The best new book I read this year was Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Thousand-Weeks-Management-Mortals/dp/0374159122.
After I finished reading it (in March of 2022), I sent a text to a friend saying something like this:
Four Thousand Weeks will probably be the best new book I read this year—six out of five stars. I wish everyone would read this book.
After another nine months in the Year of our Lady Two Thousand and Twenty-Two, I stand by that assessment: Four Thousand Weeks is an excellent book, and you should read it.
Four Thousand Weeks is explicitly not about productivity, getting things done, or tips and tricks to answer more emails.
Four Thousand Weeks is about the simple fact that you — and me, and everyone else reading this letter (and not reading this letter) — will die.
If you or I are lucky enough to live to 80 years old, we’ll each have had just over 4000 weeks on this planet. That’s not a lot of time. But it is all (or about all, or more than) most of us are lucky enough to get.
So, what should you do with your limited amount of time?
Burkeman’s stance is that you can’t do everything and cannot keep your options eternally open. If you try and do all the things, you will feel overwhelmed at the treadmill of continual new life experiences to try and do.
The only way to relieve that pressure is to acknowledge and accept that you physically cannot do all the things and have all the experiences in life. That is the way to freedom from the sense of anxiety that you’re missing out on things.
Over to Oliver Burkeman:
Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world offers, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem.
Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.
Setting down ideas, projects, and ambitions is hard. It requires tough choices (”This or that”), but it’s worth it.
There is a challenge and resistance in acknowledging and accepting that I won’t get everything done in my life that I aspire to get done. I won’t be able to pursue every ambition that feels important.
Momento Mori. Remember that you [have to] die. Accept that you can’t do everything; instead, use the time you have to do the things you care about.
Skimming through my Kindle copy as I write this letter, here are highlighted quotes that jumped back out at me:
(Emphasis — bold text — added by me.)
A few years ago, drowning in email, I successfully implemented the system known as Inbox Zero, but I soon discovered that when you get tremendously efficient at answering email, all that happens is that you get much more email.
Feeling busier—thanks to all that email—I bought Getting Things Done, by the time management guru David Allen, lured by his promise that it is “possible for a person to have an overwhelming number of things to do and still function productively with a clear head” and “what the martial artists call a ‘mind like water.’ ”
But I failed to appreciate Allen’s deeper implication—that there’ll always be too much to do—and instead set about attempting to get an impossible amount done. In fact, I did get better at racing through my to-do list, only to find that greater volumes of work magically started to appear.
Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.
We plan compulsively, because the alternative is to confront how little control over the future we really have.
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. But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead—and work with them, rather than against them—the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes. I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.
“Missing out” is what makes our choices meaningful in the first place.
Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role, or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it—that this is just a dress rehearsal, and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.
As I write this letter, I’m 36 years old. I turn 37 on January 26th, 2023. On my 37th birthday (in 49 days), I’ll have been around on earth for 1,924 weeks, A year and a half under the halfway point (2,000 weeks).
Reading Four Thousand Weeks encouraged me to set down a lot of aspirations/goals/worries that were leaving me churning with a mid-30s anxious feeling of “Oh no! When will I get to that? I’m missing out!!” I’ve started reorienting and focusing on a smaller amount of meaningful things that give me a feeling of joy and growth.
As a partial list, so far this year, after reading Four Thousand Weeks and spending a few months meditating and ruminating on the lessons in the book:
- I’ve picked up pencil sketching again (and am starting charcoal sketching).
- I’m getting more involved with my local communities and volunteering opportunities.
- I’ve started spending more time in my garden with my plants and in the forest with the trees.
- I plan on buying an electric piano in 2023 and resuming my ~15 years of Jazz piano (no joke, your friend Kai used to play a lot of piano).
Over to Burkeman for a final quote:
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 work on what’s gloriously possible instead.
You should buy a copy of Four Thousand Weeks. I encourage you to read it over the rest of 2023, and I think you’ll enjoy the book a lot: https://www.amazon.com/Four-Thousand-Weeks-Management-Mortals/dp/0374159122.
p.s., Do you love your local public library? Try using this Library Extension (https://www.libraryextension.com/) to see book and e-book availability from your library while browsing the web. (Library availability shows up on the Amazon book product detail pages. So cool! Here’s a screenshot example: https://share.getcloudapp.com/kpuOLLk4.)