Four Thousand Weeks

Four Thousand Weeks – #9 Podcast of the Week

Welcome to the ninth blog post of: Podcast of the Week. Thanks for reading this post! If you have not yet: please check out the other Podcast of the Week blog posts: link. This blog post is about Oliver Burkeman’s new book: Four Thousand Weeks.

Why do I recommend this podcast episode?

Four thousand weeks. The amount of time it takes to become eighty years of age, for western countries this is roughly the average life expectancy. The basic idea of expressing this amount in weeks is striking. Oliver set out to make a contrarian productivity book, which states “We are here just for the blink of an eye”. So we should not begin with what we do, but what we not do. To best use the most precious and finite resource we have; Time. This creates the question; How do we manage the most precious resource? This is the question the book tries to answer, the podcast episode is a broad introduction to the book.

The podcast episode: Four Thousand Weeks

Productivity criticism

Oliver thinks too many productivity guru’s are narrowly focused on ground level things; like cooking efficiently, planning tasks and arranging your schedule in the most efficient way. He argues that their approach could be more existential; How do we spend the time we have. Because you could be on top of everything but avoid making difficult decisions that are necessary to live a meaningful life. “You want to confront reality of a finite time on this earth” But what does this mean:

The focus of the book is on the big picture. “What do we want to do with the time we have?” To grapple with a question of this magnitude the book doesn’t focus on the tactical dimension, unlike the guru’s. But It puts this dimension in context. All situations have a limited characteristic, so does life. This means accepting that choices are required. Only a handful of ambitions will happen, only so much tasks can be completed. The idea that everything can get done is fundamentally wrong, this comes from the desire to get on top of everything. Oliver says this productivity manifestation comes from our desire to control things and avoid difficult decisions. This requires us to be immortal, which we are not. Further down in the key takeaways Oliver gives us some concrete steps to start living a more meaningful life.

Oliver Burkeman

By reading this far, you might ask: Who is Oliver Burkeman? He Is a self-professed time management geek. He writes weekly columns for the Guardian, in 2006 he won the Orwell Prize for Journalism. After reading scores of books, he concluded that most time management tactics result in an illusion of productivity. They don’t get to the root of why we feel the need to be time wizards, or tell us how to overcome FOMO. Also they don’t mention the importance of relaxation or play. He has a different take on the subject of productivity. Oliver is author of:

In this interview, Oliver explains how we can face this reality and make peace with it. He recommends numerous counter-intuitive, unconventional tactics, like choosing to fail at certain tasks, ruthlessly sticking to a limited number of projects, occasionally forsaking convenience and burning bridges.

Afford Anything Podcast

Once again I recommend a podcast episode from the Afford Anything podcast. (I am a big fan) This show is run by Paula Pant. She interviews experts from many fields about decision-making, productivity, mastering your career, money and life. Her articles and podcast episodes revolve around mastering money to set yourself free, by adjusting your behavior. Here you can find links to the other Afford Anything blog posts:

What are the key takeaways from Four Thousand Weeks?

In every podcast of the week blog post there are key takeaways. These are the most important lessons that I have distilled from four thousand weeks. I do this with help of the podcast host, Paula Pant. Because she always formulates her own key takeaways at the end of every episode. You can find her notes here: Episode notes. The takeaways are set-up in a way to help you bridge the gap between vision and ability. Subsequently I have written down the most applicable ones:

  1. Stop optimizing time, focus less on ad-hoc tasks and more on the projects that matter.
  2. Limit works in progress, use the KanBan System to achieve this.
  3. Decide in advance what you fail at, set up SMART goals that will help you prioritize.
  4. Burn more bridges, big commitments can help you move forward.
  5. Consider scrapping convenience, inconvenience can create value.
  6. Redefine a meaningful life, universal activities can be meaningful if these align with your values.

