4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman - my notes (tldr an unconvincing feel-good book for the lazy and unambitious)

  • This one came highly recommended but left me dissapointed. My best theory for why it is so popular is that that it makes lazy unambitious people feel good about themselves. There’s clearly a huge market for that and kudos to Oliver Burkeman for tapping into that.
  • His whole theory revolves around the idea that all productivity problems are rooted in human tendency to avoid facing the reality that our lifetime is finite. Procastination? Avoidance strategy. Problem committing? Avoidance strategy. Workaholism? Avoidance strategy.
  • That theory is obviously flawed. Tons of people have solved the problems he described and none of it had anything to do with facing the fact that their time on Earth is limited. They simply found something worth commiting to. When you’re convinced that you’re working on something that needs to exist in the world and will not exist without you, you have zero problems commiting to this project and won’t struggle with procrastination. Also workaholism becomes a non-issue since you’re simple what needs to be done without having any second thoughts about if it’s truly worth it.
  • There are tons of logical errors like this in the book. Want another example? Quote: “Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work–life balance’”. lol. I don’t know what bubble Oliver Burkeman lives in but there are countless people maintaining perfect work-life balance. My mom worked all her life as a high school teacher, choosing to work only 30 hours per week, and never struggling with anything remotely resembling work-life balance isisues.
  • Most of his advice boils down to “chill, drop your ambitions, don’t try to do so much, work less and focus on the things that truly matter”. Quote: “You almost certainly won’t put a dent in the universe.”. So why even bother trying? Also please just accept that things move at a certain pace. The very simple counter points here are 1) the only people who ever achieve anything big are the ones who are crazy enough to believe they can, 2) most speed limits are an illusion and there is absolutely no reason to move at the same glacial pace as everyone else, 3) if people know what to focus on they have absolute no problem doing so. The key issue is not that people don’t know that focusing on things that matter is a smart idea but rather that they don’t know what these things are.
  • All his actionable tactical advice is regurgitated from other sources. Work on projects in series, not in parallel; Always only work on fixed number of things at any give time. That kind of stuff.
  • There is also very little about how he approaches productivity himself. He shares some ideas but never how he actually uses them in his daily life. This is always the biggest red flag for me when it comes to advice.
  • I also did not like the pretentiouses. Lots of stuff about Heidegger, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, etc. that is entirely surface-level and the main purpose seems to be to make the book appear deeper than it really is.
  • Someone needs to write a book that is 100% orthogonal to this one.


  • He claims to transcended all productivity advice that came before only to regurgitate the same old lukewarm advice himself.
  • As mentioned Burkeman’s main argument is that the (in his opinion futile) pusuit for personal productivity is a coping mechanism to avoid deeper decision.
  • Logic roughly goes as follows: Our lifetime is finite. People don’t acknowledge this fact. They act as if they could do it all and avoid making hard decisions. They believe it’s their lack of a perfect productivity system that’s truly holding them back. “With enough hard work and the right time management tricks, you might not have to make them at all.” Hence they continue their pursuit for more personal productivity instead of coming to terms with the fact that they will never be able to get everything they could do done.
  • Also people like to keep themselves busy since “we don’t want to feel the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path, or what ideas about ourselves it could be time to give up.”
  • Also people prefer optionality instead of making committments.
  • “The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets. 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.”
  • Another of his main points that I find entirely unconvincing: “If you really thought life would never end, he argues, then nothing could ever genuinely matter, because you’d never be faced with having to decide whether or not to use a portion of your precious life on something.” As he points out, humans naturally don’t think about the finiteness of their lifetime. In concrete terms this means that people would not live different whether they have 100, 4000, 40,000, or 400,0000 many weeks on Earth. But does that make any of the human experience less meaningful? Clearly not. So why would it be any different in the limit weeks -> inf. Or consider if you had infinite money but you’d only spend a finite amount during each finite quanity of time. Would that make the amazing things you could do with your money any less meaningful? In that case it is perfectly obvious that experiences you could buy with your infinite money or dents in the universe you could produce spending it, do not derive their value from the many you spend on them. A cheap dinner with my parents is infinitely more meaningful than some networking dinner with strangers that costs me a fortune. In short, the amount of time/money you spend on something (and how much of it you possess) doesn’t dictate the meaning of anything.
  • His solution? “To quote the psychotherapist Bruce Tift once more, you’ll have had to allow yourself to risk feeling ‘claustrophobic, imprisoned, powerless, and constrained by reality’.”
  • “accepting this lack of any solution is the solution.” “The paradoxical reward for accepting reality’s constraints is that they no longer feel so constraining.”
  • And of course, meditate! “To stop being motivated by the attempt to evade how reality feels here and now, to calm down, and to make better choices with your brief allotment of life.”
  • Also: “start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”

On Parkinsons Law

  • Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”.
  • If you “acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it.
  • “The American historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan shows that when housewives first got access to ‘labour-saving’ devices like washing machines and vacuum cleaners, no time was saved at all, because society’s standards of cleanliness simply rose to offset the benefits; now that you could return each of your husband’s shirts to a spotless condition after a single wearing, it began to feel like you should, to show how much you loved him.”
  • “The technologies we use to try to ‘get on top of everything’ always fail us, in the end, because they increase the size of the ‘everything’ of which we’re trying to get on top.”
  • “The more efficient you get, the more you become ‘a limitless reservoir for other people’s expectations’, in the words of the management expert Jim Benson.”

