Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

What a lovely experience to be read to by the author. And while I might rather have your average self-help book in a hardcopy form, listening to the audiobook really works because he’s a good narrator and what he’s written isn’t so much an average how-to book, as much as a why-to book. That is, what we have here is a treatise on the importance of approaching our likely 4,000 weeks of life (52 weeks a year times something close to 80 = 4,000 or so) not by jam-packing as much as we can in (which will inevitably fail because there are an infinite number of things to want or to do, and only a very finite time in which to do them, no matter how busy we make ourselves). Instead, Burkeman argues for quality over quantity, the importance of being OK with choosing to do some things and neglecting the majority of things we’ll never get round to. And while the book is mostly philosphical and quote-based, he does offer 10 practical action points for folk who want such exactitude. I’ve taken the liberty of summarising them here:

  1. Adopt a fixed volume approach to productivity. Better to begin from the assumption you can’t do it all. Have an open and closed to-do list. The closed list has 10 items max. You’ll never get through them all, but concentrating action on your closed list you’ll prioritise. Also, decide what time limits you have before you work, so you can be motivated to use time wisely if you know you are knocking off at 5:30, say.
  2. Serialise. Do one project at a time to its end, get comfortable postponing the rest that are less than important.
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at. Nominate whole areas of life you don’t mind failing at. Or could alternate priorities. Eg, aim to do bare minimum at work during summer breaks when the kids are off school, then swap priorities later.
  4. Focus on what has been completed. Keep a “done” list which you fill through the day. It’s motivating to see accomplishments rather than to see all things you haven’t managed by the end of the day.
  5. Consolidate your caring. We’re exposed by social media to too many dire emergencies for any one person to solve. Consciously pick your battles.
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology. Switch social devices off, greyscale your smartphone so it appears more like a tool than a toy, use things like a Kindle that don’t work very well at anything other than the purpose they were designed for.
  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane to fight against the sense of increasing speed of passing time as we age due to everything becoming more routine than novel. Pay more attention to every moment. Meditation helps but also unplanned walks, etc. Spend twice as much time thinking about your day, you will in effect live twice as long, in memory at least.
  8. Be a researcher in relationships. Try adopting curiosity rather than looking for a result. Not knowing what comes next is good for curiosity and less stressful than demanding a result and worrying if it does not materialise.
  9. Cultivate impulsive generosity. Always act on such urges. Better to send a hurried thank-you note than none at all.
  10. Practice doing nothing. If you can’t bear the discomfort of doing nothing, how can you make good choices when you are faced with dilemmas? Meditate with a timer to practice thinking nothing.

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No. 5 of 50 books I intend to read and review in 2022.

I’m Patrick Sherriff, an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at my conversation school in Abiko, Japan, I write and illustrate textbooks for non-native speakers of English, release Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, paint, sketch and write essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan.