Adam Grant said that this is the most important book ever written about time management, and I’m certainly inclined to agree. In the opening pages of Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman gets things started with a jolting, yet indisputable claim:
“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short...But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”
There's just something about putting a specific number on it that makes the idea of our finitude and our smallness so visceral, so affecting, and so real. Here in these pages, we're no longer able to live under the delusion that we will ever be able to get everything done; the progress reports, the product launches, the career planning, the kids' events and extracurriculars - we will simply never be able to fit a full, meaningful human life into just four thousand weeks. Unless...
Burkeman’s approach has always been the “negative” one, by which I mean operating by negation – eliminating rather than adding. He suggests giving up the very idea that we could ever live up to the impossible expectations imposed on us by ourselves and others, rather than stacking impossible commitments and doomed promises onto an already crumbling structure.
You’re never going to get to a point where you feel like you’re totally on top of everything. The very effort is wearing us out, stressing us out, and leading us to waste our absurdly, terrifyingly short lives on trivia and nonsense. As Burkeman says:
“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."
Efficiency is a trap, and "productivity" is just a giant treadmill in disguise. When you're known as someone who responds to every single email within a half-hour, you're going to have more people emailing you. When people start to learn that you'll never say no to a request, you'll start to get asked for more favors. And the more you think you can do in a single day, the more you'll expect from yourself in a single day, regardless of whether your expectations actually line up with reality.
So just give up!
Giving up, however, absolutely does not equate to admitting defeat. Giving up the idea that you'll be able to do everything frees you to consider what you would do if you wanted your choices to have the maximum positive impact. Narrowing your options and committing to one choice confers meaning on the choice you do make.
In much the same way, sunlight warms the entire earth; but, focused through a single magnifying glass, the sun's rays are incendiary. Your attention is like the rays of the sun, and whatever you pay attention to becomes your life. What you pay attention to in your life grows. It's our current poverty of attention - how we just give it away to anyone who asks - that is diminishing us all.
Because those two options, ultimately, are the result of every choice we make in life. Every choice either enlarges us or diminishes us, and what we pay attention to, what we make time for, matters. It matters like you wouldn't believe, and that's one of the reasons why Four Thousand Weeks is such a special book. It's about making the most of the limited time we do have and giving up the losing fight against a universe in which our time is finite and immeasurably valuable.
The book also goes into the idea of what's known elsewhere as "the adjacent possible." It's a term that refers to the next available action we're able to take, and it's incredibly relevant to our discussion here. Our choices at this moment determine which choices are available to us in the next, and this is a dizzying type of freedom that can be easier, psychologically, to ignore.
Our options for what to do with our four thousand weeks are near-limitless, and whenever we take any action whatsoever, we're forever closing off possibilities we once had and opening ourselves up to new possibilities that were closed to us before we took that first action - that's the adjacent possible.
It's taking this job, in this city, rather than another job in a different city. It's dating this person as opposed to this other person, which will lead to you having a completely different child with that person, who will grow up with completely different interests, all leading to you making - and being offered - completely different decisions for the rest of your life! That's a terrifying responsibility!
We can try to escape it by trying to fit everything into this one four-thousand-week life, or we can take Burkeman's negative approach, embrace the limitations, and thereby confer absolute, perfect meaning on the choice we do end up making.
The people who try to fit every possible pleasure and experience into their lives are caught in the same trap as the workaholic who believes they can answer every email and the same trap as the single parent who believes that they can manage everyone's expectations and keep everyone happy forever. Both approaches are equally doomed to failure.
In Four Thousand Weeks, we're reminded that the point of managing our time - to the extent that that can be done - isn't just to "do," but to show up, fully alive, in a world that's just bursting with wonder.
We are more than our to-do lists, and there's more to life than the walls of our self-imposed cubicles. Burkeman and Bradbury get it:
“Stuff your eyes with wonder. Live as if you'd drop dead in ten seconds. See the world. It's more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories."
