Book Summary: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Book Cover for Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

This summary of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman explains what we get wrong when we focus on time management and productivity, and why we should instead embrace our finitude.

Four thousand weeks is roughly the number of weeks you’ll have if you live to about 80. So Four Thousand Weeks is about our values and priorities and making the most of our limited time on this earth.

Buy Four Thousand Weeks at: Amazon | Kobo (affiliate links)

Key Takeaways from Four Thousand Weeks

  • There are certain truths we have to accept:
    • We are finite, so we will never be able to do everything no matter how efficient or productive we are;
    • We can’t control time (and the fact that we think of it as something we can use and control is kind of weird, historically-speaking);
    • We can’t control the future, no matter how much we plan;
    • From a cosmic perspective, we are ultimately insignificant.
  • Sometimes we focus too much on the future:
    • Living mentally in the future makes us miss out on the present;
    • If we see childhood as merely a training ground for adulthood, it deprives childhood of any intrinsic value;
    • We even try to use our leisure time productively, as a means to an end, instead of as an end itself;
  • And we often overlook the meaningful things in life:
    • If we don’t make trade-offs consciously, we end up prioritising the wrong things;
    • Convenience can end up taking away the meaningful parts of life; and
    • Individual time sovereignty comes at the expense of sharing time and being synchronous with others.
  • Once we recognise the above:
    • We free ourselves from unrealistic expectations that we could never meet, along with the anxiety that those expectations create;
    • We can make better trade-offs and prioritise the things that matter; and
    • We get to actually live our lives, focused on the things that matter to us, now.

Detailed Summary of Four Thousand Weeks

What we (the productivity geeks) are getting wrong

Burkeman confesses that he used to be a ‘productivity geek’ for years. He always felt like he was on the verge of reaching a calm, undistracted period of life. But it never arrived and instead he just felt more stressed and unhappy.

Burkeman admits that he hasn’t yet reached the attitudes towards time management that he espouses in Four Thousand Weeks. He’s writing the book as much for himself as for anyone else.

The way we think of time itself is weird (and wrong)
Historically, people did not think of time in the same way we do

We think of time as an abstract, fungible thing, that we can trade. We try to get the most of our days, weeks, we try to “save” time, and we feel guilty for “wasting” time.

Historically, people did not think of time in this way. Before, time was the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of. Things took however long they needed. For example, a medieval farmer got up with the sun and slept at dusk. The length of their days varied with the seasons. They’d milk the cows when they needed milking and harvested crops when it was time to do so. They couldn’t speed things up – you can’t get all a month’s milking done in a single day.

Life was task-oriented. Before clocks, people could only explain how long a task took by comparing it to some other task. A ‘pissing whyle’ for example was the time it took to, well, piss.

We moved towards a standardised way of thinking about time in order to coordinate people’s actions. Lewis Mumford suggests in Technics and Civilization that the Industrial Revolution probably couldn’t have happened without this change. Running factories required coordinating hundreds of people working fixed hours. Employers started paying by the hour, as opposed to by the day or on a piecework basis. Work and leisure became sharply delineated.

The way we think of time makes us want to dominate it

After we began thinking of time as a separate, abstract thing, it became a thing that you used.

[Time] stops being the merely the water in which you swim and turns into something you feel you need to dominate or control …
— Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks

This new way of thinking underlies why we struggle with time today. The real problem isn’t our limited time, but our ideas about it. A lot of these ideas come from external forces.

Capitalism, for example, is fundamentally instrumentalist. It uses everything, including your time, to generate profits. Some have argued that corporate lawyers are often unhappy because, thanks to the billable hour, they have commodified their time (and therefore themselves). Spending time on family or friends therefore comes with an explicit opportunity cost and feels like an indulgence they can’t afford.

