How Many Weeks Do You Have Left to Live?

📚 Hey, here’s one of my favorite time management books ever!

It’s called Four Thousand Weeks, by Oliver Burkeman, and it’s one of those books that made time slow right down while I was reading it.

It made a pretty big impression on me, even causing me to change the way I do things when it comes to managing my time.

For one thing, I no longer stress about getting everything done. Because, as Oliver points out in the point, we will never, ever reach a point where everything will be done!

So we may as well give up.

Not “give up” as in declare defeat (not really), but give up as in release ourselves from unrealistic expectations and allow us to endow our moments with more meaning simply because this is what we’ve chosen to do with them, when instead we could have chosen something completely different.

My breakdown of Four Thousand Weeks is one of the first ones I ever wrote for The Stairway to Wisdom a long time ago, so it looks quite a bit different than my more recent ones.

The parts written by me are…well it was written two years ago. Let’s just say that. But the parts written by Burkeman?

Phenomenal.

Absolutely one of my favorite books of all time, and so I’ve shared my complete breakdown (along with my best notes and takeaways) here with you in this email.

This breakdown will likely be free forever, so no pressure to sign up as a Premium Member or anything to access it in the future. But if you want 130+ other breakdowns even better than this one…

Not sure if you’ve heard as well, but I’ve started buying a book every month for new Members of The Competitive Advantage community on Skool!

But say you’re not interested in any of that and instead you just want to learn more about Four Thousand Weeks and how to maximize the laughably limited amount of human time we’ve all been given…

In that case, let’s not waste any more of it! Let’s check out…

This Book is For:

*People who feel completely overwhelmed by how much there is to do, how much the modern world expects of them, and how hard it is to make positive, lasting changes in their lives.

*Anyone interested in time management, who has probably read at least most of the major time management books out there, and wants an actual fresh new perspective on a sub-genre that’s supposedly been done to death.

Summary:

“If you can hold your attention, however briefly or occasionally, on the sheer astonishingness of being, and on what a small amount of that being you get – you may experience a palpable shift in how it feels to be here, right now, alive in the flow of time.”

-Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks

Adam Grant said that this is the most important book ever written about time management, and I’m certainly inclined to agree.

In the opening pages of Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman gets things started with a jolting, yet indisputable claim:

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short...But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”

There's just something about putting a specific number on it that makes the idea of our finitude and our smallness so visceral, so affecting, and so real. 

Here in these pages, we're no longer able to live under the delusion that we will ever be able to get everything done; the progress reports, the product launches, the career planning, the kids' events and extracurriculars - we will simply never be able to fit a full, meaningful human life into just four thousand weeks. Unless...

Burkeman’s approach has always been the “negative” one, by which I mean operating by negation – eliminating rather than adding.

He suggests giving up the very idea that we could ever live up to the impossible expectations imposed on us by ourselves and others, rather than stacking impossible commitments and doomed promises onto an already crumbling structure.

You’re never going to get to a point where you feel like you’re totally on top of everything. The very effort is wearing us out, stressing us out, and leading us to waste our absurdly, terrifyingly short lives on trivia and nonsense. As Burkeman says:

“The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.

But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead – and work with them, rather than against them – the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes."

Efficiency is a trap, and "productivity" is just a giant treadmill in disguise.

When you're known as someone who responds to every single email within a half-hour, you're going to have more people emailing you. 

When people start to learn that you'll never say no to a request, you'll start to get asked for more favors.

And the more you think you can do in a single day, the more you'll expect from yourself in a single day, regardless of whether your expectations actually line up with reality.

So just give up!

Giving up, however, absolutely does not equate to admitting defeat. Giving up the idea that you'll be able to do everything frees you to consider what you would do if you wanted your choices to have the maximum positive impact.

Narrowing your options and committing to one choice confers meaning on the choice you do make.

In much the same way, sunlight warms the entire earth; but, focused through a single magnifying glass, the sun's rays are incendiary. Your attention is like the rays of the sun, and whatever you pay attention to becomes your life.