#1: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. Here’s one way of putting things in perspective: the first modern humans appeared on the plains of Africa at least 200,000 years ago, and scientists estimate that life, in some form, will persist for another 1.5 billion years or more, until the intensifying heat of the sun condemns the last organism to death. But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”
#2: “The world is bursting with wonder, and yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”
This right here is the core of the book. It's why Burkeman's approach is so much deeper - and more enlightening - than most other approaches to time management that we've all seen in recent years. Four Thousand Weeks is about life, and about deepening the quality of our experience, rather than just stuffing more and more into it, trying to get it all done.
When we're so focused on the doing, and not focused enough on the why, our quality of life suffers immensely, and we turn ourselves into walking to-d0 lists rather than fully alive, engaged human beings.
The world is more beautiful than most of us can even imagine - and there's certainly more to it than any of us will ever see in our whole lives. So why do we sell ourselves so cheaply?
#3: “It turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to; they never quite manage to keep up with the Joneses, because whenever they’re in danger of getting close, they nominate new and better Joneses with whom to try to keep up. As a result, they work harder and harder, and soon busyness becomes an emblem of prestige. Which is clearly completely absurd: for almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.”
Freedom is the new status symbol, and the barrier to its attainment is this idea we have that more "stuff" is the answer. Acquiring "stuff" is the opposite of gaining freedom, but one of the most difficult financial and time management skills is to be able to get the goalposts to stop moving, to realize when we've made it and don't need to strive so hard anymore.
The technical term for what Burkeman is describing is "lifestyle inflation," which means that as our income expands, our desires expand with it, and so we never really catch up. There's always that next thing on the horizon that we convince ourselves we need before we can allow ourselves to feel truly fulfilled.
This is a mirage, and even if we do ever reach that next peak, we'll just discover that there's now this new thing that we want even more, that's - no surprise - just a little bit further away and that we need to work a little harder to get. It's a mirage and a trap.
#4: “Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.
Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 am.’
The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control – when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.
Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”
#5: “Most of us spend a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves.”
We're always running away from ourselves, trying to escape feelings of lack, unworthiness, uselessness, isolation, and fear. Fear is probably the greatest threat to the existence of humanity at this moment in history, and the great effort that's expended in trying to get away from this fear, to suppress it, to drive it away, is taking a lot out of us.
This energy could be put to much greater use. When we're fearful, we're not thinking straight; we actually come to believe that getting this promotion, buying this house, pleasing this person will banish our fear forever and make all of our internal problems disappear. This has basically never happened in the entire history of humanity.
Internal problems are never resolved with external measures, and when we stop running, we gain the energy and the stamina to look inward and fight for our sanity and fulfillment.
#6: 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.
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. But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”
#7: The Efficiency Trap: Doing more each day will eventually lead to having more to do. For example, if you become known as someone who always replies to emails blazingly fast, then more people will start to realize that if they want a quick answer they should email you, which of course just leads to you having more emails to deal with!
If the boss realizes that you can finish a staggering amount of work on deadline, then they will always load you up with more work, and you will never be free.
The whole trap stems from the fact that we think that being more productive will clear our plates and help us get to a point where we can finally relax. But it doesn't work that way! We even do this to ourselves, when we load ourselves up with commitments, thinking that we can handle it all because we already do so much.
#8: “So the retiree ticking exotic destinations off a bucket list and the hedonist stuffing her weekends full of fun are arguably just as overwhelmed as the exhausted social worker or corporate lawyer.
It’s true that the things by which they’re being overwhelmed are nominally more enjoyable; it’s certainly nicer to have a long list of Greek islands to visit than a long list of homeless families left to find housing for, or a huge stack of contracts left to proofread. But it remains the case that their fulfillment still seems to depend on their managing to do more than they can do.
This helps explain why stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect. It’s an attempt to devour the experiences the world has to offer, to feel like you’ve truly lived – but the world has an effectively infinite number of experiences to offer, so getting a handful of them under your belt brings you no closer to a sense of having feasted on life’s possibilities.
Instead, you find yourself pitched straight back into the efficiency trap. The more wonderful experiences you succeed in having, the more additional wonderful experiences you start to feel you could have, or ought to have, on top of all those you’ve already had, with the result that the feeling of existential overwhelm gets worse.”
