Four Thousand Weeks

date Oct 22, 2022
authors Oliver Burkeman
reading time 20 mins

Table of Contents

The irony

we’ve been granted the mental capacities to make almost infinitely ambitious plans, yet practically no time at all to put them into action.

The current state of affairs

Busyness with hustle

Recently, as the gig economy has grown, busyness has been rebranded as “hustle”—relentless work not as a burden to be endured but as an exhilarating lifestyle choice, worth boasting about on social media.

Short attention span

Take the daily battle against online distraction, and the alarming sense that our attention spans have shriveled to such a degree

Time is running out within these 80 years

It’s hard to imagine a crueler arrangement: not only are our four thousand weeks constantly running out, but the fewer of them we have left, the faster we seem to lose them.

Struggle and control

This is the maddening truth about time, which most advice on managing it seems to miss. It’s like an obstreperous toddler: the more you struggle to control it, to make it conform to your agenda, the further it slips from your control.

Human nature

We were not supposed to have to raise our hands to be allowed to pee. We were not supposed to be kept indoors on a beautiful day, day after day.

Living in the future vs now

Our days are spent trying to “get through” tasks, in order to get them “out of the way,” with the result that we live mentally in the future, waiting for when we’ll finally get around to what really matters—and worrying, in the meantime, that we don’t measure up, that we might lack the drive or stamina to keep pace with the speed at which life now seems to move.

Time is a man-made concept

our modern way of thinking about time is so deeply entrenched that we forget it even is a way of thinking; we’re like the proverbial fish who have no idea what water is, because it surrounds them completely

Busy vs bored easily

When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored.

Organic vs abstract timeline

Historians call this way of living “task orientation,” because the rhythms of life emerge organically from the tasks themselves, rather than from being lined up against an abstract timeline, the approach that has become second nature for us today.

Time ticking away vs timelessness

Untroubled by any notion of time “ticking away,” he might have experienced a heightened awareness of the vividness of things, the feeling of timelessness that Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan priest and author, calls “living in deep time.”

Modern life

As soon as you want to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, you need a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time.

Time is a resource

Once time is a resource to be used, you start to feel pressure, whether from external forces or from yourself, to use it well, and to berate yourself when you feel you’ve wasted it.

Robes us of the present moment

It wrenches us out of the present, leading to a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit, so that peace of mind never quite arrives.

The illusion of control

We recoil from the notion that this is it—that this life, with all its flaws and inescapable vulnerabilities, its extreme brevity, and our limited influence over how it unfolds, is the only one we’ll get a shot at.

Avoid and push harder

And so, rather than face our limitations, we engage in avoidance strategies, in an effort to carry on feeling limitless. We push ourselves harder, chasing fantasies of the perfect work-life balance;

Haste and no leisure

We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”

Fulfillment == doing more

But it remains the case that their fulfillment still seems to depend on their managing to do more than they can do. This helps explain why stuffing your life with pleasurable activities so often proves less satisfying than you’d expect.


Convenience, in other words, makes things easy, but without regard to whether easiness is truly what’s most valuable in any given context.


Since hard choices are unavoidable, what matters is learning to make them consciously, deciding what to focus on and what to neglect, rather than letting them get made by default—or deceiving yourself that, with enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all.

FOMO is there all around

And it means standing firm in the face of FOMO, the “fear of missing out,” because you come to realize that missing out on something—indeed, on almost everything—is basically guaranteed

Not as an opportunity, but a response

There is an alternative: the unfashionable but powerful notion of letting time use you, approaching life not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.

Face the reality

But my point here is that however privileged or unfortunate your specific situation, fully facing the reality of it can only help.

Accept the impossible

Whereas once you deeply grasp that they are impossible, you’ll be newly empowered to resist them, and to focus instead on building the most meaningful life you can, in whatever situation you’re in.

If everything is important, then nothing is

the problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will.

Embrace the limits of life

I still think it’s the single best antidote to the feeling of time pressure, a splendidly liberating first step on the path of embracing your limits: the problem with trying to make time for everything that feels important—or just for enough of what feels important—is that you definitely never will.

Goalposts will shift

But the other exasperating issue is that if you succeed in fitting more in, you’ll find the goalposts start to shift: more things will begin to seem important, meaningful, or obligatory.

Input and output

The “input” side of this arrangement—the number of emails that you could, in principle, receive—is essentially infinite. But the “output” side—the number of messages you’ll have time to read properly, reply to, or just make a considered decision to delete—is strictly finite.

Why there will never be enough time

The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits.

Focus on less

the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.

