“The world is already broken. And what’s true of the state of civilization is equally true of your life: it was always already the case that you would never experience a life of perfect accomplishment or security. And your four thousand weeks have always been running out. It’s a revelation, though: when you begin to internalize all this even just a bit, the result is not despair, but an energizing surge of motivation . . . You realize that you never really needed the feeling of complete security you’d previously felt so desperate to attain. This is liberation.” —Oliver Burkeman, author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time management for mortals
Admittedly, the length of a human life is short when we take the long view of civilization, so it is understandable for us to make the most of our time. However, in so doing, we often go about ‘making the most of it’ in unhelpful, counter-intuitive ways.
Oliver Burkeman wrote a long-running and award-winning weekly column for The Guardian up until last year. He is also the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and so after reading his final column for The Guardian, and the synopsis for his first book, I had an idea of his frank, yet considered and sincere approach to what he shares with his readers. Four Thousand Weeks is not your typical time management book.
It is a book to open our eyes to the reality of our mortality, no matter how much we may profess we accept that we will die, we demonstrate through our actions, how we live, we may not have fully absorb this life truth. But don’t worry, Burkeman shares in his introduction, his objective is to write a book that helps each of us “redress the balance [of our finite time on this planet and engage productively with fellow citizens, current events and the fate of the environment]—to see if we can’t discover, or recover, some ways of thinking about time that do justice to our real situation: to the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.”
I have pulled ten tips he shares about how to live more deeply, and thus more contentedly in our everydays and thus our entire life; however, there is much more in the book and I highly recommend reading it in its entirety. Let’s take a look at the list.
0. Understand the truth about time management of our finite amount
“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.”
What Burkeman does well throughout his book is balance each assertion, especially ones that may throw you off-guard initially, with the counter argument, and in his awareness, he brings the truth of our humanness on this earth to the forefront for each of us to do with as we see fit, however, now not ignorantly.
When we finally accept that our to-do lists will not be checked off entirely, when we acknowledge we can’t plan with an ever-more-perfect planning system (you know what I am talking about – the right amount of boxes, lines, highlighter colors, tabs, etc.) to bring more contentment into our lives, “at long last” we can turn “to the things life is really supposed to be about.”
As many listeners/readers know, I have used a planner nearly all of my life since I was a teenager and still do, and I have yet to find a planning system that works perfectly. And what I mean by perfectly is that I can plan my life to run smoothly, productively, and happily each and everyday. I cannot achieve this or find the particular planning system that will help me do this, because it will never exist. What does exist is each of us, for a short amount of time – approximately (if we are lucky) four thousand weeks. What will you do with your time?
Just asking that question, feels as though pressure has been placed on our shoulders, which is why Burkeman begins with his assertion about productivity being a trap and then, in each subsequent chapter, offers insights for enjoying most fully your life. Because when we take on the pressure of ‘making our lives count’, we do ourselves and our present being a disservice that undercuts what we say we are trying to do – live well.
Let’s take a look at ten approaches to, once accepting consciously ourselves as mortal, living fully, without distraction, in each present moment as a way to achieve great contentment in our everydays.
1.Acceptance of our short lives is a cause for relief
“You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”
I want to start with the primary acceptance the book urges us to take because I have a feeling what we are seeking when errantly, but with good intentions, try to ‘make the most of our lives’, is a life that when we go to bed at night, our mind is at peace. The peace you are seeking will not come, not fully, not completely, until you accept your own mortality and give up the quest to be a better you, a more optimized you, a more invincible you who does everything right in the eyes of the society you are trying to please. Put that responsibility down. It is not yours to carry.
2. Shift how you see and define time. In fact, let go of defining it.
“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.”