#9: “The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.”
This is a big one, and it deserves a few extra words of explanation. A big portion of the "art of living" is the ability to separate the signal from the noise, to discover for yourself what is truly valuable to you, and to ruthlessly eliminate everything that isn't - or at least to do so to the best of your ability.
It's actually a gift that there are only 24 hours in a day, or four thousand weeks in a lifespan, because those are hard numbers you can work with to find out what really matters to you.
If you believe - even implicitly - that your time will never run out, you won't feel the necessity of making choices about the absolute best use of your time. If you believe that you'll be able to read everything eventually, you won't choose the best books first. If you believe that your family will never get old, separate, or drift apart, you're not going to close your laptop and sit down with them to watch a movie.
But the idea of having limits is actually liberating because it frees you to make these kinds of (literally) life or death choices about where you are going to spend your limited time and attention.
#10: “Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer, the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem. Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experience you actually do have time for – and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.”
#11: “I’m already who I am and where I am, which determines what possibilities are open to me. But it’s also radically limited in a forward-looking sense, too, not least because a decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths. As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I’m building a life – but at one and the same time, I’m closing off the possibility of countless others, forever.”
This is such a terrifying concept for most people (including myself sometimes) that many of us refuse to even look at it. It harkens back to the idea of the "adjacent possible," which basically means the very next step we can take based on every step we've taken previously to get to where we are now.
We are, all of us, all the time, opening and closing our own sets of possibilities, creating opportunities for ourselves at the same time as we close off other opportunities forever and ever. I know, scary shit, right?
But we're doing this at every moment of every day: When I'm reading one book, I'm not reading every other book that has ever been published, ever, essentially choosing the specific thoughts and ideas that are going to enter my head and which will lead to my next thoughts. If I had chosen to read a different book, I would have had different thoughts, and perhaps been led down an entirely different path.
If I were to move to another city, I would be shutting down every possibility - every meeting, every accident, every experience - that I could actualize in the city from which I just moved. The possibilities that New York made available to me are lost forever, and the new possibilities available to me in Los Angeles are opened up to me. Last time I checked, there were something like 4,000+ cities on earth, and they all come with their own sets of possibilities.
No wonder that people don't want to face these actualities! It's scary to have that much freedom, and to think that perhaps your dream job or the love of your life exists in the country you just left - or the one you're too scared to move to. I don't have any final answers either, by the way. These are fundamental human freedoms and terrors that we all must live with, be aware of, and struggle against. But sometimes the recognition of one's own freedom can liberate us from the chains we fashion ourselves.
#12: “If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get – you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.”
#13: “It’s precisely the fact that I could have chosen a different and perhaps equally valuable way to spend this afternoon that bestows meaning on the choice I did make. And the same applies, of course, to an entire lifetime.”
Some paragraphs are worth the price of the entire book and the entire time you spent reading it, and that's the way I feel about this one. Four Thousand Weeks is about meaning and choices, and, as Annie Dillard says, "how we spend our days is how we spend our lives."
What we do today is our life, and the mere fact of choosing - consciously and deliberately - what we're going to do with this span of time that's been given to us is often the difference between a meaningful life and one that's tinged with regrets.
#14: “You wouldn’t even really want to be able to do everything, since if you didn’t have to decide what to miss out on, your choices couldn’t truly mean anything.”
#15: “Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.”
#16: “I wish I could reveal, at this point, the secret for uprooting the urge toward distraction – the way to have it not feel unpleasant to decide to hold your attention, for a sustained time, on something you value, or that you can’t easily choose not to do. But the truth is that I don’t think there is one.
The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise – to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold. Yet there’s a sense in which accepting this lack of any solution is the solution.”
#17: “To realize midway through a business trip that you hate your life is already to have taken the first step into one you don’t hate – because it means you’ve grasped the fact that these are the weeks that are going to have to be spent doing something worthwhile if your finite life is to mean anything at all.
This is a perspective from which you can finally ask 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?”
