Four Thousand Weeks - Oliver Burkeman

Four Thousand Weeks - Oliver Burkeman

Book Notes

Guilt and unhappiness are caused by the delusion of controlling time. Once we accept having a finite amount of time, we can begin to operate within realistic parameters. Our lives then become most enjoyable and meaningful.

Table of contents

Oliver Burkeman - Four Thousand Weeks - Craft Your Sound Notes
Oliver Burkeman - Four Thousand Weeks - Craft Your Sound Notes

πŸ”– Key Ideas

  • Don't be persuaded by the delusion of gaining total control over your time β€” you'll never be able to wield entire control, contrary to what self-help gurus preach
  • Technology led us to believe that everything should be done faster
  • The more time your free up, the more tasks appear to occupy that time
  • The faster you work now, the faster you'll have to work in the future
  • Accept your limitations and work within them
  • Pay yourself first when it comes to time
  • Limit your work in progress
  • Learn to say no to things you want to do, with the recognition that you only have one life
  • What you pay attention to will define what your reality is
  • The whole of life β€” work and leisure t time alike β€” is valued for the sake of something else in the future rather than for itself
  • Stop expecting the future to unfold exactly as planned

🌟 General Themes


The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. If You're lucky and make it to ninety, you have had 4,700 weeks. Our entire human civilization β€” the duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians is 310,000 weeks!

Your life is finite. Make and firmly commit to your life choices. Focus on what's happening now and not the future. Learn to incorporate doing nothing into your schedule.


When faced with demands, it's easy to assume that making better use of time, becoming more efficient, more productive, driving yourself harder and working longer, as if you were a machine instead of stopping and asking whether the demands themselves might be reasonable.

Say no more to release yourself from the pressure of believing you can do everything
Say no more to release yourself from the pressure of believing you can do everything


Attention is life. You being alive and your experiences are nothing more than the sum of everything you pay attention to. When you pay attention to something you don't value, you are paying that with your life. And distractions are not only notifications or doom scrolling through Instagram or Tik Tok; it's also a task, job or project itself that requires an investment portion of your attention and, therefore, your life.

Stop expecting things
Stop expecting things


Many people are unhappy β€” despite being very well paid β€” why?

The convention of the billable hour obliges people to treat their time (themselves really) as a commodity to be sold off in chunks of minutes to clients. An unsold hour is automatically wasted.

Think about Lawyers, Accountants, and Consultants who miss important family events or other life commitmentsβ€” well, now you understand how they see it. When an activity or event can't be added to the running tally of billable, it feels like an indulgence one can't afford.

Accept reality's constraints
Accept reality's constraints

πŸ˜€ Should You Read it?

If you seek to redress balance in your life β€” discover and recover ways of thinking about the time that does justice to our realistic lifestylesβ€” then this book is for you.

In "Four Thousand Weeks," Burkeman explores the idea that guilt and unhappiness are caused by the delusion of controlling time. He argues that once we accept having a finite amount of time, we can begin to operate within realistic parameters, and our lives will become more enjoyable and meaningful as a result.

The book is not a how-to on time management but rather an exploration of how we think about time. It does not offer specific solutions to the problem of feeling like there is never enough time, but it may help readers to develop a more realistic and balanced perspective on time.

πŸ“¦ Valuable Lessons

  • The real problem isn't our limited time β€” it's the inherited pressure to live by a set of ideas about how to use our limited time, which makes things worse.
  • Our attention spans have decreased β€” we are constantly battling online distractions β€” and it's done by design of social media companies.
  • Because our time and attention are so limited and therefore valuable, social media companies are incentivized to grab as much of them as they can, by any means necessary β€” which is why they show users material guaranteed to drive them into a rage instead of mundane, boring and accurate stuff.
  • We invited dishwashers, microwaves, and jet engines to free up time β€” how come it doesn't feel that way? Shouldn't we have gained more time from these technological marvels? Instead, life accelerates, and everyone grows more impatient. Waiting two minutes for microwave or a 10-second load time on a website seems to enrage us.
  • Turns out that when people make enough money to meet their needs, they're not satisfied but just find new things to need and new lifestyles to aspire to.