Burkeman calls accepting the definition of time as a resource is a rigged game ‘in which it’s impossible ever to feel as though you’re doing well enough’. Why? Because it pulls us away from the present moment as we are doing something we think will make tomorrow better, and thereby our eventual present better, but look at that again. When we are tending to tasks to help out our future, we are never in the present. “Leading a life spent leaning into the future, worrying about whether things will work out, experiencing everything in terms of some later, hoped-for benefit”, robs of us of our lives because we are actually never in the present living them. Ultimately, we are living on the surface of life, and negating the possibility to experience what Burkeman calls ‘deep time’: that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead. In other words, we need to let ourselves find moments of ‘flow’ where time seems to stop (it never actually does, we all know this), but we are not checking the clock, we are wholly present in the moment and absorbed with the task, the conversation, the moment, the view, the painting, the music, whatever it might be. We need more of these moments to deepen the quality of our everyday lives.
All of this is to say, we need to let go. We need to do some planning (Burkeman acknowledges it’s not a bad thing to plan for retirement, our child’s college, how to earn money to pay your bills), but we take is so much farther than the necessities. We need to let go, so we can be in the present fully and enjoy this awesome thing called life we have been given – how lucky (and really, there is so much luck, so much we have absolutely control over) are we to be given the opportunity to live four thousand weeks?
3. Don’t treat your life as a vehicle to a future state of happiness
“To treat all these moments [the last time of doing anything] solely as stepping-stones to some future moment is to demonstrate a level of obliviousness to our real situation that would be jaw-dropping if it weren’t for the fact that we all do it, all the time.”
Pointing out that ‘rich people in capitalist economies are often surprisingly miserable’ even though they are experts at ‘instrumentalizing their time, for the purpose of generating wealth for themselves . . . they end of treating their lives in the present moment as nothing but a vehicle in which to travel toward a future state of happiness.” But before we bash on capitalists and those with great wealth, they are behaving in the same way most of us are when we choose to use time in an instrumental way – a tool to attain something and not to be wasted: “a feeling of being in omnipotent control of our lives.”
The shift needs to occur with what was discussed in #2. We need to let go. We need to be brave by choosing to be present in our lives. Yes, if we are so fortunate, we will live our tomorrow and the next tomorrow, but the present is all we have each and every day. If we are so busy, saving and working and strategizing for a better tomorrow, a more secure tomorrow, we are actually not living. We aren’t actually loving. There is no depth. The quality of living has been dismissed as a waste of time, but the reality is, all we have is time in the present. That is all that is guaranteed. Don’t miss out on life.
4. Improve the skill of being present, being mindful
“A more fruitful approach to the challenge of living more fully in the moment starts from noticing that you are, in fact, always already living in the moment anyway, whether you like it or not.”
Desiring to live in the present, while a great start, is not enough to hold you in the present and enable you to live fully. As Burkeman writes, “To try to live in the moment implies that you’re somehow separate from ‘the moment,’ and thus in a position to either succeed or fail at living in it.” The reality is you are always and were always and will always be of the moment to begin with as the above quote reminds. So how do we do what we likely accept we need to do after listening so far to this podcast, reading Burkeman’s book and reflecting on moments in our lives when we were present and experienced great joy, we let go of expectations of what any moment ‘should’ be, and let ourselves just be in the moment. Not on the sidelines watching, but immersing ourselves. For example, Burkeman shares how when we go to a museum, if we are taking out our phone and videotaping or capturing the paintings with our phone, we are not present. Instead, we are capturing something for a future moment. The same applies to a moment where you are not pulling out your phone, yet hoping something occurs that ‘would make your to-do/bucket list complete’. Set the expectations aside, engage with what is and who is present. Take it all in. Be who you are and set yourself free to savor what transpires.
If there is one area of weakness in this book, it was this chapter, Chapter 8 – You Are Here. What makes presence hard is it is a skill, and we have to practice it. Practice it to progress our abilities to do it seemingly naturally in every day and every moment of our lives. It will not just happen, as it took conditioning since we were young children the moment we were told to pass this class so we can step forward into the next grade, middle school success for beneficial high school placement in different courses, and then on to colleges. It will take time to shed the conditioning that feels engrained, but it is indeed something we learned. That is the good news.