What you pay attention to in your life grows. It's our current poverty of attention - how we just give it away to anyone who asks - that is diminishing us all.

Because those two options, ultimately, are the result of every choice we make in life. Every choice either enlarges us or diminishes us, and what we pay attention to, what we make time for, matters.

It matters like you wouldn't believe, and that's one of the reasons why Four Thousand Weeks is such a special book. It's about making the most of the limited time we do have and giving up the losing fight against a universe in which our time is finite and immeasurably valuable.

Our options for what to do with our four thousand weeks are near-limitless, and whenever we take any action whatsoever, we're forever closing off possibilities we once had and opening ourselves up to new possibilities that were closed to us before we took that first action - that's the “adjacent possible.”

It's taking this job, in this city, rather than another job in a different city. It's dating this person as opposed to this other person, which will lead to you having a completely different child with that person, who will grow up with completely different interests, all leading to you making - and being offered - completely different decisions for the rest of your life!

That's a terrifying responsibility!

We can try to escape it by trying to fit everything into this one four-thousand-week life, or we can take Burkeman's negative approach, embrace the limitations, and thereby confer absolute, perfect meaning on the choice we do end up making.

In Four Thousand Weeks, we're reminded that the point of managing our time - to the extent that that can be done - isn't just to "do," but to show up, fully alive, in a world that's just bursting with wonder.

Key Ideas:

#1: Productivity is a Trap

“Productivity is a trap. Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.

Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by copying the ‘six things successful people do before 7:00 am.’

The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control – when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about.

Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”

#2: The Adjacent Possible and Our Unlived Lives

“I’m already who I am and where I am, which determines what possibilities are open to me.

But it’s also radically limited in a forward-looking sense, too, not least because a decision to do any given thing will automatically mean sacrificing an infinite number of potential alternative paths.

As I make hundreds of small choices throughout the day, I’m building a life – but at one and the same time, I’m closing off the possibility of countless others, forever.”

This is such a terrifying concept for most people that many of us refuse to even look at it. It harkens back to the idea of the "adjacent possible," which basically means the very next step we can take based on every step we've taken previously to get to where we are now.

We are, all of us, all the time, opening and closing our own sets of possibilities, creating opportunities for ourselves at the same time as we close off other opportunities forever and ever. I know, scary shit, right?

But we're doing this at every moment of every day: When I'm reading one book, I'm not reading every other book that has ever been published, ever, essentially choosing the specific thoughts and ideas that are going to enter my head and which will lead to my next thoughts.

If I had chosen to read a different book, I would have had different thoughts, and perhaps been led down an entirely different path.

If I were to move to another city, I would be shutting down every possibility - every meeting, every accident, every experience - that I could actualize in the city from which I just moved.

The possibilities that New York made available to me are lost forever, and the new possibilities available to me in Los Angeles are opened up to me.

Last time I checked, there were something like 4,000+ cities on earth, and they all come with their own sets of possibilities.

No wonder that people don't want to face these actualities! It's scary to have that much freedom, and to think that perhaps your dream job or the love of your life exists in the country you just left - or the one you're too scared to move to.

I don't have any final answers either, by the way. These are fundamental human freedoms and terrors that we all must live with, be aware of, and struggle against.

But sometimes the recognition of one's own freedom can liberate us from the chains we fashion ourselves.

#3: Separating Signal From Noise

“The more firmly you believe it ought to be possible to find time for everything, the less pressure you’ll feel to ask whether any given activity is the best use for a portion of your time.”

A big portion of the "art of living" is the ability to separate the signal from the noise, to discover for yourself what is truly valuable to you, and to ruthlessly eliminate everything that isn't - or at least to do so to the best of your ability.

It's actually a gift that there are only 24 hours in a day, or four thousand weeks in a lifespan, because those are hard numbers you can work with to find out what really matters to you.

If you believe - even implicitly - that your time will never run out, you won't feel the necessity of making choices about the absolute best use of your time.

If you believe that you'll be able to read everything eventually, you won't choose the best books first. If you believe that your family will never get old, separate, or drift apart, you're not going to close your laptop and sit down with them to watch a movie.

