Oliver Burkeman. Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 288 pp, $27.00.
St. Augustine taught that the fundamental condition of human beings is ignorance and difficulty. This truth can seem outdated in the age of the internet and the supermarket, an age of unprecedented knowledge and convenience. Yet, for all our progress, the uncertainty of the future and our shortcomings in the present continue to frustrate us.
Our dissatisfaction is revealed by our appetite for self-help books. Titles like Smarter, Faster, Better and The Four-Hour Workweek hint at the life we want. We want to “optimize” ourselves out of feelings of lethargy, incompetence, and not Getting Things Done. We’re tired of limits. These books neatly arouse anxieties about the torrent of information that comes through our newsfeeds and our Sisyphean to-do lists, and they imply that all these problems are one book-purchase away from resolution. We Christians are quick to forget Augustine’s insight about human nature, and instead we look to productivity experts to soothe our fears.
At first glance, Oliver Burkeman’s new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals may seem like just another self-help book. It has blurbs from titans in the self-help genre ─ like Cal Newport, author of Deep Work ─ and the title is easy enough to read as “Time Management for Dummies,” with an implied appeal: Have past systems left you still confused and overwhelmed? Try my system that can help even a mortal like you! However, Burkeman is less interested with “time management” ─ with a flashy new system that will bring all your tasks and fears to heel ─ and more concerned with “mortal,” with the quaint idea that we’re weak, ignorant, and face constant difficulties. The end of this condition is not just around the bend once you implement your new to-do list tracker or finally “clear the decks.” Mortality isn’t outgrown.
Burkeman is refreshingly honest in his approach. The self-help genre is filled with gurus who set themselves as examples. Cal Newport cites his own paper and book output as proof of his workflow superiority. David Allen in Getting Things Done appears to both Get Things Done and thus have the “mind like water” that sounds so alluring to readers. Burkeman, however, is more philosopher than salesman. He is not a guide who’s arrived at perfect work satisfaction and organization and now offers the map to the rest of us. He’s more a fellow traveler with experience and hard-earned wisdom but no simple answers.
As such, he does not limit the embarrassing personal anecdotes to the first few pages as a contrast to life with his new Time Management System. He admits to a “squalid” history of Twitter addiction, recalling one evening chopping carrots for dinner only to find himself “mentally prosecuting a devastating argument against some idiotic holder of Wrong Opinion I’d had the misfortune to encounter online earlier that day.” When he finally saw the Northern Lights on a trip to Canada, his first thought was, “Oh, they look like one of those screen savers.” Besides being entertaining, these stories puncture the illusion of perfectible humans that the self-help genre peddles.
Four Thousand Weeks hinges on admitting and facing our limits and mortality. There’s a famous parable by Steven Covey about filling a jar with rocks and sand. Only if you put the largest stones in first will the sand fit in the remaining cracks. The obvious moral is to complete your most important goals or tasks first and then let the rest of your work slot in around it. Here again, Burkeman’s frankness is appreciated: “The real problem of time management today 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.”
As we complete tasks, we constantly find new tasks to fill them. (Or the very completion creates more work. Replying to an email means you’ll get a reply in return. Replying frequently means you develop a reputation for replying which means more overall email, etc. etc.) All the while, whether through social media or clever marketing, we’re reminded of all the things we feel we should be doing. Our list of shows to watch, books to read, and places to visit outpaces us. Or, we may not even make progress on those lists because we’re working on our “side hustle.” We feel that we must maximize every moment of our day. As Burkeman notes, many of us wake up feeling like we have a “productivity debt,” and if we toil for an entire day, we may make it to zero by bedtime.
