that. We should focus on fewer things to overcome the "paradox of limitation". "…The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets".

E-mails are a constant example of the challenge we all face in letting go. "You can receive many e-mails, but the more you send, the more you get. And you seldom have time to really read all those e-mails and really engage with them effectively". I've been experimenting with this over the past few months since reading the book. I still wake up in cold sweat with the number of unread, unaddressed e-mails in my inbox, while I can safely point to my greater focus on things that matter to me – my family, writing, learning, and being more present with those around me. I'm slowly letting go of the idea of a zero inbox.

Much of this book reminded me of the famous commencement speech; This is Water. We are very fortunate to live our lives as we do. When things are frustrating, as they often are, we forget that being irritated and overwhelmed is a privilege in the first place. We're lucky to be annoyed. The idea that we will ever accomplish everything without frustration smoothly and effectively is a lie that we have sold ourselves – in the guise of ultra productivity. If we can structure our day better and block off our time more into small chunks, we can fit more into our day and, in doing so, become better people without having to make hard choices – to fail at something or not do something.

Instead, Four Thousand Weeks encourages us to accept that we will fail at many things. We need to let go of much of what we're doing to focus our attention, the only commodity we have, on the things that matter. Oliver Burkeman tells, potentially, an apocryphal story about Warren Buffet. In the story, Warren Buffet is flying from somewhere to somewhere else, and the pilot flying the plane that day asks him how he chooses his priorities. Warren Buffet says that he makes a list of the 25 goals and priorities he has in his life and orders them from 1-25. The top 5 get your attention. The next 20, you avoid at all costs – these are tempting and very appealing distractions from your ultimate objectives.

The point is short is that we will always want to do more than we can, and we need to make an effort to focus on less. To-Do lists are Oliver Burekman's prime example of this. They are great at capturing information and everything you have to do. But they don't give you a sense of priority. The real measure of effective time management is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things. Focus on too many things, and you will never accomplish anything.

Time is life; attention is our only real commodity, so carefully choose where you put your time. This is Oliver Burkeman's message. You have limited time, Four Thousand Weeks to be precise, and if you don't choose, if you believe you can do more, you will fill your time with tasks that are not meaningful to you.

To end, Oliver Burkeman sets out five questions to consider. These are:

  1. Where in your life or work are you currently pursuing comfort when what's called for is a little discomfort?

  2. Are you holding yourself to and judging yourself by standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?

  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you are doing?

  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn't care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?

You can buy the book on amazon or, even better, at your local bookshop.


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