Last week, I invested part of my 3214th  week on this planet in reading 4000 Weeks: Time management for mortals, by Oliver Burkeman (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021). 4000 weeks is roughly the amount of time we have in our lives if we live to be 80 years old.^

Yet not a single moment of that 4000 weeks is promised. And the book is a meditation on the futility of time and productivity management. Burkeman points out some uncomfortable truths. You’ll never get everything done. You’ll always be missing out on something. You’ll never be able to live up to your best vision of yourself. Your tiny life hardly matters in the cosmic scheme of things anyway. The book is kinda depressing at times.

But Burkeman means for these hard truths to be inspiring and freeing. If we can just let go of the illusion that we can control time, we may actually be able to live in peace and joy rather than constant anxiety. Oliver Burkeman’s message is to get off the treadmill of future striving and capitalistic valuing and ponder what he calls “the most fundamental question of time management” –

“What would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you are making it count?”

For me, 4000 Weeks generated some heady insights and heavy ponderables, and I haven’t quite reached conclusion on most of them. But still, let me share a few thoughts out loud.

Time vis-a-vis work

We are now in a unique position to reset our expectations about work time: how we spend it, how much of our full measure of time it takes up, and what’s worth investing time in.

Most of us need to have a job, of course, and it’s (to my mind) infinitely better to work at something you enjoy and in which you can find meaning. But still, “they” would have us believe that our career takes primary importance and should be given all the time it demands regardless of the short-term cost. But we need to keep in mind that the promise of future reward for such hard work is dubious at best, and for too many, their time runs out before that reward can be enjoyed.

The pandemic put this in stark relief. After “the great pause” there needs to be some attention to what’s next.

“The Great American Return to Normal is coming… [but] I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.” ~ Julio Vincent Gambuto*

The pandemic has triggered an awakening of a sort about how we spend our time and about what percentage of time we want to devote to work. People don’t want to commute, waste time in meetings, limit their flexibility, or account for every moment of the day. They want to more carefully evaluate the value of specific projects and practices in light of the time and energy spent.

My take-away is to not to let my gainful employment steal more than its fair share of time in expectation of some great future return on that investment. It’s energizing to work towards a goal or a vision, of course, but perhaps the best work offers some joy in the doing as well. Find projects that have both short and long term positive impact. Part of the key to that balance is picking the thing that will be your contribution and giving it your best. We are not all meant to change the world, but changing your little corner of it can be a more reasonable goal.

Time for learning

It’s no surprise that I would want to interpret some of Burkeman’s advice in support of time for learning. One passage struck me as particularly relevant.

“We treat everything we’re doing – life itself, in other words – as valuable only insofar as it lays the groundwork for something else.”

This kind of future-value orientation takes away from the role that learning can play in generating joy and living the good life. In discussing the importance of pure leisure time, Burkeman makes the point that the ancient Greeks valued leisure as “the end to which everything else was the means.” It’s a bit subversive that we’ve put leisure and play in service of future productivity or creativity rather than valuing it as a solo good. (I’m occasionally guilty myself.)

We do the same for learning, which can be a deeply satisfying and pleasure-inducing activity by itself without worrying about where and how it’s going to be applied. To constantly instrumentalize learning robs it of a good part of its value, I think.

Yet as much as I stan for learning, I have a hard time reconciling this in the context of workplace learning. Workplace learning is indeed – as it should be – in support of something else – some future business outcome.

But I think we should allow for looser connections – more generally useful and deeper knowledge and skill building without immediate urgency. And I have already argued time and again about the importance of devoting time to learning projects and activities in their many forms.

The gloriously possible

In all, 4000 Weeks is a worthwhile read, also worth ruminating and savoring – taking time, if you would, to consider its implications. It makes you stop and think. And it should help you to recalibrate your orientation to time. The best time management helps you to focus on the right things and let go of unreasonable demands.

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. 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 to work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”

With Burkeman’s advice ringing in my ears, I’m inspired to ponder what’s “gloriously possible” in my life and context. What do I want to contribute? And what do I want to learn?


^ Just to put it out there to the universe, I kinda hope to live a bit longer than 4000 weeks – but still, if I did the math right, I’ve already spent 3214 of the weeks I’ve got. Sheesh!

* From Prepare for the ultimate gaslighting, by Julio Vincent Gambuto, Medium, April 10, 2020