1. Stop optimizing time

It doesn’t add much value to optimize every little task, minute to minute. These are the details of the day. This will mean that insignificant tasks get a disproportionate amount of time. This is called the importance trap; the more “Productive” you become, the more you focus on ad-hoc tasks. It is better to invert, focus on that what matters most, get comfortable with letting things slide. Train your mind to not focus on trivial things. An example of this would be to book time in your agenda to work on a project. During this time it is important to ignore ad-hoc tasks, therefore; phone calls, e-mails or in-person interruptions. I apply this myself, it is simple yet an effective way to get important work done.

2. Limit works in progress

The basic Idea is that you select a limited amount of key projects at any one time to work on. You could have a limit of by example 3 projects (slots). You could apply this in numerous ways, you can vary in number of slots. The idea is to be conscious about your limits. This will alleviate the pressure to complete every project, by prioritizing.

KanBan system

How to not be neurotic about it?: Start on a tactical level. Tolerate discomfort (missing out ad-hoc work), by not clearning the dex constantly but at the end of the day. Focus on a limited set of tasks, doing what matters. Just like the KanBan system;

Four Thousand Weeks – KanBan system

you can move tasks through the phases as displayed above. This will make you obliged to see how reality is, you can only pick a few things. It will become less uncomfortable to put on ice certain ideas. Because more progress in your projects is the result. Personally I use the application Trello as KanBan board for this website, it is free to use.

3. Decide in advance what you fail at

This takeaway is straight forward but hard to execute in my opinion. Because this means you have to accept the finite. Helping you decide what to fail at is easier when you have selected focus projects in your KanBan slots. Deciding in advance what you fail at has benefits, you can manage expectations better and align behaviour. The question that arises, how do we put this in practice?;

How to execute this takeaway

The main way to do this is by setting up a goal, one overarching goal within a time frame. It can help to make this goal SMART, which stand for: Specific, Measurable, Acceptable, Realistic and Time bound. You focus on this goal until it is done, then you move to the next thing. By extension you decide what you are not doing. This helps you embrace the finite aspect of life.

4. Burn more bridges

Keeping all your options open gives a feeling of control, to not sacrifice time. But actually this limits you in the ability to commit. The idea of keeping your options open comes from the theoretically infinite amount of choices in society; dating apps by example this torments people because they find if hard to commit. There is an argument to be made for big commitments. Almost always people are relaxed with these; buying a house, choosing a job, getting a child. Oliver argues that we should make a decision and move forward, this will make you focus on the next step instead of getting stuck in “analysis paralysis”. By making a big commitment we burn bridges / limit options, but this is fine because we learn by doing.

5. Consider scrapping convenience

Most technological innovations/ideas are targeted at eliminating needless activities in life. But this can also eliminate value. Think of activities like; Writing a card online opposed to physically or ordering food instead of cooking it yourself. All this automations smooth out the rough edges of life. This leads to becoming the person you don’t want to be, something can get lost in the process. We need reasons to put effort in, less convenience can force you to become a better version of yourself. Examples; commuting, meeting face to face.

6. Redefine a meaningful life

Make your own definition of a meaningful life. Don’t be dissatisfied if you can’t meet social media standards. Your life doesn’t have to be special to be meaningful. Universal activities can be meaningful if these align with your values.

How is Four Thousand Weeks related to Know Act Invest?

Four Thousand Weeks is mostly related to the Act and Invest phase of Know Act Invest. The Act phase because it gives concrete actions you can take to set up goals for projects that matter and ways to free up time that will help you Invest time. It is also related to the Know phase because using SMART goals in combination with the KanBan system can give you more awareness about your current projects. This can give you a new perspective on priorities.

My opinion

To start; I don’t agree with most viewpoints of Four Thousand Weeks. My biggest criticism is that most of Oliver’s advice is anecdotal, in the episode there is no mention of actual research backing it up. I haven’t read the book, maybe there is more information in there. On the contrary some of his advice relies on widely adopted methods, the KanBan system and SMART goals by example. That is the reason I wanted to cover this podcast episode.

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Want to learn more about Four Thousand Weeks?

Then I recommend Oliver Burkeman’s book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases) This blog post provided you with information adopt takeaways from Four Thousand Weeks. The book is the complete guide with more detailed information.

Further reading