On Prioritization

  • “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.”
  • “If you never stop to ask yourself if the sacrifice is worth it, your days will automatically begin to fill not just with more things, but with more trivial or tedious things, because they’ve never had to clear the hurdle of being judged more important than something else.”
  • “One can waste years this way, systematically postponing precisely the things one cares about the most.”
  • “The smug teacher is being dishonest. He has rigged his demonstration by bringing only a few big rocks into the classroom, knowing they’ll all fit into the jar. The real problem of time management today, though, isn’t that we’re bad at prioritising the big rocks. It’s that there are too many rocks – and most of them are never making it anywhere near that jar.”
  • “Every expenditure might have felt eminently sensible and necessary in the moment that you made it. The trouble is that we’re terrible at long-range planning: if something feels like a priority now, it’s virtually impossible to coolly assess whether it will still feel that way in a week or a month. And so we naturally err on the side of spending – then feel bad later when there’s nothing left over to save.”
  • “Virtually every new technology, from the steam engine to mobile broadband, has permitted us to get things done more quickly than before. Shouldn’t this therefore have reduced our impatience, by allowing us to live at something closer to the speed we’d prefer? Yet since the beginning of the modern era of acceleration, people have been responding not with satisfaction at all the time saved but with increasing agitation that they can’t make things move faster still. This is another mystery, though, that’s illuminated when you understand it as a form of resistance to our built-in human limitations.”
  • “‘You could fill any arbitrary number of hours with what feels to be productive work,’ writes Cal Newport,”

Productivity Advice

  • “Principle number one is to pay yourself first when it comes to time. I’m borrowing this phrasing from the graphic novelist and creativity coach Jessica Abel, who borrowed it in turn from the world of personal finance, where it’s long been an article of faith because it works.” “Abel saw that her only viable option was to claim time instead – to just start drawing, for an hour or two, every day, and to accept the consequences, even if those included neglecting other activities she sincerely valued.”
  • “The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Perhaps the most appealing way to resist the truth about your finite time is to initiate a large number of projects at once; that way, you get to feel as though you’re keeping plenty of irons in the fire and making progress on all fronts. Instead, what usually ends up happening is that you make progress on no fronts – because each time a project starts to feel difficult, or frightening, or boring, you can bounce off to a different one instead. You get to preserve your sense of being in control of things, but at the cost of never finishing anything important.”
  • “James Hollis recommends asking of every significant decision in life: ‘Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me” “Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can.”
  • “keep two to-do lists, one ‘open’ and one ‘closed’. The open list is for everything that’s on your plate and will doubtless be nightmarishly long. Fortunately, it’s not your job to tackle it: instead, feed tasks from the open list to the closed one – that is, a list with a fixed number of entries, ten at most. The rule is that you can’t add a new task until one’s completed.”
  • Set “predetermined time boundaries for your daily work.”
  • “Following the same logic, focus on one big project at a time (or at most, one work project and one non-work project)”
  • “strategic underachievement – that is, nominating in advance whole areas of life in which you won’t expect excellence of yourself – is that you focus that time and energy more effectively.”
  • “When it comes to the challenge of using your four thousand weeks well, the capacity to do nothing is indispensable, because if you can’t bear the discomfort of not acting, you’re far more likely to make poor choices with your time, simply to feel as if you’re acting – choices such as stressfully trying to hurry activities that won’t be rushed (chapter 10) or feeling you ought to spend every moment being productive in the service of future goals, thereby postponing fulfilment to a time that never arrives (chapter 8).”

Other Advice

  • “whenever a generous impulse arises in your mind – to give money, check in on a friend, send an email praising someone’s work – act on the impulse right away, rather than putting it off until later.”
  • “when presented with a challenging or boring moment, try deliberately adopting an attitude of curiosity, in which your goal isn’t to achieve any particular outcome, or successfully explain your position, but, as Hobson puts it, ‘to figure out who this human being is that we’re with’.”

