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Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It – Or, how to be good to yourself

Oliver Burkeman thinks we should ease up on ‘to-do lists’ and let go of our urge for control

Brooklyn-based author Oliver Burkeman’s thesis will simultaneously annoy new-age spiritualists and contemporary moral philosophers
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
Author: Oliver Burkeman
ISBN-13: 978-1847924018
Publisher: Bodley Head
Guideline Price: £16.99

So many books cry for your attention. If something is not a “must-read”, it an “urgent” or else “necessary” work. “If you read one thing this season . . . ” reviewers gush. Well, here’s something for Oliver Burkeman to put on his latest book: Don’t read this book now. Read it whenever. Or never. Never is fine too. The bottom line is you shouldn’t be too hard on yourself.

That’s the only recommendation one can give to stay faithful to Burkeman’s philosophy. A wise and humane philosophy it is too, because the Brooklyn-based author, best known for his erudite but accessible articles for the Guardian, wants you to stop being a slave to “to-do lists” and, more profoundly, to let go of your urge for control.

Four Thousand Weeks – the title is a yikes-inducing approximation of the number of weeks you’ll have on Earth assuming you live to be 80. The anxiety that awareness of mortality provokes is well-explored in centuries of philosophy, psychology and theology. What Burkeman brings to the table is a modern sensitivity: an ability to distil “learnings” from across disciplines and dish up spoonfuls of practical wisdom for promiscuous screen-swipers like you and me.

Placed within his oeuvre, Four Thousand Weeks has a revelatory, reaching-the-mountaintop feel. He says at the outset that “I wrote this book for myself, as much as for anyone else” and, as it progresses, it becomes clear a solution lies a mind-shift towards something no less daunting than Zen Buddhism.


Burkeman confesses that, up to this point, he has tried every time management method from “inbox zero” to the “pomodoro technique”. Not only has none of them worked, but they have collectively made him feel a bigger failure for remaining easily distracted and disorganised.

The eureka moment comes when he realises time is not capable of being managed but that his relationship with time can be put on a more realistic and harmonious footing. It starts with accepting defeat, lowering your expectations and internalising the fact that you are “thrown into time” and are ultimately at its mercy. “You could think of this book as an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope,” he writes.

Burkeman’s thesis will simultaneously annoy new-age spiritualists and contemporary moral philosophers as he pours scorn on today’s packaging of meditation and mindfulness as yet another tool for boosting “productivity”, while also turning the blame away from ostensibly evil social media giants and instead placing responsibility on the individual.

There are plenty of everyday tips to pick up along the way. Keep a “done list” as counter-therapy to remind yourself of the little things you have achieved; focus on one big project at a time; “pick your battles in charity, activism and politics” rather than giving your attention to every worthy cause.

You’ll recognise yourself in vignettes throughout the book, if not in the lawyer who can’t enjoy time with his family as everything is seen as a “billable hour” than in the spouse who surreptitiously checks her phone beneath the dinner table “because it’s hard to focus on the conversation”.

Helpful exercises are suggested to lengthen your attention span, like going to an art gallery and staring at a painting for three hours straight (one for the “to-do list”). And he perceptively analyses just why it suits capitalistic elites that we are in a constant state of what Marilynne Robinson calls “joyless urgency”.

There’s a terrific section too on the virtue of hobbies and especially hiking, for its sheer pointlessness. The only bum note was the (rather superfluous) subtitle accompanying the US edition - Time Management for Mortals - which was wisely swapped out for the release here.  Presumably “Time Management for Immortals” is the soon-to-be-published autobiography of Elon Musk.

It should be stressed, however, that coming away from this book with “useful” advice would do an injustice to its metaphysical depth. Burkeman seeks to hammer home the “unexpectedly liberating truth” that your existence barely registers against the canvas of universal space-time.

Applying what he calls “cosmic insignificance therapy”, he writes: “From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards; or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy.”

This book is not cosmically significant, but its core message is culturally significant – and it has a brilliant communicator in Oliver Burkeman. For the record, this reviewer was moved.

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column