πŸ’ Snippets & Quotes

… the most maddening truth about time: the more you struggle to control it, to make it conform to your agenda, the further it slips from your control.
… the pressure to fit ever-increasing quantities of activity into a stubbornly nonincreasing quantity of daily time.
It's hard to imagine a crueler arrangement: not only our four thousand weeks constantly running out, but the fewer we have left, the faster we seem to lose them.
… the invention of the clock is solely to blame for all our time-related troubles today.
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
When people stop believing in the afterlife, everything depends on making the most of this life.
Nothing is harder than to do nothing β€” Jenny Odell

πŸ“’ Notes

πŸ‘‘ Medieval vs Modern Times

We should count ourselves lucky that we aren't born in medieval times. First, we wouldn't have made it to adulthood β€” only very few would have. Life would have been defined by that servitude. You would have spent your days farming the land on which your lord allowed you to live only to pay him back in taxes and more work. The church would have demanded the regular contribution. You share a tiny home with the rest of your family and rarely bathe or brush your teeth. Disease would have been another problem.

You can see why your odds of living till old age would have been impaired, but the one problem you wouldn't have had is, you guessed it: time.

Your days never felt long, you never got "bored." And since you died young, your concept of saving time didn't exist. The pressure or guilt of wasting time is a concept that didn't exist.

This means as our lives become longer and more meaningful, our time becomes more valuable.

πŸ•°οΈ Origins of Time and Productivity

Do you know why clocks were invented?

The moment humans realized that if they wanted to coordinate the actions of more than a handful of people, they needed a new system. They needed a reliable, agreed-upon method of measuring time.

So the first people to invent modern-day mechanical clocks were medieval monks. They needed to synchronize and coordinate morning prayers while it was still dark (because prior to that, ancient Egyptians and other ancient civilizations used Sundials). The monks needed some way of ensuring that the whole monastery woke up at a required point. Interesting fact, before these mechanical inventions, the monastery would assign a single monk to stay up all night and watch the movement of stars (which obviously only worked when it wasn't cloudy and if the monk didn't fall asleep).

Then by the 1700s, came the Industrial Revolution, which sent rural peasants into cities, taking jobs in mills and factories, each requiring coordination of hundreds of people, working fixed hours of six days a week to keep the machines running.

The visibility and standardization of time changed our thinking from abstract to treating time as a "resource." Something that can be bought and sold and used as efficiently as possible, like commodities. Prior to that, workers used to get paid for a "day's work" or piecework basis, receiving a given sum per bale of hay, slaughter pig or cow. But later, it became standard to pay people per hour. The factory owner now needed efficient workers to squeeze as much labour as possible from each hour in order to turn bigger profits.

That's when productivity took a turn.

It created industrialists that came to feel that workers who didn't drive themselves hard enough were guilty of stealing "something." Those workers were stealing from the conveyor belt of time.

πŸ“ˆ The Efficiency Trap

Have you ever noticed how everything seems urgent and important for others, including your coworkers and bosses?

What "matters" is subjective.

If you start wanting to please everyone, you will please no one.

If you go down that path, you will want to render yourself more efficient β€” either by implementing more productivity techniques or working harder. Regardless, you will not have the feeling of having "enough time."

Far from getting things done, you'll be creating new things to do.

To solve this problem, you need to stop believing you'll solve every challenge by cramming more in but by making the concise decision to say no to certain things and working towards the things that matter most.

🏠 Settling Decisions

You can settle in two ways in life (1) romantically and (2) professionally. Romantically is committing to a partner who falls short of your ideal or unworthy of your excellent personality. And the professional career version is settling for a job that pays the bills rather than going all-in on your passion.

We have received this wisdom from thousands of magazines and inspirational Instagram and Twitter memes.

But the wisdom is wrong. The author argues: You should definitely settle. Or, to be more precise, you don't have a choice. You will settle.


Since time is finite, the decision to refuse to settleβ€” to spend a decade restlessly scouring online dating networks for the perfect person β€” is also a case of settling because you're opting to use up a decade of your limited time in a different sort of less-than-ideal situation.

You should make the decision to settle in something that would be harder for you to back out of. Because making such a decision will help you weather the rough patches and make the good times even more fulfilling. Having made that commitment choice, that finite course of action, then you'll be much less likely to spend that time pinning after fanatical alternatives (sources of depression and unhappiness).

πŸ˜Άβ€πŸŒ«οΈ Attention & Distraction

We always try to maximize time and time management when the real problem is a distraction. It hardly matters how committed you are to making the best use of your limited time if, day after day, your attention gets wrenched away by things you never wanted to focus on. You realize that you never wake up in the morning saying to yourself: "Today, I freely choose to watch useless videos on YouTube that serves me absolutely no purpose in my life."

Philosophers have been worrying about distraction at least since the time of the ancient Greeks, who saw it less as a matter of external interruptions and more as a question of character β€” systematic inner failure to use one's time on what one claimed values the most.

Today, we live in the "attention economy." Think of it as a giant machine that persuades you to make the wrong choices about what to do with your attention, with your finite life, by getting you to care about things you didn't want to care about. Take "free" social media. Well, it's not free. You are not the customer but the product being sold. Technology companies profits from seizing your attention and selling it to advertisers. That is how deep distractions go. It radically undermines our efforts to spend time. And that's by design. We are designed to prioritize what's most compelling rather than what's true, useful or factual.

To illustrate this example, think about how the following examples amplify the inner threats we face when we head about how venal our political opponents are and how crime is a far bigger problem in your city than it really is. So you realize our devices don't simply distract us from far more important matters, It changes we define importance in the first place.

These social platforms are sorting us into more hostile tribes and then rewarding us with likes and shares for the most hyperbolic denunciations of the other side, fueling much more vicious extremes that don't allow us to converse and debate constructively.

πŸ™ Patience

Instead of expecting the pace of everything in life to accelerate, try and ground yourself, cultivate patience and appreciate how long activities will take you. Give attention to things around you, and force yourself to notice things that allow your mind to slow down. You can strengthen your patience by breaking up big projects into tasks requiring short work periods and forbidding yourself from doing additional work after a certain task or time period is completed. Every time you force yourself to stop, you feel impatience and become more comfortable with it. Over time you'll get more accomplished than those who rushed through and burned themselves out.

Embrace Finitude
Embrace Finitude

πŸ› οΈ Ten Tools To Help You Focus

(1) Fixed Volume Approach

Keep two to-do lists, one "open" and one "closed." Open is for a brain dump of everything (Todoist). Closed can't add anything unless the previous work is done (Asana).

Complement your list with a predetermined time you want to spend on a task.

(2) Serialize

Focus on a single big project at a time.

(3) Decide what to fail at

Strategic underachievement.

Choose areas in your life where you purposely know that you will not be excellent. Fail on a cyclical basis to allow focus solely on your single big project.

(4) Focus on what is completed, not just what's incomplete

Keep a done list β€” it helps your brain see what you have already accomplished

(5) Consolidate care

Consciously pick your battles in charity, activism and politics: decide that your spare will be used to care for and don't let others and the news dictate it for you.

(6) Embrace boring, single-purpose technology

Choose devices with only one purpose. Otherwise, you might be tempted to switch applications or choose novelty over focused hard work.

(7) Seek out novelty in mundane

Pay attention to every moment, however mundane. Find novelty not by doing radically different things but by plunging more deeply into the life you already have.

(8) Be a researcher

Deliberately trying to adopt an attitude of curiosity. Don't try to be right. Don't try to take a particular outcome. Just focus on understanding another position. Choose curiosity over worry.

(9) Cultivate generosity

When it comes to praise, giving money, or checking in on a friend β€” act on the impulse don't delay the action. Do it right away. Because if you don't, that feeling won't come back.

(10) Practice doing nothing

Do nothing. That's what meditation is about. Stop trying to do anything and focus on your breathing. If you catch yourself thinking, planning or criticizing yourself, stop doing that. Keep stopping yourself until the timer goes off.