Contemplating Four Thousand Weeks, the book, and hopeful, but not guaranteed, reality

One of my plans for last weekend, the weekend of my birthday, was to read Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman. While I didn’t finish it then, I did finish it Tuesday. And it probably will be the best book I read this year, because it’s hitting at just the right time, not only with my birthday, but also with changes at work. It was, and is, the perfect time for me to contemplate mortality and how I’m living, will live (including work), the years (months, weeks, days, and hours) remaining that I have (hopefully).

Since I have been a little scatterbrained this week, and I don’t think I can muster a cohesive post about exactly why this book struck me like it did, I’m just going to share a few of my favorite passages, starting with this one:

We fill our minds with busyness and distraction to numb ourselves emotionally. (“We labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life,” wrote Nietzsche, “because to us it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself.”) Or we plan compulsively, because the alternative is to confront how little control over the future we really have.

If you’ve followed this blog and my meandering thoughts here, you know that I like to plan ahead, especially for the time I (or both Kim and I) have off from work. I think Burkeman captures almost exactly why I do that.

…meaningful productivity often comes not from hurrying things up but from letting them take the time they take, surrendering to what in German has been called Eigenzeit, or the time inherent to a process itself.

As within the last couple of months I’ve been given new responsibilities at work, I’m finding this (letting things take the time they take) to be so relevant. In my job as the cataloger at our library, I can’t rush the process of labeling books, audiobooks, and DVDs and finding, copying, and sometimes creating, records. It just takes the time it takes.

Ironically, the union leaders and labor reformers who campaigned for more time off, eventually securing the eight-hour workday and the two-day weekend, helped entrench this instrumental attitude toward leisure, according to which it could be justified only on the grounds of something other than pure enjoyment. They argued that workers would use any additional free time they might be given to improve themselves, through education and cultural pursuits—that they’d use it, in other words, for more than just relaxing. But there is something heartbreaking about the nineteenth-century Massachusetts textile workers who told one survey researcher what they actually longed to do with more free time: To “look around to see what is going on.” They yearned for true leisure, not a different kind of productivity. They wanted what the maverick Marxist Paul Lafargue would later call, in the title of his best-known pamphlet, The Right To Be Lazy. We have inherited from all this a deeply bizarre idea ofit means to spend your time off “well”—and, conversely, what counts as wasting it. In this view of time, anything that doesn’t create some form of value for the future is, by definition, mere idleness. Rest is permissible, but only for the purposes of recuperation for work, or perhaps for some other form of self-improvement. It becomes difficult to enjoy a moment of rest for itself alone, without regard for any potential future benefit because rest that has no instrumental value feels wasteful.

Ironically as I was reading this book , I felt I was doing just that, resting for a form of self-improvement, not “wasting” my time. However, it also is why I had planned fun time for last weekend, just being idle, which I think I accomplished, but as if it were a thing to check off like in a to-do list, which Burkeman also discusses:

Defenders of modern capitalism enjoy pointing out that despite how things might feel, we actually have more leisure time than we did in previous decades—an average of about five hours per day for men, and only slightly less for women. But perhaps one reason we don’t experience life that way is that leisure no longer feels very leisurely. Instead, it too often feels like another item n the to-do list.

Burkeman connects what social psychologists call “idleness aversion” to what German sociologist Max Weber coined as the “Protestant work ethic” which he believe stemmed from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. The doctrine is “that every human since before they were born, had been preselected to a member of the elect, and therefore entitled to spend eternity in heaven with God after death or else as one of the damned, and thus guaranteed to spend it in hell.” Idleness then became/becomes anxiety-inducing, to be avoided at all costs – not just because, as Burkeman writes – it might be a vice that leads to damnation if overindulged, but might be evidence of a worse truth: that you already were damned.

We flatter ourselves that we’ve outgrown such superstitions today. And yet there remains, in our discomfort with anything that feels too much like wasting time, a yearning for something not all that dissimilar from eternal salvation. As long as you’re filling every hour of the day with some form of striving, you get to carry on believing that all this striving is leading you somewhere—to an imagined future state of perfection, a heavenly realm in which everything runs smoothly, your limited time causes you no pain, and you’re free of the guilty sense that there’s more you need to be doing in order to justify your existence.

I think I’ve felt that even with what I call ‘My Own Personal Sabbath’, where “almost every Sunday since mid-May 2020 with a few exceptions, I have been taking my own personal Sabbath, where I tune out of the news and social media and turn off my ringer and all notifications on my phone.” And maybe I feel, or have felt, like I have to justify it to you by sharing exactly it is what I am doing with my time off.

So as Eve on the Headspace meditation app signs off: “I’ll leave it there and I look forward to seeing you back here soon.”

11 thoughts on “Contemplating Four Thousand Weeks, the book, and hopeful, but not guaranteed, reality

  1. Burkeman book sounds interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the way I spend most of my time other than at work (I only work about 4 hrs. a day). My blog consumes so much time and I want to change that.


  2. How wonderful to find a book that resonates with you on many levels. I hope you had a great birthday!

    I didn’t realize you are a cataloguer! I remember taking the cataloguing course when I was earning my Library credential and feeling like cataloguing was some crazy new language. As I worked as a librarian, I got a little more used to it, but I was always glad when the cataloguing had been done for me and was sent in a digital file by the publisher.


  3. I had to do my own cataloging on some of the books in my library, and I always found it to be a rewarding experience. I hope you enjoy it, too, Bryan.

    I know exactly what you mean about feeling like we have to justify everything we do. My dad is one of those people who always feels like he has to be working…the only thing that keeps him sitting in a chair with us is his love of socializing.


  4. Speaking of tasks taking the time that they take, I was asked to work OT yesterday to complete one part of a project and my manager said it would probably take me an hour or two. Now, I’m one of those annoying people who gets stuff done right away and super quick, so when that project ended up taking me almost 3 hours I was feeling pretty freaked out and bad. Why did she think it should only take an hour???


  5. That’s some deep thoughts for a Sunday morning! Although I found that much of it resonates with me. My personal “down” time is spent in a variety of ways but lately it’s been focused on ‘cleaning up’ my blog which has overtaken my life away from work. At 70 I’m still trying to figure out life balance! Thanks for the reminders stated & implied in this post. Happy belated birthday.


  6. I loved to work. By I discovered when I retired that nobody really cared how good a job you did. Incredible tools that you built just get put aside when no one is willing to learn how to use them. So what really was the purpose of that great reporting tool you built with such love and care for that boss? The next one comes along and couldn’t care less about that report.


  7. I sometimes feel like all the work I put into my blog is more work than fun hobby. But it scares me not to have something I’m working toward with down time, too. I need to think more about this…when I have down time. 🙂


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