Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman: Top 5 Lessons

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One of the things I love most about this book is the author’s personal history. You see, long before publishing Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman wrote a weekly column on productivity. He’s a productivity geek. A guru. He knows every trick in the book — and added a few chapters.

Did it make him happier, though? Complete, fulfilled, and successful?

Short answer: Absolutely not.

Oliver noticed he didn’t have more time despite his expertise in productivity (or rather, because of it). In fact, he felt his senses of time and control dwindling. His schedule exploded, and he got more stressed and unhappy. Productivity had failed for the ultimate productivity whiz.

Luckily for Oliver, he found a radically different, more sustainable approach to dealing with his time, tasks, and mortality. And luckily for us, he compiled it into a book: Four Thousand Weeks.

What’s Four Thousand Weeks About?

Question: How many weeks do you estimate your expected lifetime holds? Try to answer on the spot and without making elaborate calculations.

I asked this question to lots of friends, and interestingly, the answers formed two clusters. Either people were overwhelmed with the task, threw their hands in the air, and said, “The hell I know!” Or the answers were optimistic. Almost utopian. “50,000,” one friend said. Another one even went beyond six figures.

But as you can imagine, the correct answer is four thousand weeks — provided you make it until your 80th birthday.

When I told people this, almost all reactions were in unison. “That’s not… a lot,” people would gasp. “Life is short.” “So much to do with so little time.”

And that’s precisely the dilemma Oliver Burkeman tries to solve in Four Thousand Weeks. How can we make the most of this fragile, short life without going insane? Spoiler alert: the answer isn’t what we’re usually told — be more productive, get more things done in less time, micro-manage your schedule. If anything, these “hacks” make everything dramatically worse. 

So, what can we do?

This launches us right into the middle of a few profoundly life-changing ideas. Coming up are the five most impactful ones I’ve found.

1. The Only Route to Psychological Freedom

The first and most important message of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman is that your life is finite and unpredictable. Not only that, but it’s impossible to change that.

Think about it — your life could end at any moment, and any plans you’ve precariously made for the future could vanish in a flash. And even if you continue to live, time will always run like sand through your fingers. The future is utterly unpredictable.

This creates massive pressure.

Heck, there’s a good reason we love to make bucket lists, read books titled 1000 Places to See Before You Die, or gobble down productivity and time management advice like a starving person at a feast. We’re scared to waste our lifetime.

The problem is this: we make all these plans, convinced we’ll actually get to execute them. We secretly hope that, one day, we can lean back in our deckchair, feel the sunshine on our belly, and think, “Huh, I’ve really seen it all. Achieved everything I ever wanted.”

Yeah. That won’t happen. At least not through being more productive.

Part of the reason is that the world bears limitless treasures. So once you get the taste of one wonderful experience, you’ll want another wonderful experience. And after that, another, and so on.

It’s an infinite vicious cycle.

You read one great book, and realize there are millions of other potentially great books. You visit one art museum to learn that there are thousands of galleries that could be even better. You enter one relationship and fantasize about all the delicacies that might improve with another person. 

In other words: The more beautiful things you experience, the more beautiful things you crave to experience.

But obviously, there isn’t enough time to experience everything. We must make choices. And so, the only antidote, as Oliver suggests, is a radical acceptance of finitude:

“[W]hen there’s too much to do … the only route to psychological freedom is to let go of the limit-denying fantasy of getting it all done and instead to focus on doing a few things that count.”

 — Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

If this sounds a bit gloomy, here’s the good news.

The benefits of having a short time to live

A strictly limited life is exactly what makes every decision you make so meaningful in the first place.

That’s why things like marriage can be so poignant and impactful. One person tells you (or you tell them) that they want to spend their entire life — this one precious life — with no one else but you. Despite all the temptations. Despite all the choices. Despite all the difficulties. But also because of all these things.

What an honor.

And, of course, the same applies to sticking to the same job, hobby, or city. Your choice to spend the currency of your lifetime yields the ultimate return on investment: the joy of missing out. It’s that exhilarating feeling of gratitude when you realize that scarcity and finitude make things worthwhile in the first place. (The opposite would be FOMO — fear of missing out.)

Or look at it from a different angle.

If life was infinite, wouldn’t it be a little… boring? If you had all the time in the world to finish your novel, to find the perfect partner, to visit the Caribbean Sea, would you ever have the incentive to act? Hardly. (Despite this, many people hope to find happiness in an eternal afterlife.)

But still. If you’re anything like me, you may try to find an escape hatch to deny life’s brevity. You may think, for example, “If I only have this short life, I can simply try to do everything faster. Be more efficient. Therefore, I’ll fill my life with more nice things. Therefore, I’ll find fulfillment.”