Burkeman suggests this may be why people in developing countries are better at enjoying life than people in rich countries – because the former are less fixated on instrumentalising their lives for future profit. He points to how Mexico has often outranked the United States in happiness measures (see Happy Planet Index). [This is a cherry-picked example. Overall I think studies have consistently shown that people in richer countries tend to be happier (with some exceptions – I believe the US is consistently unhappier than their wealth would suggest). To test Burkeman’s theory, it would be better to compare savings rates against happiness, as low savings suggests a greater tendency to live in the here and now. However, low savings could also indicate a lack of trust in the currency and public institutions, so that confounds things. In any case, the issue is much more complex than Burkeman suggests here.]

However, we can’t put all the blame on capitalism. We choose to treat time in this instrumental way because it helps us maintain the feeling of being in control of our lives.

We try to do too much
The list of things we could do is infinite, but we are finite

Surveys consistently show that we feel busier than ever. Busyness isn’t necessarily a problem. The problem arises when we feel overwhelmed. We constantly feel pressure to fit more activities into a fixed amount of time. Research shows that this occurs at every rung of the economic ladder.

There’s an infinite amount of tasks to do and our goalposts keep shifting as soon as we complete some. If you get more efficient at answering emails, your reward is more emails.

… time feels like an unstoppable conveyor belt, bringing us new tasks as fast as we can dispatch the old ones; and becoming ‘more productive’ just seems to cause the belt to speed up.
– Edward T Hall as cited by Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks
Being more efficient and getting more done doesn’t help

The modern concept of “time management” or “productivity” focuses narrowly on efficiency and getting as much done as you can. It’s about coming up with a great morning routine, batch-cooking meals and to-do lists.

But there’s an efficiency trap. The goalposts for “what needs doing” start to shift once we accomplish some things. Examples of this trap include:

  • Work. If you acquire a reputation for doing things quickly, you’ll be rewarded with more work. Parkinson’s Law, which states that work expands to fill the time allotted to it, is not just a joke. And it doesn’t just apply to work, either – “what needs doing” in fact expands.
  • Emails. If you become known as someone who responds promptly to emails, more people will email you. Getting through your emails therefore generates more emails. By contrast, people who forget to reply to emails often find that the problem described in the email never materialises. [Well, it might have been solved by someone else, but it may have cost them a lot more time and effort than it would’ve taken you to respond. So while I accept Burkeman’s point, I think not responding to emails can also be pretty selfish (at least in some cases).]
  • Housework. When housewives got access to washing machines and vacuum cleaners, they didn’t spend less time doing housework. Rather, society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits.
  • Bucket lists and leisure. There’s an infinite number of leisure activities that seem worth doing. Even if you can tick a handful off your list, that’s just a tiny dent on all of life’s possibilities. The Internet exacerbates this as you can easily find out about more events than you could ever possibly attend, and more people to date than you could ever possibly date. One reason pre-modern people didn’t have this problem is because they believed in an afterlife – “getting the most out of life” didn’t make much sense if life was a relatively insignificant prelude to something bigger. [Another reason I think is that there simply wasn’t that much to do in the past.]
We try to control things we cannot control
We can’t control the future, no matter how much we plan

The future is inherently uncertain. An obsession with planning stems from a desire to control the future. Many spiritual leaders and texts, from the Tao Te Ching to Jesus, have warned against trying to do so.

The problem isn’t with plans themselves. Planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life and for exercising our responsibilities towards others. Burkeman doesn’t advocate eschewing plans entirely and become completely spontaneous and impulsive. Rather, the problem lies in our need to know that our plans will come to fruition.

It’s fine that we can’t control the future – most of us got to where we are in our lives without controlling much of it. You can usually trace back what you value most in your life to some unplanned-for occurrences. Simply realising that we can never satisfy that need, no matter how much we plan, will relieve much of our anxiety about the future. For example, when explaining what his secret was, Jiddu Krishnamurti simply said, “I don’t mind what happens”.

We can’t control time

Rather than reducing our impatience, technologies that allow us to get things done more quickly just make us more impatient. People who claim that they don’t have time to read are usually just unwilling to accept that reading takes the time it does, and that they can’t hurry it along without losing the meaning.

