Our best hope is to give up hope of doing & having it all (review of Oliver Burkeman’s 4,000 Weeks)

Your bucket list is bottomless.

Your vacations are all about pushing yourself to physical and mental extremes, curating the highlights on Instagram and recharging your batteries for work.

You don’t have the time or patience to read a book but you listen exclusively to work and life hack podcasts while training for your next marathon.

You have side hustles instead of hobbies.

Inbox Zero is your religion.

And you genuinely believe that you’re destined to leave a permanent dent in the universe.

Oliver Burkeman would like a word. He’d warn that you’re squandering your most scarce and precious resource. It’s not just that there are only 24 hours in a day. If you’re lucky enough to make it to your 80th birthday, you’ll have clocked a little over 4,000 weeks.

So what’s the best way to use your finite amount of time in the face of infinite opportunities and demands?  Lead a limit-embracing life and acknowledge that it’s impossible to do and have it all,  says the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” says Burkeman. “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.”

To find your glorious possibility, Burkeman has five existential questions for you to wrestle with.

Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort? “Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can,” says Burkeman.

Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? “Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.”

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? That day isn’t coming anytime soon. “There is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn’t just winging it, all the time. If that feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all.”

How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition? “We’re all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we’ll never see. The cathedral’s still worth building, all the same.”

Burkeman calls his book an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope.  “Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all of this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it – that this is just a dress rehearsal and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.”

It’s not enough to stop spending your limited time on low to no-value distractions. You’ll also have to make tough calls on very important things. No matter how productive and efficient you become, there won’t be enough time to do everything that matters. And if you try, you won’t enjoy the moments you spend with everything and everyone who matter most.

Our world is bursting with wonder, says Burkeman “yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”

Fortunately for us, Burkeman is one of those gurus who can help us do justice to “the outstanding brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999.

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Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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