Notes From Four Thousand Weeks: Time And How To Use It

I stumbled across the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman, a self-proclaimed ‘reformed productivity guru’ and I’m glad that I did. At first, I was a bit worried that it was yet another book on productivity systems. I’ve learned that I’m a sequential, systems thinker and so it can frankly be a bit dangerous for me to learn about productivity systems as they tend to hijack my current processes (I think it’s called “shiny new thing” syndrome). However, I found this book to be quite enlightening and in line with my thinking on how to dance on the edge of being the “ultimate productive person” vs. “enjoying life.” I’ve come to terms with the fact that on the day that I die, there will be unfinished items on my to-do list and I laugh when I think about a younger me staying up late and working weekends trying to get everything done. Instead, I’ve shifted my focus to working on the things that matter to me and enjoying the ride.

  • ​On facing the idea that we are finite human beings with a finite amount of time on this planet:
    A decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths…it’s not a matter of spending each day ‘as if’ it were your last…it always might actually be.
  • “I’m embarrassed to admit what an outsize negative effect…minor frustrations have had on my happiness over the years…the effect was worst at the height of my productivity geekhood, because when you’re trying to Master Your Time, few things are more infuriating than a task or delay that’s foisted upon you against your will, with no regard for the schedule you’ve painstakingly drawn up in your overpriced notebook.”

On becoming a better procrastinator:

  • ​The appropriate measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
  • The real problem of time management…isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big important tasks…its that there are too many of them. The critical question, then, is not how to differentiate between those that matter and those that don’t, but what to do when far too many things feel somewhat equally important:

Principle No. 1: Pay yourself first (when it comes to time): Charlie Munger first put this idea into my head, and I was glad to see it in this book. From the Farnam Street blog: Charlie, as a very young lawyer, was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, “Who’s my most valuable client?” And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on these construction projects and real estate deals. Everybody should do this, be the client, and then work for other people, too, and sell yourself an hour a day.

Principle No. 2: Limit Your Work-in-Progress: Keep a hard upper-limit on the number of projects that you’re working on at any given time. This requires some experimentation and can differ on a person-by-person basis, but I’ve adopted this by keeping a “Closed List” of 10 projects (both work and personal) to focus on at any given time, not adding any to the list until one is completed. I’ve found this to increase my “completion” rate of projects and actually push me to do more deep work. The most uncomfortable part of this principle was the fact that I was actively ignoring other projects that sometimes have red flashing lights (such as calls or e-mails about whether I saw the last e-mail, am ready to approve X paperwork or project, etc.) but I’ve found that working on my timeline and areas of importance rather than how “loud” others can make ignored projects has given me a renewed sense of really driving my own destiny.

Principle No. 3: Resist the Allure of Middling Priorities: I’ve found this principle to be related to No. 2, because with the Closed List that I’ve developed, all other middling priorities go onto another list that I’ll get to later. Again, this is uncomfortable at first but I can’t stress enough how much better I’ve gotten at getting the big, important tasks completed. And at the end of the day, the middling tasks tend to fall into the category of “busy work” or “things other people want me to do”, and attention paid to those tasks is not living my life on my terms. After all, each minute spent on those tasks is, indeed, a minute of my life that I’m not getting back.

On social media, the news, the internet, mobile phones, etc.:

  • The attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever is most compelling – instead of whatever is most true or most useful – and it systematically distorts the picture of the world that we carry in our heads at all times. Achieving total control over what has your attention is almost impossible, and if you don’t think that any of the social media has hijacked your attention, made you more pessimistic or reactionary or compulsive, etc., that’s might be because it already has.
  • All the feuds and fake news and public shamings on social media aren’t a flaw, but from the perspective of the platform owners, they’re an integral part of the business model.

On our brains as “the ultimate interrupter”:

  • ​”One of the most puzzling lessons I have learned,” observes the American author Gregg Krech, “is that, more often than not, I do not feel like doing most of the things that need doing. I’m not just speaking about cleaning the toilet bowl or doing my tax returns. I’m talking referring to those things I genuinely desire to accomplish.”
  • When we try to focus on the things that we really deem to be important to us, we’re forced to face our own limitations, an experience that feels uncomfortable precisely because the task at hand is one that we value so much. Essentially, what Burkeman is describing is a reality that I’ve encountered. We can tend to have god-like fantasies of our future selves in our heads, such as “one day I’ll start my own business and become famously wealthy” or “when I finally get around to writing that book.” I’ve found in my own life that when I actually sit down to accomplish these “big ideas” there is a considerable amount of discomfort in realizing that, wow, I actually have no idea where to even begin.
  • “Some Zen Buddhists hold that the entirety of human suffering can be boiled down to this effort to resist paying full attention to the way things are going, because we wish they were going differently or because we wish we felt more in control of the process…You don’t get to dictate the course of events. And the paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.”

On the reality that we never really have enough time (the main argument of the book)

  • Nobody really ever gets four thousand weeks to live, because not even a single week is guaranteed or that you’ll be able to use it exactly as you wish. Instead, we’re just thrown into each moment as it comes, with the reality and constraints of time already in place. We exist as moments of time, which has real psychological consequences because the assumption that time is something that we possess or control is the underlying premise of all of our goal-setting and future planning and worrying. Believing that we have complete control over our time is a source of anxiety and frustration, because our expectations conflict with the stubborn reality that time isn’t in our possession.
  • The antidote to this is to realize that no matter how much we plan or fret, we can’t know that things will turn out all right. Most of us would probably concede that we got to where we are in life without exerting much control over it at all, and whatever we value most about our lives can be traced back to some jumble chance of occurrences that we possibly couldn’t have planned for.

On being here, now:

  • Because we will never know when we’re doing anything for the very last time, “…we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it…[t]o treat all these moments solely as stepping stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.”

On staying on task:

​Principle No. 1: Develop a taste for having problems. The state of having no problems is never going to arrive. Appreciate all problems because life is just a process of engaging with one problem after another. In other words, problems are not an impediment to a meaningful life, but are actually the very substance of one.

Principle No. 2: Embrace radical incrementalism. Those who know me know that I’m a big proponent of compounding – not just compounding capital, but compounding tasks. Life is significantly easier in bite-size chunks of the tasks that matter to an enjoyable life, especially when compounded: reading and learning, being a giver instead of a taker, practicing gratitude. Burkeman tackles this principle by giving practical advice, such as writing for 1-2 hours per day every day, and then quitting when it’s time. This is a practice that many great writers, such as John Steinbeck and Stephen King, practice as well.

Principle No. 3: Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. There is strong cultural pressure to “strike out” in a unique direction – to avoid copying others business plans to create a “unique” business, to create your own investing style, or to produce a truly original work. Burkeman argues, however, that if you always pursue the unconventional, you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing those other, richer forms of uniqueness that are well-reserved for those with the patience to travel the well-trodden path first. The investor Mohnish Pabrai has long been an advocate of unoriginality, as he is a strong proponent of cloning others ideas and styles.

As you’ve read, there are so many great ideas in this book by Oliver Burkeman that I highly encourage you to read it. It is a “mindshift” book and therefore is likely that your experience and what it could mean for your life will be much different than mine.

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