Oliver Burkeman is the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals. It’s a book that has become an international best-seller. It is about making the most of our radically finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distraction, and political insanity (and ‘productivity techniques’ that mainly just make everyone feel busier). He’s also written The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.

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  • The final person Oliver thanked in his book? His grandmother: “My dear grandmother Erica Burkeman, whose childhood departure from Nazi Germany I describe in chapter 7, died in 2019 at the age of 96. I don’t know whether she would have read this book, but she would definitely have told everyone she met that I had written it.”
  • The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief.
    • If you live to be 80, you’ll have had about 4,000 weeks. But that’s no reason for despair.
    • Confronting our radical finitude – and how little control we really have – is the key to a fulfilling and meaningfully productive life.
  • When someone close to you dies, Oliver writes, “Such experiences, however wholly unwelcome, often appear to leave those who undergo them in a new and more honest relationship with time. The question is whether we might attain at least a little of that same outlook in the absence of the experience of the agonizing loss.”
  • When stumped by a life choice, choose “enlargement” over happiness. Don’t ask: Will this make me happy?”, but “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”
  • The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)
  • Embrace radical incrementalism – People who work a little bit every day tend to cultivate the patience it takes to get good.
  • Oliver tells the old parable about a vacationing New York businessman who meets a Mexican fisherman…
  • The capacity to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower.
  • The solution to imposter syndrome is to see that you are one – Everyone is totally “winging it.” The lesson to be drawn isn’t that we’re doomed to chaos. It’s that you – unconfident, self-conscious, all-too-aware-of-your-flaws – potentially have as much to contribute to your field, or the world, as anyone else.
  • The original Latin word for “decide” was decidere which means “to cut off” as in slicing away alternatives.
  • The sooner you welcome uncertainty and not knowing as normal ways of being, the better off you’ll be.
  • People who work a little bit every day tend to cultivate the patience it takes to get good. These people also quit their day’s work when it’s finished: they identify what their chunk of time or task is per day, they do that and only that, and save more for tomorrow.
  • “More often than not, originality lies on the far side of unoriginality.”
    • To illustrate this point, Burkeman uses The Helsinki Bus Station Theory. As the photographer Arno Minkkinen explained, Helsinki bus lines start out traveling the same path but then diverge at different points in the route, spreading out to far and wide locales. When you find your work resembles someone else’s, or you’re on someone else’s bus, traveling someone else’s path, don’t try to go back to the bus station at the very beginning and completely reinvent yourself and start from scratch, keep working and “stay on the bus!” At a certain point, your path will split off into something new.
  • The central challenge of time management isn’t becoming more efficient, but deciding what to neglect.
  • In an accelerating world, patience – letting things take the time they take – is a superpower.
  • In conditions of limitless choice, burning your bridges beats keeping your options open.
  • The need to control events is unhelpful. There is too much uncertainty for that.
  • Is “follow your passion” good advice?
    • Find something you’re good at instead.
  • Do things “daily-ish”
    • Harness the power of patience as a force for daily life. Relish the value of consistency.
  • Goal setting: “We are incapable of living goalless lives.”
    • With that said, “a plan is just a thought.”
  • Excellence:
    • A willingness to accept the truth of their present situation and not wear blinders. They are clear-eyed.
    • Generosity to other people. They have a basic assumption of a non-zero-sum world.
  • Four Thousand Weeks is an entertaining and philosophical but ultimately deeply practical guide to the alternative path of embracing your limits: dropping back down into reality, defying cultural pressures to attempt the impossible, and getting started on what’s gloriously possible instead. It’s about actually getting meaningful things done, here and now, in our work and our lives together – in the clear-eyed understanding that there won’t be time for everything, and that we’ll never eliminate life’s uncertainties.
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