Sounds logical. But this reasoning overlooks a crucial problem.

2. Why Faster Isn’t Better

Let’s say you want to get dinner as quickly as possible. These days, multiple apps and services will grant that wish on a silver platter. The only investment of time and effort you need is a few swipes on your phone, et voilà: a few minutes later, your doorbell rings with the exact culinary specialty you craved.

In that moment, it’s nice and convenient. But in the grand scheme of life, this is a horrible absurdity.

Why? Because, in the long term, it’s not the dish itself that grants satisfaction. But rather the time-consuming work behind the curtain: thinking about the ingredients, shopping for groceries, cutting and cooking. (Fun fact: one study found that preparing healthy food makes it taste better than a ready-made version with identical ingredients.)

Oliver sums it up nicely:

“[T]he effect of convenience isn’t just that a given activity starts to feel less valuable, but that we stop engaging in certain valuable activities altogether, in favour of more convenient ones.”

 — Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

I recently ordered burgers to my doorstep, and couldn’t help but think about the beautiful micro-moments I missed. See, I also could’ve gone to a restaurant, struck up a chit-chat with the waiter, and enjoyed the walk there. But instead, I slouched on my couch, watching Netflix.

It’s a privileged problem to have, I know. But the lesson here is simply that we often sacrifice convenience for depth. Which, at the end of the day, rarely provides a feeling of “time well spent.”

Even if you hate cooking, this applies to you. Think about the infamous Zoom meeting you can do from almost anywhere, anytime. It’s convenient, sure. But it costs you precious human face-to-face contact. A soothing commute. A dedicated space to think about work.

And there’s yet another problem with increasing speed and convenience: the efficiency trap.

The efficiency trap: why productivity is doomed to fail

According to the legend, the more productive you become, the more time slots you generate. And in theory, this promises time for the things that matter. But let’s face it: how many “productive” people do you know who actually make time for relationships or deep rest?

I certainly don’t. Instead, most productivity-obsessed people slip into the efficiency trap. Here’s how Oliver describes the effect:

“Rendering yourself more efficient … won’t generally result in the feeling of having ‘enough time’, because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits … You’ll be creating new things to do.”

 — Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

Productivity forces your goalposts to shift. Once you get quicker at doing one thing, you’ll generally want to do more of that thing. Not only that, you’ll become known as the person who gets things done. And as a result, people will happily offload their burdening tasks on your shoulders.

In other words, getting through tasks generates more tasks.

The only remedy? A sort of anti-skill: patience. We must resist the urge to always get more things done more quickly and, instead, come to terms with the inevitable truth that we’ll never come out on top of all our tasks.

3. The Ultimate Anti-Skill for an Accelerated World

Perhaps it’s ironic that, while digesting these ideas about time, I got impatient. It took me more than a month to finish Four Thousand Weeks, and I constantly felt the itch to distract myself.

But if I learned anything from this book, it’s that patience pays off. Sticking with tasks makes them meaningful. Investing time into something meaningful pays compound interest.

So if, like me, you struggle with the anti-skill of patience, here are three powerful ideas that’ll help you cultivate it.

Embracing the impatience spiral

Here’s the thing: You’ll always have a feeling of impatience, no matter at what speed your life is moving. A vivid example is the loading time of websites. I remember the times when it took 15 seconds to view a simple web text. These days, I get impatient when I have to wait more than one second to buffer a 4K movie.

The scary side-effect is that this impatience transfers to tasks that can’t speed up by nature — reading, learning, thinking. And so, we buy into the fallacy that just because technology has accelerated, our brains should, too.

The result?

Impatience for everything that doesn’t yield immediate results.

The powerful mindset shift I discovered in Four Thousand Weeks was to simply get comfortable with things taking the time they require. To intentionally commit to the inevitability that reading this book or doing that exercise will demand a couple of hours. And that it’s okay.

The parable of staying on the bus

In one chapter, Oliver talks about the photographer Arno Minkkinen who likes to tell his students a powerful parable. The premise is this: Making progress in life is like taking a bus from Helsinki’s main bus station.

I’ll explain.

All the bus lines in Helsinki share the same first few stops. In the beginning, it can seem like your bus is meaningless and interchangeable with any other line. It’s tempting to hop off, go back to the main station, and try a different bus. But then the story would repeat itself:

Same stops, same frustration, same way back.

The moral is simple: If you want to get somewhere you must — in Minkkinen’s words — “stay on the fucking bus.” This doesn’t only apply to Helsinki bus lines, but also to any worthwhile endeavor in life. A meaningful career. A relationship. Finding a home. Collecting stamps. 