I guess part of why I challenge his assertions in this particular chapter was while it brought to the forefront a truth to accept, it dismissed it as nearly impossible to achieve. Claiming that as humans, we have an extreme aversion to being present. But as a listener/reader of the podcast/blog, I know you know that is not true. Our temperaments may aid or make more difficult holding ourselves fully in the present, but so do, and more significantly, our upbringings, the nurturing we received, what was modeled, taught, expected. It is my hope that by living simply luxuriously, we witness first-hand how our everydays are elevated when we hold ourselves in the present, we remain conscious and we savor the simple beauty in seemingly quotidian events, objects, sights, etc..
5. The crutch of distraction
“Rather than taking ownership of our lives, we seek out distractions, or lose ourselves in busyness and the daily grind, so as to try to forget our real predicament [that we are mortal beings].”
The distractions from technology, keeping a busy schedule, not spending regular time with ourselves, actually do the opposite of what we are seeking. Assuming we are seeking a life of contentment, partaking in distraction holds our life experience on the surface. “It’s only by facing our finitude that we can step into a truly authentic relationship with life.” When we accept, consciously accept, that our time is limited, the motivation builds to ‘finally become truly present in our lives’. Let’s not wait any longer, shall we?
“What you pay attention to will define, for you, what reality is.”
By letting ourselves be distracted by the alerts, the scrolling on free apps that actually use us as the commodity, the [whatever you look to to pull you away from what you don’t want to do, or don’t want to explore that will deepen your life experience], not choosing is actually happening, and this is how we deny our finitude as human beings. One more point to help inspire you to rethink how you use your time online when you do go online. “The attention economy is designed to prioritize whatever’s most compelling—instead of whatever’s most true, or most useful—it systematically distorts the picture of the world we carry in our heads at all times. It influences our sense of what matters, what kinds of threats we face . . . and all these distorted judgments then influence how we allocate our offline time as well.” The misstep however, when we do accept that distractions are not in our best interest is to become busier and fill every minute with something on a to-do list, but that would be the wrong correction. Let’s step into #6 to better understand how to not creep back into busyness.
6. Reduce, instead of manage your obligations and activities vying for your time
“Most productivity experts act merely as enablers of our time troubles, by offering ways to keep on believing it might be possible to get everything done . . . but it’s a lie.”
Being honest and clear-eyed about your priorities, eliminating the ‘middling priorities’ as Warren Buffet describes them, those priorities are ‘seductive enough to distract you from the ones that matter most’, ensures what matters to you receives your full attention. However, this is where many of us hesitate – if I let go of this item on my list, that path is no longer part of my life journey. But by holding all of your items on your list, none of them receive your full attention, your full presence, and life is not actually lived, at least not well or deeply. As Burkeman shares in his inclusion of Kafka, ‘he yearned to live more than one life.’ And the reality is, we only have one life. We must make decisions, let go, be present and savor the life we have.
7. Celebrate the ironic truth of taking action – the calm ensues
“In consciously making a commitment, [you’re] closing off [your] fantasies of infinite possibilities in favor of the joy of missing out (JOMO). This is also why it can be so unexpectedly calming to take actions you’d been fearing or delaying—to finally hand in your notice at work, become a parent, address a festering family issue, or close on a house purchase. When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.”
What I appreciate immensely about Burkeman’s voice is his use of words such as ‘consequences’ that on the surface hold a negative connotation. What he presents is what we assume and why we fail to make a choice, but the beautiful reality is when choose, when we finally commit, we give ourselves so much more.
8. We cannot know and so we must let go of trying to control
“Worry, at its core, is the repetitious experience of a mind attempting to generate a feeling of security about the future, failing, then trying again and again and again—as if the very effort of worrying might somehow help forestall disaster. The fuel behind worry, in other words, is the internal demand to know, in advance, that things will turn out fine . . . But the struggle for control over the future is a stark example of our refusal to acknowledge our built-in limitations when it comes to time, because it’s a fight the worrier obviously won’t win. You can never be truly certain about the future. And so your reach will always exceed your grasp.”
