4,000 Weeks: An Antidote to Toxic Time Management

I’ve noticed a growing rigidity in myself the past few years. 

A tendency to want to control and manage my time as efficiently as possible. 

I think it started when I launched The Weekend University.

To get things off the ground, I had to work long hours and ensure almost every minute of the day was put to the best possible use. 

I thought this would be temporary, and that things would get back to normal after a while.

But in recent years, it feels like it’s accelerating. 

To cope with the uncertainty of COVID-19, and the associated lockdowns, I focused excessively on what I could control (e.g. my time and routine). 

Although this was helpful in that it gave me much needed structure during lockdowns, it became maladaptive when the restrictions ended. 

For example, I’d be out for drinks with friends, and as the night progressed, I’d have this growing anxiety that I should leave because I was due to get up at a ridiculously early hour the next day.

Or, when I went on a holiday in Scotland last summer, I felt the need to be in a constant state of movement on the trip; always looking to go to the next place, see the next thing.

It seemed that I was unable to just sit at peace for a few hours and take a breather. 

All of this has made me question my relationship with time. 

For the most part, it seems unhealthy, mechanical, and kind of forced. 

Like I’m always in a rush, excessively busy and needing to be doing something productive in order for it to feel worthwhile. 


Recently, I discovered 4,000 weeks by Oliver Burkeman. 

In the book, you learn about some of the root causes of our dysfunctional relationship with time, as well as some practical things you can do to improve it.

Reading it felt like therapy for me; like breathing a huge ‘sigh of relief’. 

It made me question some of my most basic assumptions about life, as well as how I’m spending the brief amount of time I have on this planet.

This will be a two-part post summarising my key takeaways from the book. 

The first will focus on the root causes of our toxic relationship with time, and the second will look at alternative perspectives and practical strategies for developing a healthier relationship with it. 

If, like me, you constantly feel overwhelmed, excessively busy, and on the brink of burnout, the ideas in Oliver’s book have the potential to transform your relationship with time into one that feels life-giving, rather than crushing. 


#1 – Medieval Monks, The Industrial Revolution & The Great Split

An assumption is “something that you accept as true without question or proof”. 

We hold many assumptions about the most basic elements of our world, and it’s easy to go through an entire lifetime without questioning them. 

One of these is our assumptions about time.

Without realising it, we’ve inherited a set of ideas about it that cause us to view it in a certain way. 

In some sense, our relationship with time is similar to a fish swimming in water, that has no idea what water is. 

Toxic Time Management
Image credit: Victoria Dimitrakopoulos

Until recently, it’s unlikely that we experienced time as a ‘thing’ at all. 

We didn’t see it as something separate from us, nor did we attempt to measure, manage or control it.

We just got up when the sun rose, did what needed to be done that day, e.g. milk the cows, plough the fields, etc., went to sleep when the sun set, woke up the next day, and did it all again. 

You can imagine it would have been hard to feel rushed in this way of life.

Life would have felt cyclical, in harmony with the seasons, and probably a lot more tranquil too. 

It is widely believed that medieval monks were the inventors of the first mechanical clocks, as they needed to ensure everyone in the monastery woke at the same time for morning prayers.

Although initially confined to monasteries, clocks became widely adopted during the Industrial Revolution. As cities expanded and production boomed, we now had to coordinate the actions of large numbers of people, so that factories, trains, and corporations could run ‘in sync’ with one another.

So we adopted clock time en masse, meaning our daily actions now ran according to the hands of the clock. Workers would start on time, put in their hours, and ‘clock out’ at the end of the day, with each person paid for the number of hours they worked.

We started trading time like a resource, in the same way we’d trade coal, oil, or textiles.

Although this was beneficial for economic growth, it was disastrous for our mental health and wellbeing. 

As soon as time became an abstract entity to be quantified and traded, we started to see it as separate from ourselves; something to be bought and sold as efficiently as possible.

It became an external force that exerted pressure on us – a thing we had to control, measure and manage. 

So when time became mechanical, we became mechanical.

