It’s the year 1250 — and you’re a French peasant who survived the most recent plague. Your landlord (literally the guy that lords your land) sees you dillydallying outdoors, daydreaming in the sunshine, not really doing your job farming his field.
What do you think happens next?
Well, if you’re like most people in our generation today, you imagine that a lazy peasant, like a lazy desk job worker, is chided by the person of superior rank. It’s easy to picture: his lordship hastens forward and commands in his most lordly, upper class voice: “You’re squandering precious daylight hours to be productive! Do you think this grain will grow itself?!”
Well, according to Oliver Burkeman, you’d be wrong — it’s more likely that the medieval landlord wouldn’t have done anything. In his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals, he explains that it’s far more likely your landlord would have quietly greeted you and moved on with his very important day. It wouldn’t even have occurred to him that you were wasting time, let alone affecting his crops’ productivity.
Why? Not because of any benevolence on your landlord’s part. And time didn’t move slower back then, nor was it necessarily that people were “more resigned to their fate,” writes Burkeman. Rather, it would be because “they didn’t experience time as an abstract entity — as a thing — at all.”
Burkeman’s book about managing our time completely changed my perspective on the one limited resource that is equally distributed among the entirety of humanity. Here are just a few of his insights that will transform the way you look at a clock.
We’re trying to master time — and only making it shrink.
For 99 percent of humanity’s history, time just was. It wasn’t a resource to be used — time was life itself, and it had its own rhythm that wasn’t measured in minutes.
Indeed, the peasants worked on the land, but their work moved with the seasons. “There was not anxious pressure to ‘get everything done,’” explains Burkeman, “because a farmer’s work is infinite: there will always be another milking and another harvest, forever, so there’s no sense in racing toward some hypothetical moment of completion.”
In other words, there wasn’t a hurry to maximize production by maximizing time. You simply milked your cow every day, and gathered those free-range organic eggs, and when it was time to till the soil, it was time to till the soil. Efficiency, productivity, schedules, and time-management were utterly foreign until the Industrial Revolution. Before then, you weren’t trying to check a box, or get ahead of it. You worked in step with the task at hand.
This way of life was called “task orientation.” Rather than measuring our life “against an abstract timeline” as we do now, the rhythms of life came from the tasks themselves. And, as a consequence, the world was seen as much more expansive. To use a more modern phrase, people were living life in “the flow,” or in “deep time.”
The irony for us in the modern age is that in attempting to master time and complete our tasks, it is “all but impossible to experience ‘deep time,’ that sense of timeless time which depends on forgetting the abstract yardstick and plunging back into the vividness of reality instead,” explains Burkeman.
So what does this have to do with 4,000 weeks? Well, let me explain.
The average life is 4,000 weeks long.
Four thousand weeks — or 80 years — is the average human lifespan. We all have a limited amount of days on this planet, and it’s helpful to actually put a number to how many weeks that is likely to be.
If you’re reading this at age 20, you’ve already spent 1,000 of these precious weeks simply growing up. Even though you’re still getting started, you’ve already burned through 25 percent of your supply.
If you’re anything like me, thinking about my life this way makes me feel like time is racing by on a conveyer belt that moves to the beat of a pulsing heart. All I hear is tick, tock, tick, tock; all I’m feeling is a deep dread and panic — it leaves me exhausted, disheartened, shamed, and well, defeated.
But before the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, it would have been a strange thing to count the weeks in a lifespan. “You wouldn’t have felt any pressure to find ways to ‘save’ [time],” writes Burkeman. “Nor would you have felt guilty for wasting it: if you took an afternoon break from threshing grain to watch a cockfight on the village green, it wouldn’t have felt like you were shirking during ‘work time.’”
This can be a tough concept to grasp, but while medieval folks would have had problems — bacterial infections and deadly plagues, for example — “work-life balance” and “justifying our existence” and “staying on top of things” wasn’t among them. You wouldn’t have had existential frustrations if you weren’t working up to your potential; you wouldn’t have felt the angst that comes with underutilizing the time at hand.
Sounds freeing, right? So how do we live more in that kind of deep time? Burkeman provides three approaches.
Escape existential overwhelm
Many years ago, Warren Buffett’s pilot asked him for life advice, and Buffet told him to make a list of 25 life goals — and then arrange them from the most important to the least important. Then, he told him to cross off the goals numbered 6 through 25 and never think about them again. Why?
Well, Buffet knew something we all forget. We only have 4,000 weeks, and we often waste time chasing things that are not important. The amount of options at our fingertips in the modern age is exhausting. We chase a bottomless list of desires — faster and faster. Burkeman calls this cycle “existential overwhelm.”
In order to eliminate existential overwhelm, Berkman encourages us to create an “open” and “closed” life list. Create a list of five goals you want to achieve in your life, then select three of them to actively work on. Those three are your “closed” list (because you are closed to adding more options); the remaining two are your “open” list. Don’t look at what’s on your open list — when you tick off an item from your closed list, you can add another item from your open list.
Sounds simple, but this exercise involves some radical honesty and can actually be an emotional experience, as you need to realize that you might never complete some of those things on your open list.
However, once we get comfortable with the reality of our finitude, it provides us with relief. Plus, once you do actually cross something off your closed list, you’re less likely to find yourself burdened by procrastination. It can free you.
Step out of your self-made efficiency trap
If we look through the average self-help time-management book looking for “tricks” and “hacks” to better organize our Google calendar, we’ll only run into the “efficiency trap” — yet another third millennium problem.
You see, becoming more efficient only makes us more rushed. “Trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster,” as Burkeman explains.
Just like escaping existential overwhelm, stepping out of the efficiency trap involves looking at some hard truths: we cannot excel at everything. We must choose what we excel at.
The problem is that if we’re constantly overachieving at everything (I’m looking at you, overachievers!), not only will we become exhausted, but these “low-value” activities will eat much of our time on earth — and we won’t end up accomplishing those big priorities.
So, Burkeman pushes us to consider the bare minimum of what we can do. He asks us, How can you be strategically underachieving, when it comes to tasks that we don’t enjoy? For example:
- Can you take longer to respond to email or texts?
- Can you mow your lawn less, or maybe even find someone else to mow it?
- Can you wash your clothes less (hint: buy more underwear)?
Burkeman believes that fighting our inclination for perfectionism with things that we don’t need to prioritize (emails, texts, lawncare, etc) will reduce our existential overwhelm and push us to focus on what’s really important. It’s one way to knock ourselves out of that efficiency trap we’ve been brainwashed with since we were told to achieve straight-As.
Find joy in the little things
While antibiotics allow us to live longer, perhaps modern medicine is making us lose something that the medieval peasants and landlords knew innately: we never know when our weeks will end. Burkeman encourages us to experience life as if even the most routine experiences will be our last: the last dinner with your girlfriend; the last morning coffee with your spouse; the last time you’ll hold your infant niece.
Perhaps this sounds macabre, but once you find yourself embracing this habit (also known as memento mori), time slows down. This kind of reflection pushes us out of both our existential overwhelm and our self-made efficiency trap.
In other words, we find our deep time.