Packing the days with activities to make the most out of life is actually adding to our stress and frustration. Instead, argues a new book on time management, we need to embrace our mortality and focus on the few things that really matter. By Andrew Anthony.
If you were told you should expect to live to about 80, it would sound like a banal observation because that figure is roughly the average allotment for someone living in the developed world. If it was 28,000 days or 670,000 hours, the numbers would be too large to conceptualise in a meaningful way. But 4000 weeks – that is a novel, graspable and arrestingly short period of time. Which is why it’s the title of Oliver Burkeman’s new book, Four Thousand Weeks: time and how to use it.
On my review copy there is a question below the title that asks, “How will you choose to spend yours?” Put like that, it might seem a daunting challenge, as though we’re being asked to cram as many unforgettable experiences and transcendent moments as possible into our all-too-brief stay on the planet. But Burkeman, who has become something of an expert on temporal fulfilment, is not at all in favour of that kind of frenzied approach to living.
As he writes, “The retiree ticking exotic destinations off a bucket list and the hedonist stuffing her weekends full of fun are arguably just as overwhelmed as the exhausted social worker or corporate lawyer.” All of these archetypes demonstrate what he calls the paradox of limitation: the more you try to manage your time and the more you seek to achieve total control, “the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets”.
Strangely, given that so many of us live in unprecedented material comfort, people do appear to feel increasingly stressed, empty and frustrated, which may well account for the escalating mental-health crisis afflicting the developed world. Burkeman is aware of the problem, but although he offers suggestions on how to deal with the tensions and conflicts of modernity, he’s not one for telling people how they should live their lives.
“I quite deliberately didn’t want to write a book that had a sort of laundry-list aspect to it,” he says on a Zoom call from New York, where the Brit has lived for some years. “I’m not sure I feel qualified to tell anyone else what the substance of a meaningful life for them is.”
It seems a strange admission for someone whose work falls, however loosely, into the self-help category. But Burkeman is the anti-guru of self-improvement. Where others assume a stance of beatific omniscience, the 46-year-old journalist, author and public speaker comes at the big questions of life and how to lead it with a very British diffidence. In any case, he says, regardless of what lifestyle decisions we make, we all have to deal with the same fundamental time constraints.
In Four Thousand Weeks, he approaches the issue of time management from both a philosophical and practical standpoint. In the first instance, he looks to Martin Heidegger, the author of the impenetrably difficult but hugely influential tome Being and Time.
One of Heidegger’s great insights was that we are synonymous with time, because time is inescapable. Yet we nonetheless spend so much of our time trying to escape time, in feverish denial of its – and our own – limits. Heidegger argued that we ought to confront our mortality and live existentially in what he called “being-towards-death”.
As Burkeman notes, few of us find that proposition any more attractive than the awkward phrase itself. So we often try to act as if all options remain open, thereby negating the decisions that remind us we have only one life, and it is not very long.
“Life,” he writes, “is usually more comfortable when you spend it avoiding the truth in this fashion. But it’s a stultifying, deadly sort of comfort. It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.”
The paradox of Burkeman’s own argument is that in asking us to focus on life’s impermanence, he seeks to liberate us from the tyranny of the ticking clock. He presents us with the period of 4000 weeks not as a deadline but as a lifeline, a means of reconnecting ourselves with a deeper understanding of the passage of time and how we exist within it.
The impulse to be busy
Of course, one reason people pack their lives with activities and plans is to distract themselves from the unavoidable fact that they are going to die. Isn’t a book that emphasises the brevity of life likely to raise anxiety, not quell it?
Burkeman doesn’t rush to answer. He rolls the question around in his mind, as if trying to find the honest rather than easy answer.
“If a book like this was to help someone on a day-to-day level,” he says eventually, “and it’s very much an attempt to bring these ideas down to the question of what should I do with my Monday morning, it wouldn’t be to make all the feelings of anxiety vanish, but to contextualise them differently and to make them bearable in a new way.”
One of the epigraphs for his book is a quote from US Zen teacher Charlotte Joko Beck: “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” Feeling uncomfortable about the prospect of ceasing to exist is entirely natural, Burkeman says, but the point is to embrace that discomfort or at least not try to push it away.
“There’s a New Yorker cartoon along the lines of a therapist saying to a client: ‘Happy? Certainly not. But I can make your suffering more interesting.’ It’s a joke, but there is something profound about the possibility that you could be engaged in a different way with your life.”
In search of that difference, Burkeman discourages busyness – not the busyness of satisfying hard work, but the kind that never delivers satisfaction.
The way he writes about this problem, which he acknowledges is not one that afflicts everyone, seems to suggest personal knowledge of the impulse to be busy. “Yeah,” he acknowledges, “but isn’t that what everyone’s doing with writing? Talking about and focusing on things that are fraught for you.”
Perhaps, but again the slicker end of the self-help genre tends to conceal the fraught, the better to monetise their sagacity. Burkeman writes less from a position of wisdom achieved than struggles acknowledged.
“Eventually,” he says, “I realised that the 135th new way of organising my schedule or my morning routine was not going to be the one that finally serves the emotional purpose that is being sought. And that maybe I needed to question the premise of it all. So there’s definitely something midlife crisis-y about this book.”
Burkeman started writing about personal fulfilment in 2006, when an editor at the Guardian noticed him reading books on the subject “for reasons of my own hang-ups and issues”. She asked him to write a column, which was provocatively titled, “This column will change your life”. He had just entered his thirties at the time and announced in his first column that he would keep writing it until he found the secret of human happiness.