Burkeman again shares that it is not a bad idea to plan for example the retirement that will come if we are so fortunate, or making time to go vote in order to improve the chances for the future we wish to see turn out, the problem, that which causes anxiety, “is the need that we feel, from our vantage point here in the present moment, to be able to know that those efforts will prove successful.” His example to explain his point is helpful. “It’s a recipe for a life of unending stress to insist that you must be able to feel certain, now, that this is how your relationship is definitely going to unfold in the future.” In other words, let go of needing to be reassured. The only thing, or in this case, person that can provide reassurance is you to yourself, telling yourself that you are doing the best and will do your best and whatever happens, you will navigate through to the best of your ability. You are not being the victim, you are not reacting, you are being present, observing, setting your boundaries, but not forcing someone else to place their’s in a certain place. I like to return to a previous podcast episode (#301) from last season – tend to your tasks and let others tend to theirs.
9. Refrain from taking planning too far
“But planning is an essential tool for constructing a meaningful life, and for exercising our responsibilities toward other people. The real problem isn’t planning. It’s that we take our plans to be something they aren’t.”
Burkeman succinctly describes what plans are and all that they can be in our lives even if we may want them to be more, “a present-moment statement of intent.” He goes on to say with his cheeky humor, “The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.” And that is where the letting go must happen, that is where the magic of life happens, the unexpected, the never-could-have-imagined, the gift that makes life what it is, the tragedy of life, yes, but in those moments, we are reminded blatantly of our mortality, and if nothing else, it should wake us up to living more fully in the present each and every day, tending only to our tasks and letting others tend to theirs and savoring all that is around us.
10. Give up hope and elevate your life
“[Giving up hope] in a certain sense does kill you. It kills the fear-driven, control-chasing, ego-dominated version of you—the one who cares intensely about what others think of you, about not disappointing anyone or stepping too far out of line, in case the people in charge find some way to punish you for it later. ‘You find, that the civilized you died. The manufactured, fabricated, stamped, molded you died. The victim died.’ and the ‘you’ that remains is more alive than before.”
The paradox of giving up hope for a better anything, a perfect anything, is Burkeman writes, when you confront things as they really are, ‘you’re open enough to let all the good things in more fully, too, on their own terms, instead of trying to use them to bolster your need to know that everything will turn out fine.”
Perhaps the better phrase as opposed to giving up hope is to let go and immerse yourself in the everyday as it is and as you choose to be in the moment. Burkeman talks directly, and his voice takes time to understand that his desired outcome is to help his readers discover how to live a more fulfilling life, but indeed it is. We can step out of our way, that is what we do have control over, and his book aims to help us understand that we need to if we are going to savor the life we have and not spend it in the future, or working toward a future that will not make us any more content than we can be right now. I simplify this a bit, so I recommend checking out his entire book, but essentially, once you have the essentials – your health, a roof, a safe place, an income that provides for the necessities (keeping this in check as often what we define as a necessity expands with our income growth) – holding yourself in each day, each moment, engaging with it, letting go of expectation and trying to control the outcomes, will find you far more at peace and experiencing a much more exuberant and magical life.
~Purchase Oliver Burkeman’s book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (August 2021)
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~The Simple Sophisticate, episode #311
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13 thoughts on “311: How Accepting Your Mortality Sets You Free to Live More Deeply”
A lovely post Shannon. Some of the thoughts from 4000 weeks are difficult to hear and definitely need further thought/investigation. However, the overriding feeling is positive and challenging our lives and reviewing our priorities is important.
Thank you for this thought provoking start to our week.
Vannessa, You’re exactly right on all points – seemingly simple, his observations are true, but require a significant conscious shift by each of us to hold ourselves in the present and do so joyfully. Thank you for stopping by. 🙂
Today is definitely one of my favorites! Thank you, Shannon, for that.
