On the Shortness of Life 2.0

A review of Oliver Burkeman’s "Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals"

Nearly two millennia ago, the Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca wrote a treatise known today by the self-explanatory title On the Shortness of Life.  “It’s not what we have a short time to live,” Seneca observed, “but that we waste so much of it.”

With his recently published Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, writer and regular Guardian columnist Oliver Burkeman faithfully carries the spirit of Seneca’s classic essay forward into the hectic world of the twenty-first century. It’s a deft and eclectic synthesis of ancient and modern thinking about how humanity can come to terms with our limited time on Earth – the title derives from the length of the average human lifespan – ranging intellectually from ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Seneca to modern-day Buddhist and existentialist thinkers. Stuffed with valuable and practical insights on life and how we use – or misuse – it, Four Thousand Weeks is an impressive and compact volume well worth the time and attention of even the most casual readers.

Burkeman’s intellectual field of vision is appropriately wide and the scope of his argument correspondingly broad, meaning that he only touches on politics briefly and sporadically throughout the book’s 245 pages. But those of us in politics and policy – whatever capacity we find ourselves in – can learn quite a bit from Four Thousand Weeks. All too often, we find ourselves exhausted by the vitriolic nature of our debates and enervated by demands to devote more and more of our time and attention to a list of issues that only seems to grow. Four Thousand Weeks provides an important corrective and alternative to how we all think and act, especially those of us living and working in the hothouse atmosphere of Washington, DC and the piranha-infested waters of social media networks.

Start with the obsession with productivity: if there’s anywhere the cult of productivity holds sway, it’s in the Washington politics and public policy world. But for all the late nights and long hours worked by staffers, schedulers, and bureaucrats, surprisingly little actually gets done. That wouldn’t exactly shock Burkeman, who characterizes the incessant demand for productivity as a self-defeating “trap” that leaves us even more hurried and harried the more efficiently we try to use our time. Worse, we barely bother to stop and think about what it is we’re doing and why we’re doing it. As Burkeman notes, our preoccupation with productivity allows us to evade “the anxiety that might arise if we were to ask ourselves whether we’re on the right path.” The end result is a lot of dedicated and talented people in politics and policy burning themselves out for no discernable or meaningful purpose.

Then there’s social media, defined by Burkeman as “a machine for misusing your life.” Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook don’t just distract us from more important matters, he argues, “they change how we’re defining ‘important matters’ in the first place.” It’s all too easy to see this dynamic at play in the world of politics and policy, where social media increasingly determines where and to whom we direct our political attention – allowing extreme and unrepresentative ideological vanguards to set the terms of our national debate with vacuous slogans like “build the wall,” “defund the police,” or “end endless wars.”

Social media also amounts to “a machine for getting you to care about too many things, even if they’re each indisputably worthwhile.” Hence the urge to depict every policy problem as an urgent if not existential crisis that demands the immediate attention and concern of all right-thinking people. It also leads to harangues against individuals who remain silent about a particular issue or fail to speak out with sufficient zeal. But when everything becomes a matter of life or death, nothing is – and we become unable to set or even debate political and policy priorities. Worse, we stretch ourselves thin and accomplish less than we might have otherwise had we focused on a few issues we find most important.

Looking at the way our national political debate has evolved over the past decade, it’s hard to disagree with Burkeman’s conclusion that social media has turned all of us into “angrier, less empathetic, more anxious or more numbed out” versions of ourselves.

Finally, our political and policy debates tend towards what Burkeman calls “paralyzing grandiosity” – the false notion that in the face of problems like climate change, economic inequality, and ongoing threats to democracy “only the most revolutionary, world-transforming causes are worth fighting for.” It’s a sentiment that derives from and reinforces catastrophism and absolutism as ways of thinking about politics and policy, one that courses through much contemporary progressive rhetoric surrounding proposals like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the $3.5 trillion social spending package now under consideration by Congress. That sentiment also often results in impotent impatience, which in turn leads to frustration, anger, and cynicism when things don’t turn out exactly as we’ve hoped. But it also allows us to avoid hard choices required in order to pull together the political coalitions necessary to effect actual change.

So what can we do differently? Fortunately, Four Thousand Weeks is filled to the brim with practical advice that we can easily adapt to our own circumstances.

  1. Embrace “radical incrementalism.” Burkeman highlights the research of psychology professor Robert Boice, who found that the most productive academic writers were paradoxically those who spent less time writing every day. Because they could “tolerate the fact that they probably wouldn’t be producing very much on any individual day,” these academics wound up writing more over the long haul – in contrast to Boice’s impatient students, who made themselves miserable by relying on deadlines and binges to complete projects.

    Much the same could be said of America’s own politics and policy debates today, including the current traffic jam in Congress over President Biden’s signature infrastructure and social policy bills: we lack the patience to tolerate the fact that most of the things we want to happen won’t occur in one fell swoop. Rather, we should cultivate the patience to see our goals through step-by-step over the long term. We’ve got to resist the need for speed and desire for rapid resolution of problems, letting them instead take the time they take. In part, that means accepting even limited progress rather than giving up and growing cynical because we don’t achieve all our goals at once.

  2. Take a break. In Washington, at least, many of us don’t necessarily enjoy leisure activities for their own sake. We see many of them as instrumental, a means to some other end like professional networking or increasing our subject matter expertise. That runs directly against the grain of Burkeman’s advice to rest for rest’s sake, “to spend some of our time, that is, on activities in which the only thing we’re trying to get from them is the doing itself.” As he readily admits, that’s a pretty subversive message in our productivity-and-profit obsessed society – all the more so in a town as full of strivers as Washington.

    Burkeman suggests we find some hobby we enjoy for its own sake, not because there’s some benefit we think we can derive from it. He contrasts the rock singer Rod Stewart’s love of model trains with billionaire mogul Richard Branson’s carefully cultivated kitesurfing habit. When we somewhat sheepishly admit to a hobby, he writes, “that’s a sign you’re doing it for its own sake, rather than some socially sanctioned outcome.” The joy we find in our hobbies can bleed into other parts of our lives as well, and if they’re more social in nature that can help build relationships unrelated to politics and policy that are necessary to make democracy work.

  3. “Consolidate your caring” and think small. “To make a difference,” Burkeman argues, “you must focus your finite capacity for care.” And, he doesn’t add, you must resist attempts to bully you to care about every latest outrage that pops up on your social media feeds. Contrary to what professional activists might say, it’s perfectly fine to dedicate your time to a limited subset of issues that you care deeply about. We’re only mortal, and as Burkeman points out it’s important to “consciously pick your battles in charity, activism, and politics.”

    It’s equally important to reject the “paralyzing grandiosity” that suffuses contemporary American politics and count what counts – no matter how small or insignificant it may seem in the grand scheme of things. As Burkeman reminds us, our lives are just as meaningful and worthwhile if we spend our time “on, say caring for an elderly relative with dementia or volunteering at the local community garden” as they are if we’re up to our eyeballs in the minutiae of politics and policy. What matters is that we make things slightly better with our contributions and actions, not that we solve all the world’s at once. That’s a truth that all of us involved in politics and policy would do well to remember.

Above all, Four Thousand Weeks serves as a potent reminder to live in the here and now – no less in the realm of politics and policy than in our own lives. There will always be too much to do and never enough time in which to do it. But once we give up on the illusion of perfection, Burkeman observes, we “get to roll up [our] sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”