Instead of just living life as it naturally unfolded in time, we started to view each moment as a means to some future end, and thus time spent was almost always measured against it’s value towards some future goal. 

In short, we no longer simply ‘were’ time. 

We started to use time. 

It became separate from us. 


#2 – Instrumentalisation

Toxic Time Management
Image credit: culturesonar.com

“ Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Our perception of time as a separate entity has led to increasing problems with ‘instrumentalisation’. 

To instrumentalise means to use something (e.g. a person, place or object) as a tool in order to achieve some future goal. 

Since the invention of the clock, we’ve gradually developed this relationship with time.

That is, we have the nagging sense that we should always be using time for the benefit of some future goal, and that our time is not being ‘invested’ well unless we are engaged in some form of self improvement. 

As the author James Clear writes in his 3-2-1 newsletter

“Think about what you want today and you’ll spend your time. Think about what you want in 5 years and you’ll invest your time.”

Although this is undoubtedly solid advice for self improvement, viewing time this way causes us to continuously devalue the experience we’re having right here and now.

We’re never content to be ‘here’ because we’re always thinking of getting ‘there’. 

But consider for a second that: 

(1.) Every moment you’ve ever experienced in the past happened in the present moment.

(2.) Every moment you will ever experience in the future, can only ever happen when the time is ‘now’. 

Therefore, one of the most important things you can learn how to do – perhaps the most important thing, is to develop a friendly relationship with the present moment. 

To get good at being fully here now. 

As the philosopher Alan Watts said: 

“There’s no point in planning for the future, if you won’t be able to enjoy it when you get there”. 

Said differently, if your default is to always worry and plan for the ‘next thing’, then you won’t be able to enjoy the things you plan or work so hard to achieve.

Because when you arrive, you won’t be ‘there’ to enjoy it – you’ll be off in your head thinking about some other goal you have for the future.

When you treat every moment as a means to achieving some future end, you drain the present of its meaning. 

And this obsessive focus on the future, blinds you from all of the magic unfolding all around you now. 

You miss out on all of the simple wonders of everyday life. 


#3 – Avoidance Strategies

Toxic Time Management
Image credit: culturesonar.com

“Life is a terminal disease – and it’s sexually transmitted.” – John Cleese

One of the central arguments in 4,000 weeks is that avoidance is a major source of our modern unhealthy relationship with time.

Specifically, that we want to avoid the reality that our time is always running out, and that, rather depressingly, we are all gradually moving towards death.

So we engage in ‘avoidance strategies’ to blind ourselves from this uncomfortable truth.

We make ourselves excessively busy, stimulate ourselves with constant entertainment, procrastinate, and avoid the things that matter most – all in an effort to quell our anxiety about our impending fate.

Counterintuitively, Burkeman argues that it is only by facing up to the reality of our situation, and that we are, as the Existential Philosopher Heidegger puts it, a ‘being towards death’, can we make the most of our short time on this planet. 

When you realise you’ve only got a small number of weeks here (e.g. 4,000), and that there’s no guarantee you’ll see the next one, you start to see time and each day of life itself, as a precious gift to be cherished. 

You start to wonder about the mystery of being here at all. 

The mundane everyday things that we usually take for granted become incredibly meaningful in their own right. 

And you start to see that because your time is finite, you can’t do everything – so it takes the pressure off you to try to do everything. 

Instead, now that you’ve become conscious that your time is limited, you realise that you will have to make hard choices about how you spend it. 

You will have to sacrifice some things for others – and it is precisely these tradeoffs that will make your choices meaningful. 

In short, you realise that it is only by embracing finitude and coming into close contact with the reality of your existence, that you can fully and wholeheartedly say ‘yes’ to life and fully inhabit your sphere of being right here and now. 

Although initially this can be a hard pill to swallow, it’s exhilarating to fully embrace the reality of our situation and work with it, rather than against it.


