Four Thousand Weeks: Oliver Burkeman

The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” writes the essayist Marilynne Robinson

If I could get enough work done, my subconscious had apparently concluded, I wouldn’t need to ask if it was all that healthy to be deriving so much of my sense of self-worth from work in the first place

the choice you can make is to stop believing you’ll ever solve the challenge of busyness by cramming more in because that just makes matters worse. And once you stop investing in the idea that you might one day achieve peace of mind that way, it becomes easier to find peace of mind in the present, in the midst of overwhelming demands, because you’re no longer making your peace of mind dependent on dealing with all the demands

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.

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.

learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in

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

Any finite life—even the best one you could possibly imagine—is therefore a matter of ceaselessly waving goodbye to possibility.

“If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,” as she puts it, “there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.”

If skillful time management is best understood as a matter of learning to procrastinate well, by facing the truth about your finitude and making your choices accordingly, then the other kind of procrastination—the bad kind, which prevents us from making progress on the work that matters to us—is usually the result of trying to avoid that truth

the bad procrastinator finds himself paralyzed precisely because he can’t bear the thought of confronting his limitations. For him, procrastination is a strategy of emotional avoidance—a way of trying not to feel the psychological distress that comes with acknowledging that he’s a finite human being

The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,” Bergson wrote, “and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.”

Because the attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling—instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful—it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face, how venal our political opponents are, and thousands of other things—and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well.

whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude—with the human predicament of having limited time, and more especially, in the case of distraction, limited control over that time, which makes it impossible to feel certain about how things will turn out

what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation

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.

The way to find peaceful absorption in a difficult project, or a boring Sunday afternoon, isn’t to chase feelings of peace or absorption, but to acknowledge the inevitability of discomfort, and to turn more of your attention to the reality of your situation than to railing against it.

You only ever get to feel certain about the future once it’s already turned into the past.

the assumption that time is something we can possess or control is the unspoken premise of almost all our thinking about the future, our planning and goalsetting and worrying. So it’s a constant source of anxiety and agitation, because our expectations are forever running up against the stubborn reality that time isn’t in our possession and can’t be brought under our control.

a life spent “not minding what happens” is one lived without the inner demand to know that the future will conform to your desires for it—and thus without having to be constantly on edge as you wait to discover whether or not things will unfold as expected.

all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.

the more you focus on using time well, the more each day begins to feel like something you have to get through, en route to some calmer, better, more fulfilling point in the future, which never actually arrives

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

The writer Adam Gopnik calls the trap into which I had fallen the “causal catastrophe,” which he defines as the belief “that the proof of the rightness or wrongness of some way of bringing up children is the kind of adults it produces.” That idea sounds reasonable enough—how else would you judge rightness or wrongness?—until you realize that its effect is to sap childhood of any intrinsic value, by treating it as nothing but a training ground for adulthood

As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future—that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems—you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading toward some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived

For all its chilled-out associations, the attempt to be here now is therefore still another instrumentalist attempt to use the present moment purely as a means to an end, in an effort to feel in control of your unfolding time. As usual, it doesn’t work

Living more fully in the present may be simply a matter of finally realizing that you never had any other option but to be here now.

The truth, then, is that spending at least some of your leisure time “wastefully,” focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it—to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement.

To rest for the sake of rest—to enjoy a lazy hour for its own sake—entails first accepting the fact that this is it: that your days aren’t progressing toward a future state of perfectly invulnerable happiness, and that to approach them with such an assumption is systematically to drain our four thousand weeks of their value

Freedom to pursue the futile

the state of having no problems is obviously never going to arrive

“A person with a flexible schedule and average resources will be happier than a rich person who has everything except a flexible schedule

It’s in the interests of an autocrat that the only real bond among his supporters should be their support for him

Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and overdemanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is.

Time is the substance I am made of

There’s no scrambling up to the safety of the riverbank when the river is you

The human disease is often painful, but as the Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck puts it, it’s only unbearable for as long as you’re under the impression that there might be a cure. Accept the inevitability of the affliction, and freedom ensues: you can get on with living at last. The same realization that struck me on that park bench in Brooklyn struck the French poet Christian Bobin, he recalls, at a similarly mundane moment: “I was peeling a red apple from the garden when I suddenly understood that life would only ever give me a series of wonderfully insoluble problems. With that thought an ocean of profound peace entered my heart

Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.

Peace of mind, and an exhilarating sense of freedom, comes not from achieving the validation but from yielding to the reality that it wouldn’t bring security if you got it.

if the feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all—to put bold plans into practice, to stop erring on the side of caution. It is even more liberating to reflect that everyone else is in the same boat, whether they’re aware of it or not.

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