Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman review

 (Bodley Head/Jeff Mikkelson)
(Bodley Head/Jeff Mikkelson)

Does Four Thousand weeks sound like a long time? You’d better hope so, because it’s all you’ve got. Oliver Burkeman begins his book with the arresting fact that the average human lifespan lasts for 4,000 weeks. He then spends the next 250-odd pages trying to talk you out of the despair into which he’s plunged you. When Burkeman himself did the maths it made even him feel “queasy” although he soon recovered and this engaging book is the result.

It’s one I was happy to start reading. In my day (or should that be night?) job as editor of the Londoner’s Diary I gad about town in the evenings before waking up early to fill our page in the Standard. Busyness is the name of the game.

One obvious problem that I’ve often felt with time is that there simply isn’t enough of the stuff. It’s not just me. From demanding bosses to busy social lives, to raising young children to second jobs that make ends meet, almost everybody is subject to seemingly endless calls on their time. If only we could get somehow more efficient in our use of it, we might be happier – our to-do lists would actually get completed, our work-life balance would be solved, and we imagine we’d be wealthier and healthier.

Wrong, argues Burkeman. “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control,” he says early on. Instead, his pitch is for embracing the liberation of limits. Accept that time is finite, that you can only ever do so much, and that you only have one life. You’ll soon see the light and start to move away from dangerous traps like hoping to do it all. That’s a dead-end and realising so is liberating, he says.

So we take off on a journey through and around time. We get inside the minds of medieval peasants before the invention of the clock (they lived in the alluring sounding “deep time,” alongside back-breaking toil, of course). We learn the surprising lesson that can be drawn from bus routes leaving Helsinki station — though they all follow the same routes for the first kilometre, the buses end up in very different places (a counter-intuitive parable for how originality can be found by striking out on a well-trodden path). We gasp in horror and admiration at the Cuban American Mario Salcedo, who’s been living on cruise ships for twenty years. But is he as happy as he says he is? And more importantly, does he properly understand time?

The answer, as it so often is in this book, is ‘not quite’. Burkeman almost always comes to unexpected but satisfying conclusions.

In less capable hands this project might feel trite or be vertigo-inducing. But Burkeman is very capable. A journalist who covers productivity, popular psychology and mortality, for years he wrote a column for the Guardian called This Column Will Change Your Life. He’s written two previous books on happiness, HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done and The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, published in 2011 and 2012. As a result, he’s a sure-footed guide when it comes to intellectually tricky terrain. And he knows his way around the examples and thought experiments.

Those are handy skills to have when relating ancient Taoist philosophy to the modern reader who’s stressing about social media.

For those who want it, there’s even a boxed out list of ten “tools for embracing your finitude” in the appendix – bolded tips to help you live well, now. But the book has deeper rhythms too. It is all the better for not having a great revelation at its core, for not having a single lightbulb moment. Instead, it reads as the natural product of years of thinking about how best to live life.

Of course, it’s not perfect. There may be a little too much focus on the evils of email (clearly Burkeman gets a deluge in his inbox every day), for example. Sometimes the tone can become a little preachy. I wasn’t as sold as he is on the benefits of ditching taxi apps and choosing local cab firms on the grounds that they bind neighbourhoods together. Earlier this summer I got a local taxi in a popular seaside town in Suffolk. The driver was late, ranted incoherently for 20 minutes, then tried to charge us double. It didn’t feel very neighbourly. But I might have got unlucky.

That, though, is only one prong of Burkeman’s many-sided, impressive assault on the crusty canards and pieties of how we think and talk about time. His book will challenge and amuse you. And it may even spur you on to change your life. At the very least reading it would be a good use of one of your four thousand weeks.

Four Thousand Weeks : Time and How to Use It by Oliver Burkeman (The Bodley Head, London, £16.99)

Buy it here

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