I’m 78 years young and I believe we’re given as much time to live as God allows, permits.
Burkeman does a good job of including both secular and religious ‘beliefs’ about life and addresses them well with philosophy, research and even citations from religious texts (he is Jewish). I highly recommend you read it, if nothing else to explore other opinions on something we all face whether we are atheist, agnostic, ascribe to a particular faith or something entirely different.
Oh wow…the opening quote got me. I had to re-read it over and over over. I am a person who is in constant struggle with trying to live each moment but constantly worried about controlling the future, at the point now, at 51 (and a half!) that it is wearing on me physically in the form of severe neck and back stress. I have taken up meditation after my daily workouts and I am trying to clear the brain a bit, but this book is on my list now. I will change to listening to your podcast on a walk, as I find myself, while reading, having too many A-HA moments to concentrate appropriately. Thank you so very much for this!
Thank you for stopping by Michelle and sharing how this episode spoke to you. Yes, that first quote rattles, assures and then inspires with the relief it indeeds to bring. I appreciate your interest in the show. Wishing you many wonderful walks full of aha moments! 🙂
Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights on this meaningful book. He makes many profound points here that I will need to continue to ponder over the course of this week.
Like you, I am a planner, I always have a to do list going, schedules/meetings to keep, goals, this all provides a simple organized structure to my life. It helps me to feel organized, productive and fulfilled, and sometimes a bit frustrated. As I have gotten older, I am giving myself more time to go with the flow, be mindful, enjoy quiet moments, but it is still hard to let go for me.
Ironically, I sat down at my laptop to do my weekly/monthly planning when I decided to read your blog first and loved reading your thoughts.
Thank you Shannon,
Excellent podcast Shannon. I have downloaded it and will listen to it again and again. Yes staying in the present is hard to master along with mindfulness. A light bulb came on during my yoga practice when the instructor said treat mindfulness as love & by this I mean send it love and light. Let it become part of you. She was correct.
Even during this most mundane task that you have been dreading if you treat it with love and importance it is completed efficiently, and you are in the now–present.
Excellent podcast, Shannon, I loved discovering your thoughts about Burkeman’s book, as I believed it dovetailed nicely with, and corroborated, the ethos of TSLL. (And I concur with your assessment of Chapter 8.) This is definitely a book I will re-read, most likely this winter prior to our launch into a beautiful and brave new year. But for now, let us find the quiet joy in”…holding yourself in each day, each moment, engaging with it, letting go of expectation and trying to control the outcomes, (to) find (yourself) far more at peace and experiencing a much more exuberant and magical life.” XO
Rona, Thank you for your thoughtful and considered reflections as well as encouragement for a lovely fall and new season – beautiful and brave new year – I am holding that in my heart. Thank you for your comment.
There were so many points that resonated that I’ve hesitated to comment as I chose what to say. Mortality is currently a bigger consideration than I’d expected at this time in life. I think my combined takeaway from this helpful book can be summed up in two words – lighten up.
Great podcast Shannon. I find the title very interesting.4000 weeks sounds like a long time but it’s roughly 77 years and it really puts things into perspective. You have one life so just live it and for today as in the end only today matters. His observation centres on what really matters. The here and now.’ Carpe Diem ‘(seize the day) was my school’s motto and it has stayed with me. .Some of what he writes about has already been highlighted by you on TSLL. Thank you . xx
Thank you for sharing how this episode resonated for you. Often the phrase and motto for your school is used without fully grasping what it is trying to bring to our awareness – a truth that will always remain. Understandthe depths of this reality changes our lives for the better. It is uncomfortable and for some unsettling, but once you let yourself experience those initial feelings, you shift to living fully and you realize that you may not have been doing so prior-to. Perhaps actually holding yourself back. But no more, and your life elevates. Thank you Kameela for your comment. ?