An interview with Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It. A book about embracing your limitations and finally getting round to what counts.
The Positive Planner Team has started its own mini bookclub at TPP HQ and over time we've been slowly building a small library of books we love. We felt we wanted to start passing these books on to you and so every now and again you're going to find a quick book review from us over here on our blog page. Our first is Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman. This time we've been lucky enough to speak to the author about the book and his own relationship with time.
Co-founder Ali also spoke with him over on publisher Vintage Books Instagram page this month. Just follow this link to watch it. But first things first. Here's a little bit about the book, why we love it and our interview with Oliver Burkeman himself.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It
It's hard to imagine that we have, on average, just 4,000 weeks on earth. Written down like that, it seems so short, doesn’t it? It sent a bit of a panic through The Positive Planner team when we read it and a whole lot of questions came up: How should we be spending our time? How many of these weeks have we already wasted? If we're honest, there was also an oh no! Someone else telling us how to manage our time in a way we just can't possibly succeed at!
But this book is different. In Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Oliver Burkeman writes that we will never have everything under control - whether that be work, deadlines, home life, family commitments or the laundry pile. And this is OK!
How can that be, we hear you cry! Well, rather than trying to get everything done, he talks about how to construct a truly meaningful life by welcoming rather than denying our limitations. It's OK to accept we just can't do it all. In fact, this is a mantra that is very close to our hearts here at The Positive Planner. Our first mindful and gratitude journal, The Positive Planner, is very closely bound up in this notion and it's why we include 'My Top 3 To-Dos' in its morning pages. By keeping the list small and recognising that we cannot do it all, we are more likely to keep the feeling of overwhelm at bay and gain more positivity in what we do actually do.
Oliver Burkeman's guide to 'time management for mortals' has given us a new take on how our relationship with time could be if we are able to confront our finitude. It's fascinating and hugely thought-provoking. Well worth using up a small portion of your 4,000 weeks to read!
Here's our interview with Oliver Burkeman:
What inspired you to write this book?
My own many years as a “productivity geek”, trying – yet always failing – to get in total control of my time, to feel like my life was in full working order, and that I could get absolutely everything done. This book is about why that’s an intrinsically impossible goal for human beings. And why understanding that is the first step toward a life that’s both much more peaceful and more filled with meaningful accomplishments.
How do you hope your book will inspire the reader to be more mindful with their time?
I hope it will help trigger a shift in perspective where the reader comes to see that good time management isn’t a matter of cramming more and more in, but rather of accepting that you can’t do everything, and thereby coming to make wiser, more conscious choices about what you do decide to give time to. While also not beating yourself up about all the things you decide to neglect. I think it’s really freeing and empowering.
What practical advice do you give others to help them prioritise their time?
The book has plenty of such advice, but if I were to pick just one, I’d mention training yourself to do fewer things at a time. For example: pick one big goal in each domain of your life, and commit to completing it before moving on to another. This tends to make people anxious – we’d rather feel like we had a finger in every pie, and were moving forward on everything at once. But if you chase that feeling, in reality you end up moving forward on nothing at all. By contrast, learning to tolerate the discomfort of focusing on one thing at a time is a kind of superpower.
What is your ultimate go-to act of self care?
Anything that involves stopping. And then, crucially, embracing the discomfort involved in stopping – because everything in my personality and in the culture that surrounds me makes me want to keep going – until the mental flywheel starts to slow back down to the speed of life. So, hiking. Swimming. Playing with my son. Massacring the songs of Elton John on our piano. Right now I’m looking after a friend’s dog, and the fact that I have to walk her twice daily is a great way of doing this, too. If I had the choice, maybe I’d go for crossing more items off the to-do list instead – but luckily for me, I don’t have the choice.
Lastly, what helps you stay positive?
Getting enough sleep. Singing in a choir, which is currently still hard to do, pandemic-wise. And keeping a “done list”, alongside my to-do list, which reminds me of all the things I’ve already accomplished today. Otherwise, I'm liable to focus solely on what I haven't yet done – which (given that I’m a finite human in a world of infinite obligations and opportunities) is always almost everything.
Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It is out now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.
Author photograph: Jeff Mikkelson