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BOOK REVIEW: Four Thousand Weeks - Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman

By Hector MacKenzie

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The Bodley Head

Hardback £16.99

Paperback £9.99 (Vintage)

Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It.
Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It.

WE'RE obsessed with our lengthening to-do lists and constantly refilling inboxes at a time when our attention spans are shrivelling because of the constant barrage of easy distractions.

So how best to use our "ridiculously brief time on the planet?"

That's the basic premise of this engrossing book which draws on the insights of philosophers, psychologists and spiritual teachers from across the ages in a bid to realign our relationship with time "and liberate us from its tyranny".

The title of the book comes from an eye-opening perspective of the lifespan of someone luckily enough to make it to 80 years of age. That equates to around 4000 weeks.

Frenchwoman Jeanne Calment made it to 122 years of age and at her death in 1997 could claim to recall meeting Vincent van Gogh and to have lived long enough to see the success of the world's first cloned mammal, Dolly the sheep. While biologists claim lifespans that length could soon be commonplace, that still only equates to 6400 weeks.

But far from being a reason for anxiety-fuelled panic about making best use of your short time on earth, argues the author, this is a cause for relief because "you get to give up on something that was always impossible ­— the quest to become the optimised, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you're officially supposed to be." Instead, "you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what's gloriously possible instead".

Reflecting on the the busyness of working lives, he quotes Nietzsche who suggested it was to prevent us from having the leisure time to think. "Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself," he said.

Addressing FOMO - 'fear of missing out' – Burkeman concludes that missing out on something, indeed on almost everything, is pretty much guaranteed and but that it is the missing out that makes our choices meaningful. in the first place.

As a self-confessed former productivity geek, the author has come to realise that while convenience culture – everything from the rapid coffee at Starbucks to digital wallets that making paying so easy– seduce us into imagining there might be time for everything important by eliminating life's tedious tasks, "it's a lie".

The bottom line is you have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else and "deal with inevitable sense of loss that results". Confronting the certainty of death, "we become truly present for our lives".

He uses the example of people struggling to find time to do what they really want because, as one wannabe artist tells him, "there's no moment in the future when you will be magically done with everything and have loads of free time". So it follows that it you plan to spend some of your 4000 weeks doing what matters most to you, then at some point you're just going to have to start doing it".

In this way, there is good and bad procrastination.

He quotes new age philosopher Alan Watts who observed: "People are like donkeys running after carrots that are hanging in front of their faces from sticks attached to their own collars. They are never here. They never get there. They are never alive".

Burkeman goes on to explain why he sees patience as one of the least fashionable but most consequential superpowers.

There are uplifting and liberating conclusions likely to resonate with many people.

He concludes the most fundamental of time management questions is: what would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you are making it count?

He sees the coronavirus pandemic as "the great pause" – a gift for many us that offered time to realise that in fact we cared more about other people than we perhaps realised and finally had the time to shoe it. The chance to reconnect with nature, with simple everyday pleasures like baking bread, spending time with loved ones, was "inexplicably incredible".

The author offers ten tools for embracing your finitude and loads of footnotes cross-referencing his sources and offering options for further reading.

In a very overcrowded section of the market, this one looks set to stand the test of time.

Hector MacKenzie


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