But the idea of having limits is actually liberating because it frees you to make these kinds of (literally) life or death choices about where you are going to spend your limited time and attention.

Book Notes:

“The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty, and frustrating life gets.

But the more you confront the facts of finitude instead – and work with them, rather than against them – the more productive, meaningful, and joyful life becomes.

I don’t think the feeling of anxiety ever completely goes away; we’re even limited, apparently, in our capacity to embrace our limitations.

But I’m aware of no other time management technique that’s half as effective as just facing the way things truly are.”

“It’s precisely the fact that I could have chosen a different and perhaps equally valuable way to spend this afternoon that bestows meaning on the choice I did make. And the same applies, of course, to an entire lifetime.”

“Your experience of being alive consists of nothing other than the sum of everything to which you pay attention. At the end of your life, looking back, whatever compelled your attention from moment to moment is simply what your life will have been.”

“Most of us spend a lot of energy, one way or another, in trying to avoid fully experiencing the reality in which we find ourselves.”

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short...But you? Assuming you live to be eighty, you’ll have had about four thousand weeks.”

Action Steps:

So you've finished reading. What do you do now?

Reading for pleasure is great, and I wholeheartedly support it.

However, I am intensely practical when I'm reading for a particular purpose. I want a result. I want to take what I've learned and apply it to my one and only life to make it better!

Because that's really what the Great Books all say. They all say: "You must change your life!" 

So here, below, are some suggestions for how you can apply the wisdom found in this breakdown to improve your actual life.

Please commit to taking massive action on this immediately! 

Acting on what you've learned here today will also help you solidify it in your long-term memory. So there's a double benefit! Let's begin...

#1: Give Up

Surrender can be an active process.

Giving up has no relation to failure when the purpose behind it is to gain your freedom; you're not accepting defeat, but rather you're realizing that you're never going to get everything done, you're killing yourself trying, and that that way can only lead to unnecessary anguish and a diminished quality of life.

So give up your unrealistic expectations; give up the idea of making everyone happy; give up the pursuit of perfection and the relentless striving.

Perform actions with excellence and care, but, as much as possible, do these things for their own sake, giving up the idea that you need to "earn" your place on this planet.

#2: How Many Weeks Have You Lived?

Some people take this even further and print off an honest-to-goodness chart with boxes representing how many weeks they expect to live, and with the boxes representing the weeks they've already lived shaded in.

This is...excessive maybe? But I'm not against it! Having these things laid out in an unmissable, clearly visible manner can go a long way towards making these ideas intensely real: your weeks will, eventually, unavoidably, run out.

You don't have to write this down anywhere, but simply take your current age and multiply it by...you guessed it...52. Someone who has just turned 25 years old will have been alive for 1,300 weeks.

If you're 85? 4,420. I just did a rough calculation myself, and it turns out that I've been alive for about 1,600 weeks! Now I'm going to sit with this number for a few minutes and see how I feel about it.

#3: Schedule Something Vitally Important

If something's important to you, you have to schedule it first, and then schedule everything else around it.

We all have things that we'd love to do but never seem to have time for, and the partial solution to this is to make time for it. Plan it out, stick to your plan, and take action to make it happen in reality.

This could be something in your own hometown, and/or with friends or family of yours, or it could be that trip to Machu Picchu that you've always been dreaming about. Whatever it is, pick a date and make it happen.

If it's travel that's going to be a little more expensive, pick a date further into the future, but just know that you can buy a plane ticket for pretty much anywhere in the world for less than $2,000, and usually much less than that depending on where you live.

That's less than $6 a day, and you can buy a ticket in just one year.

Again, just like Burkeman says, don't turn travel into a to-do list, but if it's going to happen, it's gotta be on your schedule.

"The path to success is to take massive, determined action."

-Tony Robbins

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With that said, I hope you enjoyed this edition of The Reading Life, and enjoy the rest of your week!

Until next time…happy reading!

All the best,

Matt Karamazov

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