I've noticed the 'right book' manages to find me at the 'right time'. Earlier this month I finished reading Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman; and the timing couldn't have been any better.
The main premise (therefore, the name) of the book is that we all have around four thousand weeks to live, assuming the life span to be eighty years. And four thousand weeks isn't enough time to get everything done.
The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short.
The book overlapped with my 40th birthday in early April. Essentially, I celebrated getting done with 2000 weeks, or half of my life. That's why reading the book was indeed very timely.
Having read many books on being more productive and optimizing work, this was a refreshing read. It could well be the 'anti-productivity' book we all need.
Five key takeaways from the book:
1. Accept human finiteness: Four thousand weeks or not, our time is limited, and the clock is ticking. And we all seem to know this fact, but how often do we acknowledge it?
Once we accept our limited time, we can let go of this misguided idea that we can get everything done. This could help better prioritize tasks and projects we take on. As finite beings, we're always making hard choices, and that's what life is about. To write this blog post for example, I had to forgo other things that I enjoy, like having a leisurely breakfast with my wife.
'Fear of missing out' or FOMO, is a common concern. We want to do it all and experience everything. ‘Live it up’ as they say. The author makes a very compelling argument against it. This pursuit is unsustainable and unreasonable, therefore, results in anxiety and burnouts.
It could be distressing to confront our limits, and we’d rather live in denial. Happily avoiding or procrastinating tough decisions in life because they make the 'finiteness' real. We'd rather live in the illusion we can master time and get everything done! However, one could experience meaning and purpose only by accepting this reality.
But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead – and work with them, rather than against them – the more productive, meaningful and joyful life becomes
And once the acceptance sets in, a sense of exhilaration arises. This has been aptly described as 'the joy of missing out', a deliberate contrast to 'the fear of missing out'.
2. Efficiency is a trap: We are all familiar with Parkinson’s law - Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. This explains why even after all the tech and automation available we are still busier than ever. We've indeed become more efficient, but also added more work for finite selves.
I've experienced this at various organizations in the past, the efficient employee keeps getting more work. Essentially, the faster you get at turning around tasks the more work will land on your desk.
So it’s not simply that you never get through your email; it’s that the process of ‘getting through your email’ actually generates more email. The general principle in operation is one you might call the ‘efficiency trap’.
3. Defeat Distraction: In the past couple of years, there have been several books on focused work and why it matters. Deep Work, Indistractable, and Hyperfocus to name a few. Books are great, but 'Deep Work' is extremely difficult and human attention span is at an all-time low!
When we take on something important to do, we should be (ideally) focusing on doing that one thing. We are committing to getting that task done. Therefore, letting go of gazillion other possible things to do in that time. This is something the doesn't sit well with our 'finite self' and hence, the urge to be distracted.
Whenever we succumb to distraction, we’re attempting to flee a painful encounter with our finitude
This urge for distraction isn't anything new, even ancient Greek philosophers struggled with it. However, the endless distractions available to us today, makes things worse in our case. Distractions provide the illusion of an infinite canvas, and we like it. No wonder most of us love infinite scroll.
As the technology critic Tristan Harris likes to say, each time you open a social media app, there are ‘a thousand people on the other side of the screen’ paid to keep you there – and so it’s unrealistic to expect users to resist the assault on their time and attention by means of willpower alone*
I liked how the author described it as "The Discomfort of What Matters". It is strange isn't it? We find it so uncomfortable to concentrate on the meaningful task we've resolved to do.
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.
4. Present is all we've got: Most of us are so busy working towards the glorious future, we ignore the present. We've got '"when-I-finally" mindset', where we postpone the fulfillment for later. For example, when I finally get my business to seven figures, I can relax and savour life.
Extreme goal setting and (future) visualization techniques are used by most mindset coaches to get started on the path to success. And most of our lives go towards 'securing the future', not just for us but for our children too.
While there isn't anything wrong with planning for the rainy day, we can't expect the rain to follow our plans. According to the book, we are spending too much time planning the future, and we expect the future to play by our predictions. And because we are pushing the fulfillment for later, we miss out on the present. I can totally relate to this future-focused living, and I've been guilty of this too.
“As long as you believe that the real meaning of life lies somewhere off in the future – that one day all your efforts will pay off in a golden era of happiness, free of all problems – you get to avoid facing the unpalatable reality that your life isn’t leading towards some moment of truth that hasn’t yet arrived.”
5. You are insignificant: Yes, and I'm sorry if you imagined otherwise. The author aptly described it as - ‘Cosmic Insignificance Therapy'. It is worthwhile to accept that in the grand scheme of things, we don't matter. And that applies to our work and ideas too, everything we do will soon be forgotten.
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. To embrace it, to whatever extent you can.
Having recently watched 'Cosmos' and read 'The Universe Doesn't Give a Flying Fuck About You' helped me understand the Cosmic Insignificance Therapy better. It instantly relieves you from the burden of 'leaving a legacy behind' or 'making a dent in the universe'.
I'm glad I read the book, and as mentioned earlier the timing was perfect too. However, I feel the book talks about the issues too much but fails to provide any 'real' direction/solution.
Here are some recommended solutions quoted from the book:
If I were to simplify the sentences above, it would read:
Maybe I am biased because I've invested a lot of time developing my daily meditation practice. But this seems to be all about mediation and its benefits. I could be wrong, therefore, I decided to check with the author himself. See my email to Oliver below:
I hope you read this! This is important not only because this is my first ever email to an author, but also because I found something fundamental missing in your book - and that might be important for you.
Before I begin, I must congratulate you on the book though. I just finished it and it really resonated with me, so glad I read it. Thank you for making it happen Oliver.
In the book, there were mentions of Joseph Goldstien and Thich Nhat Hanh and some other Buddhist/Zen teachers. I was, however, surprised you didn't mention Vipassana Meditation at all. Was it on purpose? Vipassana helps you 'experience' most of what you wrote in the book, and I'm pretty sure you know it. Curious if you decided not to mention it so the book doesn't feel 'preachy'?
I look forward to hearing from you.
Thanks once again.
And here is Oliver's response:
Thanks, Devesh! I've actually done a couple of Vipassana retreats in the Insight version (as opposed to the Goenka version I suppose, in terms of US/UK opportunities). I think the boring response to your question is just that a book like this misses out a *whole* lot of utterly relevant references, inevitably, and people only notice the ones that are most relevant to themselves!
Now… I *do* have some issues with the way that Vipassana at least in the west all too easily gets mangled into a very goal-focused/instrumental pursuit that would be out of step with what I was trying to say. But if I'm honest that's not really the reason it's not there…
Thank you for your kind words!
I'm glad he responded, and sure not all books need to come with solution or frameworks. "People only notice the ones that are most relevant to themselves" - this makes sense. Because the only other practice I could think of to help develop patience and awareness would be 'Test Cricket' 🙂
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