Pain is a great motivator. In another book summary I've published here on the Stairway to Wisdom, the author M.J. DeMarco talks about an FTE, or a "Fuck This" Event, which refers to a painful event or realization that is strong enough to motivate positive action and get us to change.
Sometimes, the pain just doesn't hurt enough to inspire action, but if you can tap into that pain and really feel the fact that you hate the direction your life is heading, then you're going to have sufficient motivation to take action to change it.
An FTE can enable you to ask the question, "What would I have to do to not feel like this anymore?" When we're just "comfortable," we're often blind to the fact that our life isn't all that it could be and that we're not really happy or fulfilled. Once again, Burkeman is correct: the "negative" approach is often the best.
#18: Cosmic Insignificance Therapy: The liberating realization that even the most significant human accomplishments are drops in the ocean of universal time.
Those accomplishments are important today, absolutely, but this realization lowers the bar for activities that might be considered meaningful, since we’re no longer under any obscene pressure to “build something that lasts,” or “make a dent in the universe.”
None of us will ever make a dent in the universe, no matter what we do, and that’s okay. The actions we take can matter now; they can make other people’s lives better now, and we can enjoy them now. There is no later.
#19: “At a certain age, it finally dawns on us that, shockingly, no one really cares what we’re doing with our life. This is a most unsettling discovery to those of us who have lived someone else’s life and eschewed our own: no one really cares except us.”
What a fantastic realization! No one actually cares! The technical term here is the "spotlight effect," according to which we believe that everyone is paying attention to us and what we're doing, when in fact they're so concerned about what we think of them that they're really not paying attention to or judging any of our mistakes at all!
There's nothing inherently wrong with self-interest (you should take an interest in yourself, at least a little bit, and treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping), and the fact is that most people are so caught up in their own lives that they're really not spending a whole lot of their day following you and critiquing your every move and life choice.
Sure, some people might have an inappropriately large interest in what you're doing, but these people are basically losers; let's be honest here. If they were really doing anything with their lives, they wouldn't spend so much time judging you. So you can safely ignore the opinions of these people.
Other than that, maybe you might get a raised eyebrow or something when you tell someone you're quitting your high-paying corporate job to pursue your interest in watercolors, but they don't actually care! Five minutes later they're going to be off evaluating someone else's life choices and they won't be thinking of you at all. Then you're free to do whatever you were going to do anyway! What freedom and power you now possess to do what you've always wanted to do, and live a life that's true to your deepest desires!
#20: “Experience life with twice the usual intensity and your experience of life will be twice as full as it currently is.”
“We’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.”
“I started pestering my friends, asking them to guess – off the top of their heads, without doing any mental arithmetic – how many weeks they thought the average person could expect to live. One named a number in the six figures. Yet, as I felt obliged to inform her, a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks – 310,000 – is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia. On almost any meaningful timescale, as the contemporary philosopher Thomas Nagel has written, ‘we will all be dead any minute.’”
“This whole painful irony is especially striking in the case of email, that ingenious twentieth-century invention whereby any random person on the planet can pester you, at any time they like, and at almost no cost to themselves, by means of a digital window that sits inches from your nose, or in your pocket, throughout your working day, and often on weekends, too.”
“The most fundamental thing we fail to appreciate about the world, Heidegger asserts in his magnum opus, Being and Time, is how bafflingly astonishing it is that it’s there at all – the fact that there is anything rather than nothing.
Most philosophers and scientists spend their careers pondering the way things are: what sorts of things exist, where they come from, how they relate to each other, and so on. But we’ve forgotten to be amazed that things are in the first place – that ‘a world is worlding all around us,’ as Heidegger puts it.
This fact – the fact that there is being, to begin with – is ‘the brute reality on which all of us ought to be constantly stubbing our toes,’ in the splendid phrase of the writer Sarah Bakewell. But instead, it almost always passes us by.”
“I don’t want to live on forever in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
“Why assume that an infinite supply of time is the default, and mortality the outrageous violation?”
“Why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born?”
“So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.”
“Each moment of decision becomes an opportunity to select from an enticing menu of possibilities, when you might easily never have been presented with the menu to begin with.”
“The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritizing the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks – and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar. The critical question isn’t how to differentiate between activities that matter and those that don’t, but what to do when far too many things feel at least somewhat important, and therefore arguably qualify as big rocks.”
“The only faculty you can use to see what’s happening to your attention is your attention, the very thing that’s already been commandeered. This means that once the attention economy has rendered you sufficiently distracted, or annoyed, or on edge, it becomes easy to assume that this is just what life these days inevitably feels like. In T.S. Eliot’s words, we are ‘distracted from distraction by distraction.’
The unsettling possibility is that if you’re convinced that none of this is a problem for you – that social media hasn’t turned you into an angrier, less empathetic, more anxious, or more numbed-out version of yourself – that might be because it has. Your finite time has been appropriated, without your realizing anything’s amiss.”
Distraction isn’t just “distracting,” but rather a way to avoid finitude and discomfort about limitations. A lot of the things we waste time on give us an illusion of control, which is why people run to them when things get tough.
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s idea of the “pain period” shows up here again! Once you go into the “pain” of boredom, discomfort, and finitude and come out the other side, you will have gained the ability to withstand those forces and retain your equanimity and vitality. But, never having gone into those feelings means that you have missed out on the opportunity to fortify yourself against their effects in the future.
“Do you want to know my secret? You see, I don’t mind what happens.”
“Once you can heat your dinner in the microwave in sixty seconds, it begins to seem genuinely realistic that you might be able to do so instantaneously, in zero seconds – and thus all the more maddeningly frustrating that you still have to wait an entire minute instead. (You’ll have noticed how frequently the office microwave still has seven or eight seconds left on the clock from the last person who used it, a precise record of the moment at which the impatience became too much for them to bear.)
Nor will it make much difference, unfortunately, if you personally manage to muster the inner serenity to avoid this kind of reaction, because you’ll still end up suffering from societal impatience – that is, from the wider culture’s rising expectations about how quickly things ought to happen.
Once most people believe that one ought to be able to answer forty emails in the space of an hour, your continued employment may become dependent on being able to do so, regardless of your feelings on the matter.”
“Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”
-Jorge Luis Borges
Ask yourself, “Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort?”
Ask yourself, “Does this choice enlarge me, or diminish me?”
“Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.”
So you've finished reading the book. What do you do now?
#1: Give up.
Surrender can be an active process. Giving up has no relation to failure when the purpose behind it is to gain your freedom; you're not accepting defeat, but rather you're realizing that you're never going to get everything done, you're killing yourself trying, and that that way can only lead to unnecessary anguish and a diminished quality of life.
So give up your unrealistic expectations; give up the idea of making everyone happy; give up the pursuit of perfection and the relentless striving. Perform actions with excellence and care, but, as much as possible, do these things for their own sake, giving up the idea that you need to "earn" your place on this planet.
#2: Calculate the number of weeks you've been alive.
Some people take this even further and print off an honest-to-goodness chart with boxes representing how many weeks they expect to live, and with the boxes representing the weeks they've already lived shaded in.
This is...excessive maybe? But I'm not against it! Having these things laid out in an unmissable, clearly visible manner can go a long way towards making these ideas intensely real: your weeks will, eventually, unavoidably, run out.
You don't have to write this down anywhere, but simply take your current age and multiply it by...you guessed it...52. Someone who has just turned 25 years old will have been alive for 1,300 weeks. If you're 85? 4,420. I just did a rough calculation myself, and it turns out that I've been alive for about 1,600 weeks! Now I'm going to sit with this number for a few minutes and see how I feel about it.
#3: Track how you spend your time for a week.
The best way to manage your time (to the extent that that can be done) is to track how you're spending your time now. The same goes for your finances; if you don't have a budget, you have no idea what you're spending and where, and you're likely to have some "month" left over at the end of your money!
So pick any average week, and during the day, set a timer to go off every hour or so. Or every fifteen minutes, depending on how crazy you are (see #2, above). Then, when the timer goes off, take a few moments and write down how you spent your time since the last timer went off.
At the end of the week, when you have the data laid out in front of you, you can make intelligent choices about where to adjust your schedule and where you want to be spending more/less of your time. I've done this many times myself and the results are always instructive.
#4: Schedule something vitally important.
If something's important to you, you have to schedule it first, and then schedule everything else around it. We all have things that we'd love to do but never seem to have time for, and the partial solution to this is to make time for it. Plan it out, stick to your plan, and take action to make it happen in reality.
This could be something in your own hometown, and/or with friends or family of yours, or it could be that trip to Machu Picchu that you've always been dreaming about. Whatever it is, pick a date and make it happen.
If it's travel that's going to be a little more expensive, pick a date further into the future, but just know that you can buy a plane ticket for pretty much anywhere in the world for less than $2,000, and usually much less than that depending on where you live. That's less than $6 a day, and you can buy a ticket in just one year.
Again, just like Burkeman says, don't turn travel into a to-do list, but if it's going to happen, it's gotta be on your schedule.
#5: Make a "Never Do" list.
You're never going to watch every movie, read every book, catch every sunset; you're never going to have as much time with your friends and family as you'd like, and you're never going to run out of experiences you could have that would make your life as thrilling and magical as it could be.
Even if you could just do these things all day every day - never mind work, traffic, showering, and all that - you're going to run out of weeks before you run out of to-dos. You know this already. But it helps immensely to have a "never do" list and/or a "stop doing" list.
These are pretty self-explanatory but their power is immense: simply make a list of things you absolutely, positively, never have time for, will never have an interest in, will never even think about trying to cram into your precious day.
I'm talking: words and actions that diminish you, gossip and cruelty, TV shows that are "just okay," friends who aren't really your friends - I'm sure you could add quite a bit to this list. So go ahead! And once you're done, keep this list where you can refer to it often, and if something comes up that's on your "no way in hell" list, don't do it!
#6: Go on an "attention diet."
What you pay attention to becomes your life. Your life is the sum total of every single thing that you've ever paid attention to, added up together; if you weren't paying attention, it's like it never happened.
Knowing this - knowing that you give your own life meaning based on what you choose to pay attention to - you can make intelligent choices about where to direct your attention and from where to withdraw your attention.
For most people, myself included sometimes, we give our attention away (one of our most valuable, non-renewable resources) to anything and anyone that demands it. We give our very lives away like it was nothing.
So, using your time-tracking sheet from #3 above, identify those times where you gave your attention to something or someone and then immediately regretted it. Gradually, what you'll do over the next few days and weeks is to withdraw your attention from those people and things. Treat it like a diet, removing those things from your life and going without.
Unlike a regular diet, which is rarely all that fun, you're going to notice your life - and clarity of mind - improve pretty much immediately. And also unlike a regular diet, you can keep an attention diet going for years and years.
#7: Make choices that enlarge you.
Much of the wisdom in Four Thousand Weeks comes from the focus placed on the fact that we can either make choices that enlarge us or diminish us. Those are pretty much our only options - every choice we ever make falls into one of those two camps.
We can choose not to steal, even if we know that we'll never be caught. We can choose not to cheat, even if there's zero chance that we'll ever be found out. We can honor the best in us and bring it to life in the world through our actions and our words.
This is one of the highest responsibilities of the authentically free individual: to make the world better, incrementally, little by little, with everything we say and do.
You know when you're acting from your highest or lowest self. You know when you're making a choice that makes you bigger - you can feel it. And so, guided by this feeling and this knowledge, you can refuse to contribute to the cause of those who are making the world worse. Every free action can be guided by the impulse to make life better, for all of us; I can't think of any better use of anyone's four thousand weeks.
About the Author:
Between 2006 and 2020 Burkeman wrote a popular weekly column on psychology, This Column Will Change Your Life, which appeared in The Guardian. He is an award-winning journalist and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2006.
Twice monthly he publishes The Imperfectionist, an email on productivity, mortality, the power of limits, and building a meaningful life in an age of bewilderment.