Posts Photos Archives About

I think I found this book via a recommendation somewhere and just dug into it assuming it would be one of those productivity / self-help books about making the most of our scarce time on this world. It turns out it's actually more of a philosophy book about accepting our all-too human limitations, emphasizing that we can't do everything we want and we can't control the future.

I enjoyed the book a lot, so many parts of it just spoke to me and I found myself nodding vigorously and highlighting quotes liberally. It addresses one of my great weaknesses: my greed in wanting to do everything, or at least far more things than our limited human lifespans allow. I think it's a fantastic read for anyone who finds themselves often vulnerable to worry or anxiety over things that are fundamentally out of our control anyway. An excellent guide for staying sane in our modern dystopia.


Introduction: In the Long Run, We’re All Dead

“The spirit of the times is one of joyless urgency,” writes the essayist Marilynne Robinson, who observes that many of us spend our lives “preparing ourselves and our children to be means to inscrutable ends that are utterly not our own.”

2. The Efficiency Trap

even the winners in our achievement-obsessed culture—the ones who make it to the elite universities, then reap the highest salaries—find that their reward is the unending pressure to work with “crushing intensity” in order to maintain the income and status that have come to seem like prerequisites for the lives they want to lead.

Acquire a reputation for doing your work at amazing speed, and you’ll be given more of it. (Your boss isn’t stupid: Why would she give the extra work to someone slower?)

(Related: The Price for Being the Best)

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion,” the English humorist and historian C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, coining what became known as Parkinson’s law. But it’s not merely a joke, and it doesn’t apply only to work. It applies to everything that needs doing. In fact, it’s the definition of “what needs doing” that expands to fill the time available.


The general principle in operation is one you might call the “efficiency trap.” Rendering yourself more efficient—either by implementing various productivity techniques or by driving yourself harder—won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time,” because, all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset any benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be creating new things to do.


Perhaps it goes without saying that the internet makes this all much more agonizing, because it promises to help you make better use of your time, while simultaneously exposing you to vastly more potential uses for your time—so that the very tool you’re using to get the most out of life makes you feel as though you’re missing out on even more of it.

3. Facing Finitude

We tend to speak about our having a limited amount of time. But it might make more sense, from Heidegger’s strange perspective, to say that we are a limited amount of time. That’s how completely our limited time defines us.

4. Becoming a Better Procrastinator

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.


You need to learn how to start saying no to things you do want to do, with the recognition that you have only one life.”


When you can no longer turn back, anxiety falls away, because now there’s only one direction to travel: forward into the consequences of your choice.

5. The Watermelon Problem

By portraying our opponents as beyond persuasion, social media sorts us into ever more hostile tribes, then rewards us, with likes and shares, for the most hyperbolic denunciations of the other side, fueling a vicious cycle that makes sane debate impossible.

6. The Intimate Interrupter

No wonder we seek out distractions online, where it feels as though no limits apply—where you can update yourself instantaneously on events taking place a continent away, present yourself however you like, and keep scrolling forever through infinite newsfeeds, drifting through “a realm in which space doesn’t matter and time spreads out into an endless present,” to quote the critic James Duesterberg.

7. We Never Really Have Time

We treat our plans as though they are a lasso, thrown from the present around the future, in order to bring it under our command. But all a plan is—all it could ever possibly be—is a present-moment statement of intent. It’s an expression of your current thoughts about how you’d ideally like to deploy your modest influence over the future. The future, of course, is under no obligation to comply.

9. Rediscovering Rest

In an age of instrumentalization, the hobbyist is a subversive: he insists that some things are worth doing for themselves alone, despite offering no payoffs in terms of productivity or profit. The derision we heap upon the avid stamp collector or train spotter might really be a kind of defense mechanism, to spare us from confronting the possibility that they’re truly happy in a way that the rest of us—pursuing our telic lives, ceaselessly in search of future fulfillment—are not. This also helps explain why it’s far less embarrassing (indeed, positively fashionable) to have a “side hustle,” a hobbylike activity explicitly pursued with profit in mind.

10. The Impatience Spiral

Likewise, 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.

Afterword: Beyond Hope

The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short. But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief. You get to give up on something that was always impossible—the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.

Sat, March 11, 2023, 1:13 p.m. / / blog / #books / Syndicated: mastodon twitter / 💬 1 / 1159 words

Last modified at: March 11, 2023, 1:31 p.m. Source file

Referenced by
Reviews in this post
books Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman Mar 11 2023 4.5


graynorton said...

@roytang This is such a great book. It’s really good on audio, too—he reads it himself. My wife and I listened together, and then immediately started over and listened again.