Addiction to speed is a form of emotional avoidance. As the world gets faster and faster, we start to believe that our happiness depends on getting things done faster. But when we push ourselves to go faster, we get even more anxious as we realise we’ll never go fast enough. To get over this addiction, we have to hit “rock bottom” and give up on trying to make everything faster. We have to learn patience and accept that things will take the time they take.

Patience has a bad rep as it seems “passive”, like you’re resigning yourself to a lack of power. But Burkeman argues that patience is not really passive and can actually be a form of power. When confronted with a problem, our first reaction often is to move towards a solution – any solution – as long as we can tell ourselves we’ve got things under control. Yet, if we’re willing bear the discomfort of not knowing, a solution will often present itself.

We avoid confronting our finitude through procrastination and distraction
We procrastinate thinking that, eventually, we will be “on top of things”

Many of us procrastinate as a form of emotional avoidance. We don’t want to face our finitude and instead find comfort in the fantasy that, one day, we’ll be able to do everything we want. This fantasy allows us to avoid making the hard decisions about what’s really important. Wanting to “keep your options open” is another way that we try to feel in control but avoid making hard decisions.

We also procrastinate because we are scared of failure, because we know that our best effort cannot live up to some perfect ideal in our minds, or because we are afraid of commitment. Franz Kafka, for example, was incredibly indecisive as he wrestled with balancing his love for a woman (Felice Bauer) and his writing. Since Kafka refused to confront this tension, Bauer eventually left and married someone else.

We distract ourselves to avoid painful things (like making difficult trade-offs)

Distraction is not a new problem. The ancient Greeks saw distraction as being less about external interruptions and more about character – a failure to use your time on what you claim to value most. After all, attention is central to our lives. If you look back on your life, you’ll see it’s just the sum of everything you’ve paid attention to in the past.

A natural human limitation is that we can never exercise full top-down control of our attention. If it were otherwise, we’d miss out on useful external “distractions” that tell us we’re about to step onto the path of an oncoming bus, or that our baby is in distress. We always have some form of bottom-up, involuntary attention. But being able to exert some influence over your top-down attention can make your life a lot better.

The problem isn’t that we sometimes choose to prioritise social media or other short-term pleasures. The problem is that when we’re distracted, we don’t really choose at all. We’re controlled by external forces that don’t have our best interests at heart. Those external forces can feed us a distorted picture of the world, which we then apply to the rest of our lives.

Distractions aren’t what ultimately cause us to be distracted. We choose to be distracted, in order to avoid something painful (which can be physical or emotional pain). For example, when Steve (later Shinzen) Young was training to become a Buddhist monk, he had to pour freezing water over himself three times a day. At first, his instinct was to distract himself by thinking of anything else, trying not to feel the cold. But over time he learned this was exactly the wrong strategy. When he concentrated on the cold, it became a lot more bearable. This turned out to be the point of the training – to improve his ability to focus and concentrate.

We rarely “feel like” doing the things we value most. When we do focus on them, we’re forced to confront our limits, which is uncomfortable. Strategies to defeat distraction – such as digital detoxes, or rules about how often you can check your inbox – rarely work for long, as they don’t address the underlying discomfort. You’ll just find some other way to distract yourself. Instead of checking your emails, you may daydream or tidy your desk. Burkeman does not have a secret to overcoming this urge for distraction. The best he can offer is to just accept and acknowledge it, and turn more of your attention to the things you’re recoiling against.

We focus too much on the future

If we live mentally in the future, we miss out on the present. For example, Burkeman points to tourists at the British Museum who, instead of looking at the Rosetta Stone in front of them, preferred to take photographs and videos to look at later (likely never).

In some cases, it makes sense to focus intently on the future. It’s understandable that a low-paid cleaner of public toilets looks forward to the future when he expects to have a better job. But it’s less understandable for a well-paid professional, in the career they always wanted, who still treats every moment as worthwhile only in terms of bringing them closer to the “next step” (whether that be moving up the ranks, to the next project or towards retirement).

While it makes sense to keep an eye on the future, we shouldn’t always, automatically, give the future priority.

Focusing too much on the future makes us miss the present

If we treat the present solely as a path to some better future state, the present moment will never feel satisfying in itself.

A future-focused mindset often takes the form of “when-I-finally”. “When I finally get my workload under control…”, “When I finally find the right person…”, etc then I can relax and start living my real life. Burkeman himself had this mindset until he became a father. He noticed that all parenting books focused on the future, on producing the most successful kinds of children and adults. But he observed that his son would be zero years old for only one year. He didn’t want to waste the days of his son’s actual existence focusing solely on how best to use them for his future existence. If we treat childhood as merely a training ground for adulthood, it deprives it of any intrinsic value.

… life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and … you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order.
— Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks

Burkeman tells the parable of a businessman and a fisherman. The fisherman explains that he only works for a few hours each day and spends most of his time drinking wine in the sun and playing music with his friends. Appalled, the businessman tells him that, if he worked harder, he could invest the profits in a bigger fleet of boats, pay others to do the fishing, make millions, and then retire early. The fisherman then asks, “What would I do then?” “Ah, well, then,” the businessman replies, “you could spend your days drinking wine in the sun and playing music with your friends.”

[I do like this parable. But there is something to be said for drinking and playing music from a financially secure position compared to drinking and playing music when your ability to make a living might vanish at any moment if large fishing trawlers deplete your local fish stocks.]

Even our leisure time needs to be “productive”

The whole point of leisure is that you can enjoy it for its own sake. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle didn’t see leisure as a means to an end, but as the end in itself. Leisure was the point of life. Everything else worth doing was only worth doing as a means. Work was undignified – sometimes unavoidable (for some people, anyway), but certainly not the main point of life.

Today, however, we feel pressure to use our leisure time effectively. Sociologists call our inability to rest idleness aversion. We have more leisure than ever (about 5 hours per day), but life doesn’t feel very leisurely. Some of this pressure to use our leisure time well is explicit. For example, people may tell you to relax so that you can be more productive at work. Ironically, this pressure came from labour activists campaigning for eight-hour workdays and the five-day workweek, who argued that workers would use the free time to better themselves and become more productive workers.

There’s also subtler pressure to use your leisure time to work towards accomplishments or memories to enjoy in the future. In Midlife, Kieran Setiya distinguishes between atelic and telic activities. The value of atelic activities do not come from their ultimate aim, or telos. Atelic activities, like going for a walk or listening to music, aren’t things you “complete”. You’ll probably never reach a point when you’ve done all the walking you ever want. In contrast, a telic activity ‘s primary purpose is to achieve an outcome.

Setiya noticed as he approached age 40 that his life was full of telic activities, which filled him with a sense of emptiness. Since everything was in the service of the future, the present moment lost its meaning. Midlife crises are common because that’s when many of us start becoming aware of our mortality. Mortality makes us realise we can’t keep living solely for the future.

We overlook the meaningful things in life
If we don’t make trade-offs consciously, we end up prioritising the wrong things

Unless we make trade-offs consciously, we sleepwalk into such decisions and end up with worse results. We end up saying “yes” to trivial or tedious things that we wouldn’t agree to if we’d thought about the trade-offs. Often these are things other people want us to do, to make their lives easier.

For example, Burkeman neglected two things very important to him (responding to an old friend’s long message and working on a major article) because he kept putting them off until he could “clear the decks” and give them his full attention. But he never managed to clear the decks, as his days kept filling up with less important small tasks. [Barbara Oakley and Seth Godin’s advice to focus on process over product may have helped Burkeman with his procrastination problem.]

Convenience can end up taking away the meaningful parts of life

Many products and services promise to make things more convenient so you can get more done. However, we often don’t realise how much we value those inconvenient parts of life until they’re gone.

It’s often the unsmoothed textures of life that make it liveable, helping nurture the relationships that are crucial for mental or physical health, and for the resilience of our communities.
— Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks

For example, some services let you design and mail a birthday remotely, without you ever seeing or touching the physical item. This is certainly more convenient for the sender, but everyone knows it’s a poor substitute for a traditional, handwritten birthday card. It’s not just the thought that counts, but the effort – and inconvenience.