But, as we’re reminded throughout the book, time isn’t something that you can step outside of and then “use” well or poorly. We only ever have a present moment of a finite life. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, “Time is a river that sweeps me along, but I am the river.” To bring the point home, Burkeman adds, “There’s no scrambling up to the safety of the riverbank when the river is you.” Trying to step outside of time to judge it, maximize it, and plot the perfect course is stepping into God’s role. Our illusions of control are shattered when there’s a financial crisis, a natural disaster, or a sudden illness. Our weakness is revealed in more mundane ways too: we don’t go to the gym, clean the house, and empty our inbox as we intended to. We find when we finally sit down to learn piano that we’re not naturals. Our tendency in these moments is not to admit that we may have overestimated or overcommitted ourselves. Instead, we blame our planning, our system, or our willpower, and we think we’ll fix these things soon. We never feel “on top of things” yet we fervently believe that we will be once we adopt a few tweaks or “life hacks.”
We scapegoat technology for distracting us, but in truth, we seek distraction to avoid a demanding task or hard conversation. Challenges bring us up against our limits. If we actually attempt to write the novel we’ve dreamed of, we’ll have to face its mediocrity compared with its unattainable, imagined perfection. If we enter a conversation truly willing to be changed, we’ll have to give up the control that comes from being certain of the rightness of our position. We may even have to admit that we were wrong or not fully informed. To avoid facing this reality ─ that we aren’t omnipotent or omniscient ─ we turn to our devices that offer endless tasks, entertainment, or echo chambers. We blame addictive design principles, but Burkeman argues that we often seek distractions to “dull the pain of finitude.” These quick checks often make us feel worse ─ we read upsetting news or feel guilty for putting off an important project ─ but we don’t really need to feel better, just unconstrained. An overwhelming life can seem preferable to a limited one. “Overwhelmed” sounds important, temporary, and fixable. “Limited” connotes weakness, ignorance, and permanence.
Acknowledging human limitation isn’t pleasant, but it frees us from viewing our weakness or time’s brevity as problems we’ll soon transcend. Only in the fantasy of our future are we perfectly organized, loving, and accomplished while sacrificing nothing. Reality requires trade-offs. These sacrifices can be painful and disappointing, but internalizing our limits actually enriches our life. Burkeman uses the phrase “joy of missing out,” an intentional contrast to “fear of missing out,” to capture this idea. Making “a positive commitment to spend a given portion of time doing this instead of that” among theoretically infinite options “bestows meaning” on the choice. Working to master a craft or build a marriage is significant precisely because there isn’t time to learn everything or build infinite meaningful relationships. As my priest once said to me, “In marriage, you say ‘No’ to everyone else so that you can give a ‘Yes’ that truly matters.”
For us Christians, facing our finitude should be familiar. Unlike many today, we believe there’s life after death and that humans are corrupted by sin. We of all people should not be surprised by time’s brevity and our weakness nor worried that we won’t cram everything in before we die. The painful part of reading Burkeman’s critique of our modern ideology is the nagging sense that I should know better. For years, I’ve affirmed, “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come,” confessed my sins, and prayed, “Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord.” Then, I promptly fall back into myopic focus on my time, my plans, and my productivity. It’s uncomfortable when a Bible verse that’s familiar suddenly convicts: “For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” I glimpse my limitation, the unimportance of my to-do list, the futility of my attempts at control, and then “immediately forget,” seduced by the latest self-help fad.
In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis pushes Burkeman’s critique even further, noting how we usually don’t question thoughts like, “My time is my own,” and assume that each day we begin “as the lawful possessor of 24 hours” which is grievously taxed by employers, generously donated to religious duties, and then unfairly stolen by neighbors, family, and all sorts of accidents. Beyond believing the present day is our own, Burkeman points out that we often treat our plans “as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command.” When our plans are disrupted, we feel we’ve been wronged somehow, that something was taken from us. However, as Lewis writes, Christians acknowledge that “‘Mine’ in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything.” In our modern, industrial, competitive, individualistic society, these ideas of human limitation and lack of control aren’t popular or trendy. They’re about as appealing as “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” and they’re just as true.
While the Christian view of time, the afterlife, and human frailty is more clearly defined than Burkeman’s, his book nonetheless served as a spur to at least this Christian to remember who controls my future. The term for a human aiming for complete control of life without any fear or uncertainty was once not “productive” but “Pelagian.”