No matter what it is — staying on the bus will take you to miraculous places.

The three-hour stare

There’s yet another fascinating lesson on the rewards of patience: Meaning lies on the other side of discomfort.

Oliver tells this story of art professor Jennifer Roberts. She imposes a terrorizing task on her first-year students: Go to a local museum, she tells them, pick a painting or a sculpture, and stare at it for three hours straight. No interruptions, except for urgent bathroom breaks.

Why might you want to endure such an ordeal?

For one thing, this task breaks the common illusion that once you glanced at a piece of art, you’ve genuinely seen it. See, paintings aren’t Instagram posts. Art carries profound meaning, and the longer you look at it, the more subtleties you’ll pick up (even if you’re not an art expert). If you stare long enough, the complete depth emerges and starts resonating with your thoughts.

“You finally give up attempting to escape the discomfort of time passing so slowly,” Oliver observed when he tried the exercise. Eventually, a “sensory fullness” reveals itself, and you’re really there. Present with art. The world. Yourself.

4. The Lonely Nightmare of Being a Digital Nomad

I used to be a digital nomad for a year or so, which is why this idea deeply resonated with me. See, the huge problem with this lifestyle — or so I hope to convince you — lies in its freedom. Or rather, a fundamental misinterpretation of time’s value.

The reason is that time is a “network good,” as Oliver explains. This basically means that the more people have access to it, and the more in sync this access is, the more value people can derive from time. Think about it — almost all truly important things in life rely on sharing your time with at least one other person. Finding love. Launching a movement. Raising kids.

But what happens when you become a digital nomad?

Sure, you have more time and more flexibility to use it. But you literally detach from the network chain of time. It becomes unbearably rough to find people who work on the same schedule — not only because you hop from place to place, but also because no one else can dictate your work schedule.

Now, I’m not saying digital nomadism is intrinsically bad. And for people who need time alone, it can offer a path to salvation. But humans are still social creatures, and spending time with others is one of the most meaningful things in life.

So ultimately, the question is, as Oliver puts it, “What kind of freedom do we really want when it comes to time?” Do you want to be free from invasions on your schedule, or do you want to be free to engage in collaborations and communities?

The latter may seem infringing from the outside, but from my experience, syncing up your time with other people is infinitely fulfilling. Why? Because it ends loneliness.

Example:

This morning, I got up at 6 am to attend a qigong class. And sure, I could’ve leveraged my right over freedom of time, slept in, and exercised qigong by myself. But that misses the point. I signed up for that class precisely because I want to move synchronically with others. Literally. It’s a reminder that the world isn’t such a lonely place after all.

And this coordination is what I missed so much while being a digital nomad. The ability to sacrifice my time for other people. To collaborate. To spend this short life on earth in good company.

So just give it a try. Loosen the iron grip over your schedule. Say yes to that invitation. Sign up for that dance class. Sacrifice your sacred hours of productivity for a family breakfast. Oliver writes:

“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.”

 — Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

5. Three Counterintuitive Yet Highly Effective Takeaways

There are many more ideas in this book that I loved, but these were the ones that I keep returning to frequently.

And lastly, if all this sounded a bit vague, here are a few practical takeaways from Four Thousand Weeks that talk less about the theory of time — and more about how to actually implement a more relaxed grip on time in your daily life:

  1. Become a strategic underachiever. Since life is finite, you’ll inevitably fail at some things. And for most people (myself included), this is deeply upsetting. However, by defining a few areas in advance where you don’t expect to perform your absolute best, you can take off the pressure. Simultaneously, this creates space to direct the spotlight on the few things that do matter.
  2. Procrastinate. This may sound dangerous, but the same logic as above applies: you can’t possibly finish everything you want in life, so you might as well choose a few tasks that you ignore. The art of procrastinating lies in deciding whether you want (and can) deal with the repercussions of not doing something. And finally, being at peace with paying that price to do something more meaningful.
  3. Waste time. If you try to spend every second of your life productively, your efforts will be in vain. This is because you’ll grow incapable to enjoy moments just as they are without wanting to change anything. The logical and bizarre solution is this: actively waste time. Be lazy. Do nothing. After all, being productive only counts for something, if you can use the gained time to be unproductive.

And if you only take one thing away from reading this, it should be that you never “have” a limited time to live in the first place. Instead — to paraphrase the philosopher Martin Heidegger — you “are” time. Time will never be something you can control. It will always control you.

We might as well enjoy the flow of time, like watching a river run, rather than vainly molding an anxiety-inducing time bomb.