When three friends separately recommend a book to you, it’s probably worth taking notice. The book in question? Four Thousand Weeks* by Oliver Burkeman, subtitled ‘Time Management for Mortals’.
Don’t let the subtitle mislead you, though. Baked into the concept of time management is the notion that we can control the passage of time. We might think of time as a resource to maximise using productivity techniques and life hacks. But this is not a book about time blocking, using the Pomodoro technique or batch cooking your meals. These are all downstream strategies that arise from an industrialised interpretation of time. This type of understanding has led me to treat time like an orange, trying to squeeze every last drop of juice from a battered pulp. And it is why I call myself a muppet – an endearing term for someone who is misguided, picked up from Lando Norris.
I’m sure many have similar challenges. Time is the most precious of our resources, the container in which everything else takes place. Leading a good life is all about using time well. In this book, Oliver Burkeman provides some helpful reframes to redefine what using time well might mean. A better subtitle for the book would be ‘Rethinking Your Relationship With Time’.
This is precisely what I have been trying to do in the last few months. It has been a strange period with frequent interruptions to my working rhythms. There have been appointments with physical therapists to focus on healing my body. I have worked closely with a spiritual mentor, with multiple conversations extending four to five hours on what would typically be working days. I have also had numerous catch-ups with a friend in a different time zone, which often fall in the middle of my day, and gone for late morning walks with another friend who works shift hours in an emergency room. Despite all this positive input and relationship-building/sustaining impetus, I’ve felt angsty and irritable. There is a nagging feeling that I should be doing more.
I suspect a large part of this is because I’m stuck in comparison with the past when I ploughed countless hours into others' projects. 60-hour weeks were the norm when I worked in management consulting. There were times I equalled that working in a non-profit, all in service of a higher mission. I now want to invest similar energy into my own projects, but there is no external force imposing a set working rhythm. There’s a strange notion that being self-employed translates to endless ‘free time’. But whilst there are no client deadlines cranking up the pressure, one still needs to use time well to deliver consistently in order to build a business. The blank canvas of possibility has pressures of its own. After all, how long is a piece of string? There is always more to be done.
November has been better, though. Maybe the book’s messages are slowly starting to seep into my subconscious. Perhaps it’s because I’ve had difficult discussions with friends explaining my struggles with balance as I try to build a successful solo business, whilst still investing time into the relationships. Maybe it’s because falling in love temporarily suspends the part of the brain obsessed with optimisation and cost-benefit analyses. Or perhaps it’s because one of the natural consequences of zooming out when considering the passage of time is more equanimity with the inability to control that passage of time? I’ll let you know if I figure it out, but it will probably take some time. I’m still a muppet, after all.
The book* is worth reading, but you can also get a lot of the core insights by listening to Oliver Burkeman’s course on the Waking Up app, which you can try for free for seven days.
*This is an affiliate link.