Did you know that you have about 4000 weeks to live from beginning to end? Thinking of it like that reminds me of the life calendar which is a sobering look at how little time you have to hang out with those that you love.
While this book is designed to help pull you up short so that you do pay more attention to what you do with your time, it’s not about helping you crank out more productivity1. Four Thousand Weeks is here to help you stop and take stock of what you spend your time doing so that you don’t look back and realize you don’t care about most of what you did.
One of the poignant ideas early on is that life is like an unstoppable conveyor belt and we spend most of it trying to keep up with someone we feel has accomplished more. The thing is, as soon as we feel we do measure up, we pick someone else further ahead and keep on grinding2.
Doesn’t sound all that fun to me either.
Hours are a Bad Measure
We are stuck in this grind in part because of the Industrial Revolution and its move from what you produced to how many hours you worked. Instead of purchasing end goods, people started purchasing time to make end goods. This meant owners started wanting to wring every ounce out of someone during the time they had purchased3. This is also when benefits of any productivity started accruing to owners instead of those that actually did the work.
We’re still stuck in this mindset of maximum widgets cranked per minute which leaves us panicked at any interruption from kids or life4. It’s important to remember that hours are a bad measure for knowledge workers and you can’t really spend 8 hours being maximally on mentally. You have around 4, maybe 5 hours, to think hard and then you’re spent.
It’s also important to remember that on any given day your plan is simply a statement of intent about how you hope the day will go5. The day rarely complies and is under no obligation to comply, so chill out and plan less.
Forget Productivity Hacks
I know from my YouTube stats that what most people want to watch is reviews of productivity tools or new note tools. They do this because they think that whatever is broken in their process will be solved by a new tool. The truth is that a new tool won’t solve anything because you’re taking your same broken process with you.
We see similar tool focus from generations past. The introduction of dishwashers and automated laundry machines didn’t reduce work that women did, they simply started doing a bunch of other work and the level of cleanliness that a house should be at increased6. They had new Jonses to keep up with.
Getting Started with Zettelkasten
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Productivity hacks and most tools are the same. You won’t get more time, you’ll do a bit more and someone will give you more work to do7. Often that someone is yourself. You won’t let yourself sit back and enjoy the extra time, you’ll do more work and still feel overwhelmed. Behind this rush to solve problems is the hopeless thought that you’ll solve everything at some point and can finally rest8.
Of course, saying it like that shows the lie for what it is.
The author instead suggests aiming for creative neglect. Start by paying yourself first in time and money9. I do this when I plan my weeks and start with the times my family needs me and my workouts in the day. Only after that can I start to look at my time and see when I can work.
Second, limit your work in progress (WIP) to one or two main things and then some general life stuff10. The book Personal Kanban does an excellent job of walking through limiting what you have on your plate.
Third, ignore things that are middling priorities11. You do this by making a list of the top 20 things you want to do. Then throw out the bottom 15 (or 17) and vow to never spend any time on them. Those items you ranked 5 – 20 are just important enough that you’ll feel productive if you do them, but they’re unlikely to move the needle in your life in a meaningful way. They’ll steal time from the top 5 things you should be spending your time on.
In the Moment
Something I’ve been struggling with lately is living in the moment with my kids. I’m often thinking about work, or about some YouTube video I want to watch or some chore that needs doing. I’ve felt the same way when I take my fancy camera out like I’m merely there to observe and not experience the events I’m orbiting around12.
What Four Thousand Weeks has me remembering is that leisure is important in on of itself. It’s not only important because it lets me recharge for later productivity13, it’s good on its own, but I need to remember to be there and experience it as it’s happening.
Since reading this book I’ve been more purposeful about saying yes when I bake the snacks for the week and the kids want to help. Where I’ve said no because I just want to get it done, instead I can spend time laughing with the kids and enjoying the process. Who cares if I don’t get to some random house chore, I got to build a time of enjoyment with my kids and they’ll remember those times far more than they’ll remember that our car was always clean.
Commitments Aren’t Bad
We also need to get over this idea that commitments are bad and that we should have total freedom over how we spend our time. The truth is that spending time with others and outside commitments are what make life worth living14. While I don’t love every activity my wife wants me to participate in, I love spending time with her. Having her around is one of the things that brings to joy my life.
One of my favourite things to do at the start of the school year is to help coach the x-country team across the street. It cuts into lots of work time a number of days a week, but all year I have kids coming up to me telling me about some run they did. The joy in their eyes as I share their excitement makes any time spent worth it. The commitment brings a sense of joy and meaning to my life.
Instead of looking for complete autonomy from any commitments, find the places that will bring you joy and dive into them with abandon.
The 5 Big Questions
- Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
- Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
- In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
- In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
- How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
Should You Read Four Thousand Weeks?
Yes, I think this is a great book. If it had come earlier in my productivity reading life then it would have been entirely revolutionary to me so if you’re early in reading about slowing down and doing the right things in your life, it may be foundational and revolutionary to you.