People who aim for “individual time sovereignty” (like digital nomads) miss out on the joys of sharing time

A common mistake is to treat time as something individual. A lot of productivity books focus on mastering your own time – setting your own schedule, making your own choices, and being free from other people intruding onto your precious time. But digital nomads often admit that the main problem with their lifestyle is loneliness. Their lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms needed to form deep relationships.

You need to share time with others, which may mean you have to cede some power and control over your time. Time is a network good, as opposed to a common good. Network goods derive their value from how many other people have access to it, and how coordinated their good is with yours. There are lots of meaningful activities that you can’t do alone – socialising, going on dates, launching businesses, etc. Your time must be synchronised with others’. (Burkeman does note that we do have to set firm boundaries so that others don’t have too much influence over how we spend our time.)

We have a strong urge towards synchronicity. If you walk down the street with someone, you’ll find your paces will naturally start to match. Roman generals found that soldiers marching in synchrony could march for much longer before succumbing to fatigue. Some evolutionary biologists even think that we invented music to coordinate large groups of tribal warriors. Once people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves, they’ll be more willing to sacrifice their own lives.

In 2013, Terry Hartig found, based on antidepressant prescription rates, that Swedes are happier when they take time off work. The surprising part of the finding was that happiness was higher when a greater proportion of Swedes were off work at the same time. This increased happiness held true even for retired people. Other research has similarly found that people in long-term unemployment get a happiness boost when the weekend arrives. Burkeman argues this is because it’s easier to spend time with friends and family when they’re off work as well (he also notes the weekend may give the unemployed respite from the feeling that they should be working). When everyone is off work, you can truly disconnect without thinking about all the emails and tasks that still need doing.

We should embrace our finitude

Finitude is the idea that our lives are finite, which means it’s impossible for us to do everything. Martin Heidegger was obsessed with the idea of finitude and discussed this in his book, Being and Time.

Finitude isn’t a bad thing

It’s the fact that life is limited that gives it meaning. After a terminal diagnosis or a near-death experience, people often develop a new outlook on life and start prioritising the things that really matter. We should try to get a bit of that outlook. If life were eternal, why would we ever bother to do anything today? Similarly, it’s the fact that getting married limits your future romantic partners that makes marriage meaningful at all.

The idea of “settling”, whether in love or in work, has a bad rap. Settling is inevitable. Since time is finite, refusing to settle is also a form of “settling” – you’ve just settled for spending more of your limited time looking for “the one”. Often our expectations are too high, expecting our partner to be perfect when in reality they are human and flawed. When we finally do make a commitment, we’re usually happier for having done so. [There’s a lot in here that echoes Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, though Burkeman does not refer to that book. In my view, Schwartz explains this a lot better and I would recommend reading that if you’re interested in this point.]

Being upset about finitude is actually quite entitled. Instead of comparing four thousand weeks to infinity, we could compare them to nothing, and marvel at the fact that we have any time at all. Instead of being annoyed at minor time-wasting annoyances (e.g. traffic jams), we could be grateful that we even exist to experience such things. And instead of being upset that we have to make hard trade-offs, we could relish the fact that we get to make them.

… 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. And it stops making sense to pity yourself for having been cheated of all the other options.
— Oliver Burkeman in Four Thousand Weeks
Accepting our finitude frees us from unrealistic expectations

We can stop beating ourselves up for failing to do everything, once we realise it’s impossible.

We can also stop feeling the fear of missing out (FOMO), since we’ll inevitably miss out on something, and feel the joy of missing out instead. This will help us make better decisions and commitments that make life meaningful in the first place.

Accepting our finitude allows us to make better trade-offs

Heidegger believed that, since we are defined by finitude, living a truly authentic life requires us to face that fact. If we live in denial and wait until the “decks are cleared” to do important things, we’ll never do them. We must tolerate the discomfort of knowing that the decks won’t be cleared and still do them anyway.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter anyway

Talking about “what matters most” in life can give rise to a paralysing feeling of grandiosity. The ultimate fantasy of time mastery is the desire to have lived a life that “truly mattered”.

