4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

Every weekday, I drive my kids to their pre-school/daycare. And almost every day, I see cars and parents rushing their kids to the door of the school, checking their Apple Watches because they have a meeting at 8:30, and trying to rush their kids to wash their hands, stand on the mat and sanitize their shoes, wait for their temperature to be taken, etc. And every time I see someone like that, I always think to myself—like I’m having a conversation with them— “What’s the rush? We’re all going to the same place.”

In the introduction to this book by Oliver Burkeman writes that “productivity is a trap,” In many ways, this is an anti-productivity book. It’s not filled with tips and tricks to squeeze more time out of your day to do the things that matter. First it starts with the simple fact that you should do the things that matter most to you first and then come with the understanding that you’ll never finish all of the items. That getting things done is actually impossible.

“ 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 a.m.’ The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do list have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life…let’s start by admitting to defeat: none of this is ever going to happen.”

While you might think that this is the most obvious thing you’ve ever heard, there are many lessons to learn here. I think that’s what we’re seeing with this great resignation, not Sarah Jaffe’s cringingly prominent book Work Won’t Love You Back. Of course, it doesn’t, work couldn’t care less about you, or me. And I think the Great Resignation is that a lot of Americans are realizing this and saying, fuck this. My time is worth more than being “productive.” There, I summarized that book and this whole moment in time to three sentences. Now go do whatever you want.

What captured this perfectly for me was when Burkeman often talks about his four-year-old son. That the kid is pure presence. On page 131, I had a series of Yes notations.

They are linked to watching his son’s fist close around his finger, his head turn in response to a noise, without obsessing over whether this “showed he was meeting his ‘developmental milestones’ or not, or what I ought to be doing to ensure that he did.”

Worse, Burkeman realizes that his obsession with using time well meant using his child as a tool for calming his anxiety by treating him like an employee with some future sense of security and peace of mind. To treat the child as if all childhood is nothing but a training ground for adulthood. He also points out that the baby trainers are wrong that the baby should not fall asleep on your chest, but it’s a beautiful experience in the present moment and that has to be weighed appropriately. The future cannot always take precedence…. Russian Philosopher Alexander Herzen writes that, “because children grow up, we think a child’s purpose is to grow up, but a child’s purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn’t disdain what only lives for a day. It pours the whole of itself into each moment…Life’s bounty is its flow. Later is too late.” Like a pool, river, or lake. Like Dory said, just keep swimming.

Basically, the entire book is an extensive exercise in Stoicism’s memento mori idea, specifically Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. But probably the most meaningful exercise from this book is actually doing the calculation of how many days you have in life. With four thousand weeks to your 80th birthday I figured out exactly how many days I have left until my 80th birthday, should I be lucky enough to live that long. I have 1,988 weeks until my 80th birthday or 13,917 days. Whatever happens in those days is something I have some control over, but mostly I don’t. Time doesn’t care, the universe doesn’t care, and neither does my work. This culminates in Chapter 13 on Cosmic Insignificance Theory:

“When things all seem too much, what better solace than the reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: /The Universe doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You/. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”

So, like last week, when my two-year-old daughter had a sinus infection, I was on my way to drive her to school and drop her off because she could go to school. She says to me in the back seat, “Daddy, I don’t want to go to school.” Then, as if the universe heard her, I had a meeting canceled and I thought: yeah, why not? I canceled the rest of my commitments. Pushed a few items on my to-do list forward a day or a week (this post was one of them) and said, “Okay.” Then we went to a playground. We played in the leaves in the backyard, I gave her medication. We got a steamer at a local coffee shop and a donut. We took a nap and we watched some Bluey together on the couch. This might not have happened if this pandemic had not happened, and I didn’t read this book.

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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