On Procrastination

  • Burkeman argues that procrastination is a coping mechanism for avoiding to face reality.
  • “The philosopher Costica Bradatan illustrates the point by means of a fable about an architect from Shiraz in Persia who designed the world’s most beautiful mosque: a breathtaking structure, dazzlingly original yet classically well proportioned, awe-inspiring in its grandeur yet wholly unpretentious.7 All those who saw the architectural plans wanted to buy them, or steal them; famous builders begged him to let them take on the job. But the architect locked himself in his study and stared at the plans for three days and nights – then burned them all. He might have been a genius, but he was also a perfectionist: the mosque of his imagination was perfect, and it agonised him to contemplate the compromises that would be involved in making it real. Even the greatest of builders would inevitably fail to reproduce his plans absolutely faithfully; nor would he be able to protect his creation from the ravages of time – from the physical decay or marauding armies that would eventually reduce it to dust. 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. Bradatan argues that when we find ourselves procrastinating on something important to us, we’re usually in some version of this same mindset. We fail to see, or refuse to accept, that any attempt to bring our ideas into concrete reality must inevitably fall short of our dreams, no matter how brilliantly we succeed in carrying things off – because reality, unlike fantasy, is a realm in which we don’t have limitless control, and can’t possibly hope to meet our perfectionist standards.”
  • “It’s that the distracted person isn’t really choosing at all. Their attention has been commandeered by forces that don’t have their highest interests at heart.”

On Commitments

  • “Once, in an experiment, the Harvard University social psychologist Daniel Gilbert and a colleague gave hundreds of people the opportunity to pick a free poster from a selection of art prints.13 Then he divided the participants into two groups. The first group was told that they had a month in which they could exchange their poster for any other one; the second group was told that the decision they’d already made had been final. In follow-up surveys, it was the latter group – those who were stuck with their decision, and who thus weren’t distracted by the thought that it might still be possible to make a better choice – who showed by far the greater appreciation for the work of art they’d selected.”

On Distractions

  • “‘variable rewards’: when you can’t predict whether or not refreshing the screen will bring new posts to read, the uncertainty makes you more likely to keep trying, again and again and again, just as you would on a slot machine.”
  • “the attention economy is designed to prioritise 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’s true that killing time on the internet often doesn’t feel especially fun, these days. But it doesn’t need to feel fun. In order to dull the pain of finitude, it just needs to make you feel unconstrained.”
  • “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.”
  • “you shouldn’t be surprised to find yourself seeking some other way to avoid paying attention. In the case of conversation, this generally takes the form of mentally rehearsing what you’re going to say next, as soon as the other person has finished making sounds with their mouth.”

On Trying Too Hard

  • “My favourite example of this effect is the 2015 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, in which couples were instructed to have sex twice as frequently as usual for a two-month period.13 At the end of this time, the study concluded, they weren’t any happier than they had been at the start. This finding was widely reported as demonstrating that a more active sex life isn’t as enjoyable as you might have imagined. But what it really shows, I’d say, is that trying too hard to have a more active sex life is no fun at all.”
  • “Living more fully in the present may be simply a matter of finally realising that you never had any other option but to be here now.”

On Atelic activities

  • “But the notion of the atelic activity suggests there’s an alternative that Schopenhauer might have overlooked, one that hints at a partial solution to the problem of an overly instrumentalised life. We might seek to incorporate into our daily lives more things we do for their own sake alone – to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself.”

On Addiction to Speed

  • “Perhaps it seems melodramatic to compare ‘addiction to speed’, as Brown calls our modern disease of accelerated living, to a condition as serious as alcoholism.”
  • “Brown argues, we speed addicts must crash to earth. We have to give up. You surrender to the reality that things just take the time they take, and that you can’t quiet your anxieties by working faster, because it isn’t within your power to force reality’s pace as much as you feel you need to, and because the faster you go, the faster you’ll feel you need to go.”
  • “now that you’ve abandoned your futile efforts to dictate the speed at which the experience moves, the real experience can begin.”
  • “It was precisely the students’ impatient desire to hasten their work beyond its appropriate pace, to race on to the point of completion, that was impeding their progress. They couldn’t stand the discomfort that arose from being forced to acknowledge their limited control over the speed of the creative process – and so they sought to escape it, either by not getting down to work at all, or by rushing headlong into stressful all-day writing binges, which led to procrastination later on, because it made them learn to hate the whole endeavour.”

On the Problem With Individualism and Desynchronicity

  • “You can grasp the truth that power over your time isn’t something best hoarded entirely for yourself: that your time can be too much your own.”
  • “digital nomads will admit that the chief problem with their lifestyle is the acute loneliness.”
  • “the trouble with this kind of individualist freedom, as Judith Shulevitz points out, is that a society in thrall to it, as ours is, ends up desynchronising itself – imposing upon itself something surprisingly similar, in its results, to the disastrous Soviet experiment with a staggered five-day week.”

On Ambition

  • “And it is likewise ‘implausible, for almost all people, to demand of themselves that they be a Michelangelo, a Mozart, or an Einstein …10 There have only been a few dozen such people in the entire history of humanity.’ In other words, you almost certainly won’t put a dent in the universe. Indeed, depending on the stringency of your criteria, even Steve Jobs, who coined that phrase, failed to leave such a dent.”
Written on December 25, 2023

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