Book Review – Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman
Review by Dr Mike D Williams
In the scale of the universe our lifespans are terrifyingly short – about four thousand weeks. The danger is that we become obsessed with how to fit as much into life as possible and finding the best possible time management method to make life easier. This book is in a sense the antidote to finding the perfect method.
The pandemic changed our relationship with time during the lockdowns. Many asked the question whether in the business of life they were prioritising the right things. We might be very productive but doing the wrong things. Burkeman is a journalist who has tried many of the time management methods as he juggles several roles – he admits to having been a ‘productivity geek’ even to the point of scheduling every fifteen minutes of his day. He writes from the experience that he achieved more tasks but also got more stressed and unhappy.
A key point he makes is that we have to stop imagining that we can do everything we want to – it is delusional. We have to make choices. We have to face reality. He provides a wonderful insight into emails and how anyone on the planet can pester you with an email and burden you with the need to read, sort and reply. His point is that getting through your email actually generates more email. You will never have enough time.
Rather than worrying about our to do lists we might hold our attention on the “sheer astonishment of being” so that you can feel ”alive in the flow of time”. We have to become better at neglecting the right things. Have two to do lists. The first has no more than ten items covering all aspects of your life. The second list is all those things you would love to do but know you can’t – so you choose to creatively neglect them.
The chapters in the book vary in the topics covered – some are a bit padded out but have some interesting side stories. Chapter 5 is about the ‘watermelon problem’. Intriguing. One Friday in April 2016 around three million people watched on the internet as two journalists wrapped rubber bands around a watermelon. Forty four minutes in and with the 686th rubber band the melon exploded. The point of the chapter is how distracted we can become especially in the digital age. The online “attention economy” is there to distract you – the phone can become a “machine for misusing your life”.
Towards the end of the book are five questions to get you thinking about life, work and how you judge yourself and what you might be waiting to do. This book then is not so much about time management as how you see yourself in the world and what is important to you in your finite time on earth. To end there are ten practical tips including focusing on one project at a time, what you decide to fail at, and how to be more curious. Worth reading if you want to challenge how you think about time and what is important in life.