But thinking only revolutionary, world-changing causes are worth living for sets the bar too high. The truth is, what you do with your life doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. Human civilisation is only about 6,000 years old, which is a mere blink in the universe’s timescale.

We find our cosmic insignificance comforting because we usually go around thinking of ourselves, and our lives, as fairly important. Those who find our cosmic insignificance discomforting have usually adopted a standard of meaningfulness to which nobody could ever measure up. As philosopher Ippo Landau points out, we don’t disapprove of a chair because it cannot be used to boil water.

Letting go of these unrealistic standards and ideas frees you to consider a wide variety of things that might be meaningful ways to use your finite time (including things you may already be doing). Until now, you may have been subconsciously devaluing such things because they weren’t “significant” enough.

How to embrace our finitude

We should live our lives as they unfold in time – simply being time, instead of using or controlling time. And instead of always trying to get more done, we should focus on getting the right things done.

Spend more time on hobbies

We should incorporate more atelic activities (also known as “hobbies”) into our lives. Hobbies are things worth doing for themselves alone, offering no benefits by way of increased productivity or profit – so not a “side hustle”. A good hobby should probably feel a little embarrassing, which is a sign you’re doing it because you enjoy it.

Don’t try too hard to be in the present

You can’t be truly “present” if you try too hard and are self-conscious about it. It’s like trying too hard to fall asleep. Several years ago, Burkeman visited a small town in Canada’s far north. He was determined to see the northern lights and relish the experience. But the more he tried to do so, the more he failed. Embarrassingly, he found himself thinking, “Oh … they look like one of those screen savers.”

You don’t have to try to live in the moment. You always are living in the moment, whether we like it or not. It’s not something you can succeed or fail at. Simply being aware of that fact can take the pressure off. You have no other option to be here now.

Share time with others

At an individual level, we can make small choices that push towards more synchronous time. We can make commitments that require us to give up some control over our own time in exchange for the benefits of being part of a community.

Three tips to prioritise better

Burkeman suggests three key principles to ensure you prioritise things you find valuable:

  1. Pay yourself first;
  2. Limit your work in progress (to 3); and
  3. Resist the allure of middling priorities.
Pay yourself first

This principle comes from personal finance. When an individual opportunity arises, it’s easy to view it as being more important than it actually is and overspend (both money and time). By paying yourself first, you ensure you allocate sufficient time to your most valuable activities and then fit everything else around it, rather than the other way around.

Paying yourself first can mean working on the most important project in the first hour of each day, or scheduling meetings with yourself so that others won’t book meetings over those times.

Limit your work in progress

When you have a lot of projects on the go, you spread yourself too thin and end up making little or no progress on any of them. Each time a project feels difficult or boring, it becomes tempting to switch to another one. The book Personal Kanban, by Jim Benson and Tonianne DeMaria Barry, suggests having 3 or fewer projects open at a time. Any incoming demands must wait until you complete (or abandon) one of the open projects, freeing up a slot.

Burkeman says that this relatively modest change produced a “startlingly large effect” for him. A positive side-effect of this was that he began breaking down his projects in more manageable chunks, otherwise enormous projects like “write a book” or “move house” would clog up his system for months.

Resist the allure of middling priorities

There’s a story about how a young pilot asks Warren Buffett for advice on how to set his priorities (Burkeman thinks the story is likely false, but anyway). Buffett apparently instructs him to make a list of the top 25 things he wants out of life, in order from most important to least. Then Buffett tells him to organise his life around the top 5 priorities. But instead of telling the pilot to focus on the remaining 20 when he gets the chance, Buffett allegedly tells him to avoid those at all costs. Those priorities are the goals that are not important enough to base his life on, yet seductive enough to distract him from his top 5.

A common piece of advice in self-help literature is to get better at saying “no”. But it’s all too easy to apply that advice to things we don’t want to do. We need to get better at saying “no” to the things we do want to do – but not enough to make the top 5 of our lives.