In the past, it was easier

felt like a known quantity: you were content to play your role in the human drama—a role that countless thousands had played before you, and thousands more would play after your death—without any sense that you were missing out on the exciting new possibilities of your particular moment in history.

Forever progress into the future

And when people start believing in progress—in the idea that history is headed toward an ever more perfect future—they feel far more acutely the pain of their own little lifespan, which condemns them to missing out on almost all of that future.

Resist the urge to do more

anti-skill: not the counterproductive strategy of trying to make yourself more efficient, but rather a willingness to resist such urges—to learn to stay with the anxiety of feeling overwhelmed, of not being on top of everything, without automatically responding by trying to fit more in.

Focus on the small number of experiences

Instead, you get to focus on fully enjoying the tiny slice of experiences you actually do have time for—and the freer you are to choose, in each moment, what counts the most.

Dealing with the convience culture

Convenience culture seduces us into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Must choose

You might make a very different choice, of course. But the undodgeable reality of a finite human life is that you are going to have to choose.

Realise that there is anything at all

The most fundamental thing we fail to appreciate about the world, Heidegger asserts in his magnum opus, Being and Time, is how bafflingly astonishing it is that it’s there at all—the fact that there is anything rather than nothing.


So bound up, in fact, that the two are synonymous: to be, for a human, is above all to exist temporally, in the stretch between birth and death, certain that the end will come, yet unable to know when.

Time is already always running out

this is it, that life is not a dress rehearsal, that every choice requires myriad sacrifices, and that time is always already running out—indeed, that it may run out today, tomorrow, or next month.

Realise the entitlement of planning to live forever

There you were, planning to live on forever—as the old Woody Allen line has it, not in the hearts of your countrymen, but in your apartment—but now here comes mortality, to steal away the life that was rightfully yours. Yet, on reflection, there’s something very entitled about this attitude.

The glass is half full

why treat four thousand weeks as a very small number, because it’s so tiny compared with infinity, rather than treating it as a huge number, because it’s so many more weeks than if you had never been born?… So maybe it’s not that you’ve been cheated out of an unlimited supply of time; maybe it’s almost incomprehensibly miraculous to have been granted any time at all.

If you were not born at all

“What would David have given to be caught in this traffic jam?” It was the same for queues in supermarkets and customer service lines that kept him on hold too long. Lye’s focus was no longer exclusively on what he was doing in such moments or what he’d rather be doing instead; now, he noticed also that he was doing it, with an upwelling of gratitude that took him by surprise.

From nothing to something

From this viewpoint, the situation starts to seem much less regrettable: 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.


exhilaration that sometimes arises when you grasp this truth about finitude has been called the “joy of missing out,” by way of a deliberate contrast with the idea of the “fear of missing out.”

Reframing those mundane tasks

In this state of mind, you can embrace the fact that you’re forgoing certain pleasures, or neglecting certain obligations, because whatever you’ve decided to do instead—earn money to support your family, write your novel, bathe the toddler, pause on a hiking trail to watch a pale winter sun sink below the horizon at dusk—is how you’ve chosen to spend a portion of time that you never had any right to expect.

Accepting the limitations

the core challenge of managing our limited time isn’t about how to get everything done—that’s never going to happen—but how to decide most wisely what not to do, and how to feel at peace about not doing it.

Procrastinating on lower priorities

So the point isn’t to eradicate procrastination, but to choose more wisely what you’re going to procrastinate on, in order to focus on what matters most. The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.

When something matters to you

So if a certain activity really matters to you—a creative project, say, though it could just as easily be nurturing a relationship, or activism in the service of some cause—the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little, and no matter how many other genuinely big rocks may be begging for your attention.

There is no free time in the future

“If you don’t save a bit of your time for you, now, out of every week,” as she puts it, “there is no moment in the future when you’ll magically be done with everything and have loads of free time.”

Choose 25 goals, and ignore the last 20

the remaining twenty, Buffett allegedly explains, aren’t the second-tier priorities to which he should turn when he gets the chance. Far from it. In fact, they’re the ones he should actively avoid at all costs — because they’re the ambitions insufficiently important to him to form the core of his life yet seductive enough to distract him from the ones that matter most.

Step into the world of finitude

Stepping into the world of finitude, by actually building the mosque, would mean confronting all that he couldn’t do. Better to cherish an ideal fantasy than to resign himself to reality, with all its limitations and unpredictability.

If you are procrastinating because of worry

if you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax—because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.