#4 – Your Inner Houdini

Toxic Time Management - Houdini

“Fear of life is really the fear of emotions. It is not the facts that we fear but our feelings about them.” ― David R. Hawkins

As I was writing the first draft of this post, I found my mouse sneakily moving towards the top of my screen with the intention of typing in www.youtube.com.

In my spare moments, I regularly find my hand automatically reaching for my phone to check emails.

It’s almost like these behaviours have become part of my nervous system now. 

Like they are happening beneath the level of conscious awareness.

Nowadays, we often hear how modern technology is negatively influencing our lives, shrinking our attention spans, and distracting us from what matters most. 

In fact, some studies show that the average adult now checks their phone 58 times per day, and spends 3 hours and 15 minutes glued to their device.

In 4,000 weeks, Burkeman contends that our technological distractions are only symptoms of a deeper problem.

That is – there is something in us that wants to be distracted.

Burkeman writes: 

“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.”

In the book, you learn about Steve Young; a Californian PhD student who gave up a promising career in academia to become a Monk in Southern Japan.

As part of his training, Steve had to live in an unheated cabin in the snowy Kii mountains for one hundred days. 

Toxic Time Management
Image credit: Clay Banks on Unsplash

One of his mandatory rituals involved going outside three times each day and dousing himself with a bucket of freezing cold water. With temperatures well below zero, you can only imagine how jolting this must have been for someone accustomed to the comforts of Western life.

As Steve later recalled: 

“It’s so cold that the water freezes the moment it touches the floor, and your towel freezes in your hand. So you’re sliding around barefoot on ice, trying to dry your body with a frozen hand towel.”

Yikes..

However, over time, as he continued to perform the ritual, he began to learn something important:

The more he brought his attention into the physical sensations of the cold water on his body, the less he suffered mentally. In other words, when Steve focused on the actual physical sensation of being cold, the experience was ok. 

However, when his mind tried to ‘escape’ by thinking about other things, it became unbearable. 

It was almost like the ritual was an ancient (and a little bit evil) biofeedback device devised by the monks. 

If you stayed present, you could tolerate the cold. 

But if your mind wandered, you found yourself in a world of pain. 

The takeaway from Steve’s story is that we often suffer (unnecessarily) because our minds try to escape the unpleasant sensations that are an inherent part of life.

We only want one side – the positive, and will do almost anything not to experience the negative. 

So, when a situation arises that causes uncomfortable emotions in us, our ‘inner Houdini’ immediately distracts us with social media scrolling, checking emails, or binge watching Netflix. 

Knowing that we all have this inner escape artist within us, and that they will go to almost any length to distract us, is the first step. 

The second is to become curious when you notice uncomfortable feelings arising in you. 

What is the actual physical sensation that is happening in your body when you feel like you want to escape the situation?

Can you get curious about it? Where in your body do you feel it? Can you sit with it for a while? 

If you can develop the ability to embrace negative emotions, sit with them, and not run away from them when they arise, every experience becomes a learning opportunity that can deepen your self awareness. 

Moreover, you’ll be less likely to distract yourself from the important things, which will enable you to make meaningful progress towards what matters most.


Conclusion

Toxic Time Management
Image credit: Aron Visuals on Unsplash

“Time is our most valuable nonrenewable resource.” – Albert-László Barabási.

Everything that you will ever do will unfold in time. 

Your relationship with it is arguably the most important in your life. 

It’s a ‘force multiplier’.

If you get this one relationship right, it will improve every other relationship in your life: 

— Your relationships with others (you’ll be a calmer and happier person, and more fun to be around)

— Your relationship with your work (you’ll be less rushed, so there will be more quality in what you do, meaning you’ll enjoy the process of working more and produce better work)

— Your relationship with yourself (taking the pressure off a bit will mean that you’ll enjoy each day more, feel less stressed, and cultivate a more fulfilling existence).

This post provided an introduction to some of the root causes of our dysfunctional relationship with time. 

In the next one, we’ll explore alternative perspectives and practical strategies for developing a healthier relationship with it.

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Niall McKeever

Niall McKeever

Writer and Founder of The Weekend University. Passionate about making great ideas more accessible.

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