Three principles of patience

Burkeman suggests three principles of patience:

  1. Develop a taste for having problems. We’re always going to have problems. And we want problems because a problem-free life would be meaningless. [Mark Manson has similarly pointed out how happiness comes from solving problems.]
  2. Embrace radical incrementalism. Robert Boice has found that academics who wrote less each day – between 10 minutes and 4 hours – end up producing more over the long term. Contrary to mainstream advice, you should stop every day when your daily time is up, even if you feel like you have lots of energy to get more done. The urge to keep going is driven by impatience at the fact that you’re not finished yet. Stopping helps to exercise your patience and sustain your creativity over a longer term.
  3. Originality lies on the far side of unoriginality. In the early stages of creativity, your work won’t be very original. Once you’ve patiently gotten through the initial stages of copying others and learning new skills, the distinctive work begins. This principle doesn’t just apply to creative work. Many meaningful things – like being part of a long-married couple or being deeply rooted in a particular community – take time and can’t be hurried.
Five questions to ask yourself

In the final chapter of Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman suggests five questions to ask yourself, to make his ideas more concrete.

Ten tools for embracing your finitude

In the Appendix to Four Thousand Weeks, Burkeman sets out 10 practical tools that will help you embrace your finitude.

Other Interesting Points

  • The word “decide” comes from the original Latin decidere, which means “to cut off” (it’s related to words like ‘homicide’ and ‘suicide’).
  • Hofstadter’s law is like the planning fallacy, where we consistently underestimate the amount of time it requires to do something. Hofstadter’s law goes further and says that the task will take longer than you expect even when you take into account Hofstadter’s law, so advice like “give yourself twice as long as you think” may actually make things worse. [This hasn’t been my experience. I’m aware of the planning fallacy and always build in generous buffers when people ask me to estimate how long I will take. I usually come in well under my estimate (partly because I get stressed when I cut it too close). Under-promising and over-delivering works very well.]
  • Parenting books are sharply divided into two camps: Baby Trainers and Natural Parents.
    • Baby Trainers urge parents to get their babies onto a strict schedule as soon as possible. This would give them security and help integrate them into the natural rhythms of the household.
    • Natural Parents eschew the idea of such a schedule. They advocate emulating the practices of indigenous tribes and/or prehistoric humans, believing that modern life had “corrupted” parenthood.
    • Burkeman says there’s virtually no credible scientific evidence for either of these camps.
  • The Latin word for business, negotium, literally means “not leisure”.
  • Danielle Steel apparently wrote almost 7 books per year, totalling 179 books by the age of 72, by writing almost all the time. She had 20-hour days (sleeping less than 4 hours each day), several 24-hour writing periods per month, and only one week’s holiday each year. [WHY??!]
  • Max Weber traces the “Protestant work ethic” back to Calvinist Christians, who believed every human was predestined to spend eternity either in heaven or hell. It wasn’t so much that hard work would increase your chances of getting into heaven. Rather, Calvinists felt that hard work was one of the best ways to “prove” (to others and to themselves) that they were already predestined to go to heaven.
  • The idea of the Sabbath as a day of rest was radical because it applied to everyone, including slaves. In fact, the Torah points out twice that slaves must be allowed to rest.
  • Jennifer Roberts, art history professor at Harvard, always makes her students look at a painting or sculpture for three hours straight for their first assignment. She picked three hours because that’s a painfully long time, which helps them slow down to the speed that art demands. When she tried this herself, she noticed more details the longer she stared at it. [I wonder how many of her students actually do the assignment properly.]

My Thoughts

Four Thousand Weeks is a short and easy read with some interesting and useful ideas. Burkeman is a compelling writer who can turn a phrase pretty well.

Personally, I didn’t find the book to be a gamechanger as I had already understood a lot of the ideas in it. For example, I have already internalised the idea that our time is limited and that we have to make difficult trade-offs about what we truly value in life. I’ve always been quite good at saying “no” to things – to which I credit my inherent laziness. And Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice, which was a gamechanger when I first read it, had already alerted me to how unhealthy my maximising tendencies could be. (Come to think of it, confirmation bias was probably what drew me to the book in the first place! I’m not saying I’m proud of it.)