It’s so easy to fantasize

In other words, it’s easy for me to fantasize about, say, a life spent achieving stellar professional success, while also excelling as a parent and partner, while also dedicating myself to training for marathons or lengthy meditation retreats or volunteering in my community—because so long as I’m only fantasizing, I get to imagine all of them unfolding simultaneously and flawlessly. As soon as I start trying to live any of those lives, though, I’ll be forced to make trade-offs—to put less time than I’d like into one of those domains, so as to make space for another—and to accept that nothing I do will go perfectly anyway, with the result that my actual life will inevitably prove disappointing by comparison with the fantasy. “The idea of the future, pregnant with an infinity of possibilities, is thus more fruitful than the future itself,” Bergson wrote, “and this is why we find more charm in hope than in possession, in dreams than in reality.”

You have to settle down either ways

The received wisdom, articulated in a thousand magazine articles and inspirational Instagram memes, is that it’s always a crime to settle. But the received wisdom is wrong. You should definitely settle. Or to be more precise, you don’t have a choice. You will settle—and this fact ought to please you.

You must settle down

“You must settle, in a relatively enduring way, upon something that will be the object of your striving, in order for that striving to count as striving,” he writes: you can’t become an ultrasuccessful lawyer or artist or politician without first “settling” on law, or art, or politics, and therefore deciding to forgo the potential rewards of other careers. If you flit between them all, you’ll succeed in none of them.

The future is more appealing in imagination

The point that Bergson made about the future—that it’s more appealing than the present because you get to indulge in all your hopes for it, even if they contradict each other—is no less true of fantasy romantic partners, who can easily exhibit a range of characteristics that simply couldn’t coexist in one person in the real world.

Attention will define your reality

what you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.

Your life == sum of all your attention

Attention, on the other hand, just is life: your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.

Focus and attention


The only faculty you can use to see what’s happening to your attention is your attention, the very thing that’s already been commandeered.


This is why boredom can feel so surprisingly, aggressively unpleasant: we tend to think of it merely as a matter of not being particularly interested in whatever it is we’re doing, but in fact it’s an intense reaction to the deeply uncomfortable experience of confronting your limited control.

When boredom strikes

Boredom can strike in widely differing contexts—when you’re working on a major project; when you can’t think of anything to do on a Sunday afternoon; when it’s your job to care for a two-year-old for five hours straight—but they all have one characteristic in common: they demand that you face your finitude.

Relieving the pain of limitation

you’ll probably still find it unpleasantly constraining to focus on what matters, so you’ll find some way to relieve the pain by distracting yourself: by daydreaming, taking an unnecessary nap, or — the preferred option of the productivity geek — redesigning your to-do list and reorganizing your desk.

Distractions aren’t the cause

The overarching point is that what we think of as “distractions” aren’t the ultimate cause of our being distracted. They’re just the places we go to seek relief from the discomfort of confronting limitation.

Accept the limited control

The most effective way to sap distraction of its power is just to stop expecting things to be otherwise—to accept that this unpleasantness is simply what it feels like for finite humans to commit ourselves to the kinds of demanding and valuable tasks that force us to confront our limited control over how our lives unfold.

Planning and scheduling

Hofstadter’s law

The cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter is famous, among other reasons, for coining “Hofstadter’s law,” which states that any task you’re planning to tackle will always take longer than you expect, “even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.”

Future is uncertain

The obsessive planner, essentially, is demanding certain reassurances from the future—but the future isn’t the sort of thing that can ever provide the reassurance he craves, for the obvious reason that it’s still in the future.

Plans are just intentions

But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.

Ponder on the last time

there will be a last time that you visit your childhood home, or swim in the ocean, or make love, or have a deep conversation with a certain close friend. Yet usually there’ll be no way to know, in the moment itself, that you’re doing it for the last time. Harris’s point is that we should therefore try to treat every such experience with the reverence we’d show if it were the final instance of it.

The present moment

Our obsession with extracting the greatest future value out of our time blinds us to the reality that, in fact, the moment of truth is always now—that life is nothing but a succession of present moments, culminating in death, and that you’ll probably never get to a point where you feel you have things in perfect working order.

Doing nothing


“Nothing is more alien to the present age than idleness,” writes the philosopher John Gray. He adds: “How can there be play in a time when nothing has meaning unless it leads to something else?”


Moreover, a country walk doesn’t have a purpose, in the sense of an outcome you’re trying to achieve or somewhere you’re trying to get.

Atelic vs telic activities

As Setiya recalls in his book Midlife, he was heading toward the age of forty when he first began to feel a creeping sense of emptiness, which he would later come to understand as the result of living a project-driven life, crammed not with atelic activities but telic ones, the primary purpose of which was to have them done, and to have achieved certain outcomes

Side hustle is positively more fashionable than hobby

This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind.