Book Notes: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

You’re going to die. You’re alive for four thousand weeks, on average. None of it is really going to matter once you’re dead. So what are you going to do, while you’re still alive?

Book Notes: Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman

I don’t like limitations. On a crass level, this means I don’t like being told what to do. In fact, the best way to get me to go out of my way to avoid doing something — even if it means inconveniencing myself in the process — is to tell me unequivocally that I must do it. Must, you say? I mutter to myself. We’ll see. We’ll see. But it isn’t just this — I hate being constrained by a useless, floppy, fleshy, needy human body. It needs constant care and maintenance. And sleep is the worst of all — right when I’m getting going with something, right when I’ve got a creative spark, that’s when I need to sleep. What a waste of my time.

I always knew time’s wingèd chariot was hurrying near — just tell that to the deadlines that clattered into view. Tell it to the bursts of feverish work I’d do to hit them, which I’d almost always manage to do. All I learned from this was that it worked. It was horrid, but it worked. My system was no system whatsoever.

But I realised I needed something. Chaos reigned. So I became a bit obsessive about being productive. I worked constantly, trying to get more and more done, exhausting myself. And it made me miserable.

So, I was at an impasse. Working aimlessly caused me stress and working ‘productively’ caused me stress. And I didn’t really feel like I was, for all the chaos, all the busyness, anything of any substance. Worse, bouts of depression and anxiety would crop up and throw everything even further off-kilter.

I needed a way out, and ideas I came across in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks and The Antidote formed part of the recovery. Below are some ideas that made me think from the former:

Stop trying to be happy

The moment you try to be happy is the moment you admit to yourself you aren’t. Nobody wants to be something they think they are already; the aspiration is acknowledgement of lack (which is a problem with our society’s epistemology anyway, see Deleuze and Guattari's Capitalism and Schizophrenia). The alternative, as counter-intuitive as it might seem, is to embrace uncertainty. One might believe, somewhat logically, that positive thinking is the cure, but it simply doesn’t work. Positive thinking is a metacognitive process. In order to think positively, one has to be on high alert for possible negativity, constantly scanning to make sure no negative thoughts are allowed in. It’s only when we accept all thoughts, regardless of automatic designations as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, that we can feel content.

Part of the problem is that we crave a coherent, consistent sense of self: any conflict that disturbs this, disturbs us. The more we tell ourselves to be happy, the more the inner voice returns that we should be. This feedback loop ultimately makes us question just what the hell is wrong with us, if we can’t be happy? After all, we have willed it.

Can we learn from the Stoics?

Readers of this post might well be familiar with the Stoics, those inscrutable porch-hoverers, whose philosophies have enjoyed popular resurgence of late (see, for example, the work of Ryan Holiday). Stoicism centres the importance of reason above emotion: a calm indifference towards one’s circumstances. For the stoic, the ideal state of mind is tranquility. Here I wasn’t so sure about stoicism: though some of its principles have worked for me, I couldn’t help but feel that they were suited to the white, the privileged, the comfortable. It’s all well and good cultivating calm indifference when you’re privileged, but what if you aren’t? Isn’t rage and even violence sometimes necessary? Franz Fanon would argue that it is. That caveat aside, I’ve found the stoic practice of close examination of one’s internal processes devoid of denial very helpful indeed. When I’ve been upset, I’ve tried to stop myself and ask, do I need to be upset about this? Surely I only need be upset if I’m harmed, so I first must work out if I have been harmed. If it’s something someone has said, I can — in theory — decide if I have actually been harmed. It’s not about denial — it’s about slowing down and thinking rationally.

Western, capitalist human beings tend to get used to pleasure quickly, falling victim to hedonic adaptation. This can lead to a cycle of perpetual disaffection and dissatisfaction. A way to remedy this is to focus on losing those things one is lucky to have — this will soon renew one’s appreciation. More broadly, catastrophising and then snapping back to the (much better, hopefully) present, can help keep one’s anxieties in check.
Ultimately, the stoic way is to accept that one has little, if any control, over most things. Therefore, one should discern what’s out of one’s control and accept it as such. That which is within one’s control: that’s what’s worth one’s time, effort and attention.

Can we learn from the Buddhists?

There seems to be (given my workmanlike and shallow knowledge of both) quite a lot of similarity between stoic ideas Buddhist ones. For example, the idea that struggling against one’s demons empowers them is an idea that fits snugly in both camps. The best things to do in this case is to stop fighting and simply accept one’s demons. They’re there anyway.

The above is an example of non-attachment, a key idea in Buddhism. Contra dominant Western ideas of caring about every single damned thing, Buddhism instead calls for the staying-present of the self in the moment, simply to observe, still. This is challenging. The self has a self-reinforcing vision of itself, and this can be very challenging to break. Why break it? Because there is no unified self to begin with — it’s a narrative, an illusion. The ego is a way of organising the world, but it often stays rooted in a rather immature place. One’s brain is a (figuratively) noisy place: the goal is to separate out the overlapping voices.

Despite Burkeman’s explanations, I don’t feel that comfortable discussing Buddhism: it’s far outside of my experience and praxis. That said, one of the heuristics I found useful was to think of mental activity like weather. It’s going to happen however I feel about it. Instead of wishing it were different, I should just show up, every day, and get on with things. It turns out that I can coexist with negativity; I don’t need to fight it, just accept it. This extends to creativity, too — instead of waiting for the perfect conditions, I just need to show up and do the work. Routine trumps the muse, every time.

Stop trying to control the future

In The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defines the future as

Future, n. That period of time in which our affairs prosper, our friends are true and our happiness is assured.

Watch any ‘productivity’ YouTube channel and you’ll hear about goals. The only way to achieve anything is by setting a measurable goal. But, Burkeman argues, this might be counter-intuitive. Often we set goals that deplete us to the point that, having achieved them, we’ve got nothing left. Think of those who successfully pushed themselves to ascend Everest, only to die on the way down.

There’s an argument for operating without goals — instead of trying to maximise one’s potential at all costs, one can try to work smoothly instead, reducing friction in the moment, like the F1 pit team who worked faster once they started to be judged on smoothness and style, not time.

Fear of the future can make one freeze and never start, instead waiting for the perfect conditions. Perhaps the best advice here comes by way of Erich Fromm:

‘The quest for certainty blocks the search for meaning […] Uncertainty is the very condition to impel man to unfold his powers.' Uncertainty is where things happen. It is where the opportunities—for success, for happiness, for really living—are waiting.

Put another way, it might be good to think of oneself as like a frog: sun yourself on a lily pad, then hop to the next one at your leisure. Don’t be afraid to move.

Get over yourself

There’s nowhere in the brain, as far as we can tell, where the ‘self’ lives: many neuroscientists say that it’s an illusion. Michael Gazzaniga’s split-brain research seems to suggest that the self doesn’t live in a particular part of the brain. So what is the self, then? This is something I’ve thought about a good deal; I’m not sure this book got me much closer. Perhaps the key to thinking about the self is to not. If we were to say, ‘I cannot live with myself’, we are framing the self as separate from ‘us’ — one of those has to be false; only one can be real. We are not our interior monologues. It’s better to live in the present, asking ‘Do I have any problems now?’

Memento mori

You’re going to die. You’re alive for four thousand weeks, on average.
None of it is really going to matter once you’re dead.
So what are you going to do, while you’re still alive?