“Typically for me, back then, this was a case of facetiousness disguising earnestness,” he observed in his closing column 14 years later. “Obviously, I never expected to find the secret, but on some level I must have known there were questions I needed to confront – about anxiety, commitment-phobia in relationships, control-freakery and building a meaningful life. Writing a column provided the perfect cover for such otherwise embarrassing fare.”
As he tackled these knotty questions, the early tone of what he calls “fake humility” gradually began to fade. He overcame his commitment phobia and now has a partner and a young son. He is slightly embarrassed by his earlier and rather British instinct to poke fun at self-reflection. Nowadays, he’s much less self-conscious about admitting that he values self-exploration, even as he resists offering himself as any kind of model to emulate.
“The interesting question,” he says, is: “What is it that I do have to contribute, given that it isn’t, ‘I live a perfect life and you can copy it if you want’?”
He answers himself with the modest self-assessment that he is able to synthesise complicated ideas into accessible ones, which is true. In fact, Burkeman is a natural communicator, someone with a keen awareness of human foibles and frailties and the wit and erudition to turn that into a series of highly readable and thought-inducing insights.
In a typically counter-intuitive section on convenience, he argues that the more labour-saving devices we employ to save time, the more we squander time. Because in eliminating tedious experiences, we also lose those things whose value we didn’t recognise until they were gone.
He gives several telling examples of this phenomenon, but one that he doesn’t mention is something I often witness with people who have grown up with smartphone technology. Many millennials have all but lost locational knowledge of the world around them. Their phones’ satnavs guide them to wherever they need to go, but where these places are in relation to where they’ve come from or, indeed, anywhere else, is often a total mystery. Increasingly, people are living in a state of physical abstraction, in which a sense of direction is as surplus to their requirements as the ability to track animals in the wild.
Living the questions
Apart from anything else, Four Thousand Weeks is an argument in favour of effort and discomfort and against the misleading ease that technology promises. “Resisting all this as an individual, or as a family, takes fortitude,” Burkeman writes, “because the smoother life gets, the more perverse you’ll seem if you insist on maintaining the rough edges by choosing the inconvenient way of doing things.”
That’s the rub. We may lament the ubiquity of cars and the manner in which people are distracted by their phones, but few of us would be prepared to abandon either, because to do so would be to thrust ourselves back in time, a journey that, if pursued with enough conviction, could lead eventually to living off the grid in a cabin, composing angry hand-written letters to the “powers that be”.
Burkeman is not advocating that route. Although his suggestions are rich with literary allusions and psychological references, they are in essence an exhortation to focus on a small number of things that really matter – whatever they might be to each individual. Forget about Fomo (fear of missing out), he seems to say, and concentrate on the centring satisfaction of what you’re actually doing.
“Once you truly understand that you’re guaranteed to miss out on almost every experience the world has to offer,” he writes, “the fact that there are so many you still haven’t experienced stops feeling like a problem.”
As may be evident from that quote, Burkeman is not a man to make grand claims, but very much a connoisseur of small consolations. Similarly, he’s more at home offering up chin-stroking questions than easy answers. For example, he asks readers, “In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?”
That’s the kind of question that could take a lifetime of therapy to answer. Characteristically, he advises us not to worry too much if we don’t have a ready response because the point, he says, quoting the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, is to “live the questions”.
Plug in, tune out
At the end of the book, in an appendix, safely detached from the main body of the text, Burkeman goes against his natural reticence and actually provides some specific advice, or what he calls “Ten Tools for Embracing Finitude”. These include: “Embrace boring and single-purpose technology”, “Seek out novelty in the mundane” and”Practise doing nothing”.
To bolster the last suggestion, he employs French philosopher Blaise Pascal’s famous observation: “I have discovered that all the unhappiness of men arises from one single fact, that they cannot stay quietly in their own chamber.” I ask him how much he practises doing nothing himself – after all, books don’t write themselves. “I have been trying,” he replies, “as a sort of formal practice of non-directive meditation, to do that in the past year or so. And it’s really hard. I don’t claim to be good at it. But I think you can really feel the impact. I think days go better if you can spend 10 minutes doing that.” He pauses, and then quickly adds, “Above all, I don’t want to become an ‘everyone should do meditation’ person.”
He even finds it hard to recommend his own 10 key tools without adding that he’s not saying that they’re for everyone. I tease him a little about this habit and he adds something more emphatically.
“I have one thing I feel I have figured out,” he says, sounding almost apologetic for mentioning it. “There are times when there is a certain kind of activity where the instinct is to essentially distract yourself, or to do something to take yourself away from it. And I always enjoy it more when I can remember not to do that.”
Running while listening to music or podcasts is one example he gives from his own life. They are a kind of distraction from the graft of making your body run when there is no pressing need to. “It makes it more unpleasant,” he says. He’s dog sitting at the moment, which obliges him to go out for 90-minute walks each day that he otherwise would not do. “It’s very tempting to just plug in and take my mind off it,” he admits, “but the act of trying to take your mind off it introduces a conflict that doesn’t need to be there. I suppose it’s not doing nothing, because it’s walking a dog, but it definitely ends up being a more absorbing experience.”
With that he remembers that a Sonoma County, Northern California, radio station is counting on him to fill three minutes of its time with his wit and wisdom. But before he goes, he reiterates that he doesn’t aim to calm anxieties with his writing so much as to empower the anxious.
“This is really about freeing yourself up to do some meaningful and enjoyable things with your time and, hopefully, to be less of a jerk to other people in the process.”
A few minutes later, he sends me an email, saying that he couldn’t get through to the radio station on the call-in line he was told to use. Perhaps it was modern technology’s way of reminding him that, in spite of his own advice, he was trying to do too much. l
FOUR THOUSAND WEEKS: TIME AND HOW TO USE IT, by Oliver Burkeman (Bodley Head, $38).
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