However, I can easily imagine the book being a gamechanger for others, including a younger version of myself. Besides, it’s always good to be reminded of the points made in the book and some of the practical tips seem helpful. Burkeman has certainly prompted me to think about these – and related – ideas further, which is valuable in itself. (I’ve organised some of those ideas in this post, Living in the future vs the present.)

My main criticism of Four Thousand Weeks is that the analysis was on the shallow side. An example of this is the cherry-picked Mexico vs United States statistic above. I would recommend reading this book more as a prompt to think more about your life and priorities, rather than to apply any of its advice at face value.

In particular, where the balance between present and future should be struck will vary for each person. Generic advice such as “prioritise the present more” or “prioritise the future more” will inevitably be pretty useless (to be fair to Burkeman, he only says we shouldn’t live solely for the future and acknowledges that there are merits to planning). Instead excessively prioritising the future, I think most people are myopic and over-weight the present. Burkeman, however, is writing for a very specific audience – the type of person who, like the pre-father version of himself, plans excessively for the future and spends a lot of time trying to optimise their lives – rather than for the average person.

Another criticism of the book is that it was a bit repetitive and the structure was weak. I reordered it quite a bit in my summary above. However, overall it was short enough that its poor structure could be overlooked.

Buy Four Thousand Weeks at: Amazon | Kobo <– These are affiliate links, which means I may earn a small commission if you make a purchase. I’d be grateful if you considered supporting the site in this way! 🙂

What did you think of my summary of Four Thousand Weeks? Did the ideas in the book resonate with you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

If you enjoyed this summary of Four Thousand Weeks, you may also like:

6 thoughts on “Book Summary: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

  1. This book seems to have quite a few thematic similarities with a book I just finished reading, “Flow: The Psychology of Experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I had to copy-paste his name). The importance of ascribing a central meaning to life, engaging in atelic activities (Mihaly used the term autotelic instead), mindfulness in how one spends attention, etc. are all presented in relation to carrying out an enjoyable life. From my understanding, Mihaly was an accredited researcher and expert in psychology, so perhaps there are some noteworthy differences in how Mihaly presents his arguments compared to how Burkeman does so in this book.

    1. Yeah, I actually read “Flow” earlier this year as well, but never got around to writing a summary for it (I borrowed the book and had to return it). There definitely are some similarities. I think Mihaly’s writing was more scientific/credible whereas Burkeman’s relies more on anecdotes and is more philosophical than scientific.

      I’ve also noticed similarities with other books I’ve read (“The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck” and “The Courage to Be Disliked” are two that come to mind). Some great ideas are worth reading more than once as different authors can present them from a different perspective 🙂

  2. Great summary. I’m getting this book at Christmas and am looking forward to reading it.

    The whole life advice from Warren Buffett thing is interesting (he may or may not have given advice to the pilot). I think he’s very intelligent and thoughtful, but if you read a biography of him, what becomes apparent is that he totally sacrificed family life and focussed solely on investing, so much so that he alienated his children (although he seems to be on reasonable terms with them) and his wife couldn’t take it anymore and left him.

    I think people think emulating him would be a good way to live because he gives off a wisdom vibe, but actually living like him would create a very one-dimensional life.

    1. Is that “The Snowball” biography by any chance? I started it years ago but never got very far in (it was very long).

      Yeah, it definitely depends on what your values and priorities are, and from what you say it sounds like Buffett just didn’t prioritise family. Keen to hear your thoughts on “Four Thousand Weeks” after you read it.

      1. Yes, it’s covered in The Snowball quite well. (One of his sons was quite artistic and ended up being a composer and composed (some of) the film score for Dances With Wolves, interestingly enough! :))

  3. What an amazing book. I’m glad people are covering it to such an extent. Anyone remotely interested in checking it out should. This book can change your life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.