The Futility of Trying to Do Everything

A Review of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman sounds like the typical self-help, productivity hacking book (which I’m kind of a junkie for), but it really is more of a philosophical outlook on our limited time in life and how you could use it in the most fulfilling way.

There are certain central ideas in the book that I’ve abstractly believed in for a while. One of them being that in the grand scheme of the unknowable universe, nothing we really do on this planet matters, so you might as well do things you like doing for their own sake. Burkeman radically declares that even Steve Jobs won’t matter in the natural progression of our cosmos and that when he emphasized the importance of putting a “dent in the universe,” it really was a bit misguided.

There are natural objections one can have to this argument. One I came across on one of the reviews of the book on Goodreads is that if someone like Martin Luther King Jr. was such a nihilist, would he have been motivated enough to galvanize the civil rights movement in the U.S.? Another one that naturally came to my mind is that with how rapidly technology like artificial intelligence and robotics are developing, humans or at least our legacy could withstand the trials and tribulations of time a lot longer than we originally thought.

Both of these arguments could be somewhat answered by another one of Burkeman’s main points in the book: humans, in our current form, must embrace our finitude. Our lives are brief, and the future is never guaranteed. So, someone with ambitions as high as Martin Luther King Jr. absolutely should use the limited time they have to pursue the things that matter the most to them. To the technophile, while their aspirations for the potential of humanity could certainly be manifested, our civilization still isn’t yet as advanced as they would like, so they should use all of their more primitive resources now to build their idealized future while they still have time.

What, you might ask, are people doing instead of pursuing what means the most to them? Burkeman explains that we have a tendency to not realize how finite we are and believe that we can ultimately accomplish everything on our infinitely long to-do list. Therefore, we tend to waste time on more menial tasks like trying to answer every email that comes through our inbox in hopes of one day feeling the existential peacefulness of getting to inbox zero permanently.

Burkeman elaborates on how ridiculous this idea is by pointing out something everyone has experienced, which is that once you complete a task, another one always pops up, often because of how productive you were in finishing the previous one. This is an idea that really resonated with me. I’ve always had a turbulent relationship with work, in large part due to my illusion that once I do a certain, basically insurmountable amount of work, I will achieve a sense of unimaginable peace. I will have done “enough,” whatever that means.

This has never worked out for me. It has only resulted in sporadic periods of me working very hard and finishing whatever I wanted to finish and then becoming legitimately upset when another onslaught of deliverables come my way, shattering my expectation that I have done my due and deserve to relax for the rest of eternity. I then become so stressed out by the standard of the amount of work I did last time that I just do the bare minimum this time, if that. And, the cycle repeats over… and over.

But, after encountering Burkeman’s revelation of our limited capacities, I now don’t spend each day trying to finish various long and arduous assignments. I just do a bit each day, which is precisely what the author suggests, knowing that after I eventually complete one item, another will always pop up and that this is kind of what life is all about. Just as it’s difficult to know the true meaning of joy without having experienced sorrow, living an eternal life in which problems aren’t actually problems since you’ll live forever is actually quite meaningless. The problems we face in our finite lives are actually what makes life worthwhile.

If all this talk about never ending problems and how we’re basically just specks of dust in the universe sounds a bit too doom and gloom, I’ll finish with another central idea in Burkeman’s book that might make you feel more like a god and less like a mortal. The fact that there exists a planet like earth that is abundant with resources where life is possible, that our environment haphazardly ensured humanity’s flourishing through natural selection, that your ancestors successfully maneuvered through the complexities and disasters of human civilization over hundreds of thousands of years, and that one in a group of thousands of eggs was fertilized by one in a group of trillions of sperm makes you a miracle, an event so incredibly unlikely, almost impossible. It’s an idea as cliche as something that could be written on a motivational poster in an elementary school teacher’s classroom but one that always gives me pause and makes me grateful that I am able to experience any aspect of life at all.

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