Professional Development: 4000 Weeks—Time Management for Mortals

Summary by Lisa Buck | Book by Oliver Burkeman

“Be where your feet are.”

In our accelerated world, as we sort through a full inbox and cross things off our lengthy to-do list, many of us find ourselves thinking there is never enough time. 

This race to keep up leads us to feeling overwhelmed and stressed, not satisfied and fulfilled, according to Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. (The title refers to the human lifespan: we live about 4000 weeks on average.) According to the author, the problem is not our limited time. The problem is our beliefs about how to use our limited time. 

Our relationship with time has changed. Historically, people did not experience time as an entity or thing, separate from us. People awoke when the sun rose, harvested crops when the crops were ready, and milked cows when the cows needed it. There was no external schedule, no race toward completion. The rhythms of life emerged from the tasks themselves. 

Then the invention of the clock made time standardized and visible. Instead of living life as it unfolds in time, time is now a thing that is used and we feel pressure to use it well. We view time as a mathematically measurable sequence. 

Attorneys are particularly aware of this. The billable hour obliges lawyers to treat time as a commodity to be sold off in chunks. An hour not billed is an hour wasted. When an activity can’t be added to the tally of billable hours, it feels like an indulgence one can’t afford. 

By changing the way we think about time, Burkeman suggests, we can decrease our stress and enhance our life.

Embrace the Limit 

Life is like a conveyor belt. Each hour, week, and year is like a container on the belt, which we feel we must fill if we are making good use of our time. Yet we may yearn to spend more time with our kids or aging parents, or to be outside in nature, or to be advocating for a cause we care about.

The problem with trying to make time for everything is that you never will, so the author suggests we reject the struggle of mastering time. Instead, adopt a limit-embracing attitude. Accept that you will definitely not have time for everything. Let go of the fantasy of getting it all done.

Decide What to Neglect

The original Latin word for “decide” is decidere, which means “to cut off”. To decide means to cut off or neglect something else. Choose wisely and consciously what you will focus on and what you will neglect.

Pay Yourself First

If you try to find time for your most valued activities (such as spending time with your kids, exercising, or writing a book) by first dealing with all the other demands on your time, you’ll be frustrated. The only way it will happen is to do some of it today no matter how little and no matter how many tasks are vying for your attention. Claim the time for you. 

Limit Work in Progress

Set a limit on the number of things you allow yourself to work on at a given time. Try limiting it to three. All incoming demands must wait until one of the three items is completed, thereby freeing up a slot.

Resist Middling Priorities

Because you don’t have time for everything, learn to say no to some things you actually want to do. Advice on how to prioritize life has been attributed to Warren Buffet: Make a list of 25 things you want out of life, from most to least important. Organize your life around the top 5 items. Avoid the other 20 items at all costs because they will distract you from the top 5.

Avoid Distraction

We are capable of attending to less than one percent of the information bombarding us at any given moment. We are all prone to distraction.

When we succumb to distraction, we are attempting to flee the painful predicament of limited time and lack of control. That’s why we scroll through social media or clean out our desk, instead of focusing on the task at hand.

Interestingly, the more you concentrate on the painful task or circumstance (for example, acknowledge how boring and tedious it feels to do your taxes or to prepare your expense report) rather than distracting yourself from it, the less agonizing it is.

Be Where You Are 

We live in a future-focused world. We think “When I make partner” or “When the kids are grown” we will have time to do that thing we are passionate about. We are chasing the future. Instead, focus on where you are, not just where you are headed. 


In our culture there is pressure to use leisure time productively too. We often treat time off as an investment in our future (we relax so we can be more productive). But it is wrong to think the value of our time is only to be judged by the results.

Some things are worth doing for themselves alone— there is no payoff in terms of profit or productivity. A good hobby or leisure activity is something you do for its own sake. For example, attend a party because it’s fun (rather than to expand your legal network) or go for a run because it feels good (not to train for a marathon).

Practice Patience

Patience is a form of power. In a world geared for hurry, the capacity to resist the urge to hurry— to allow things to take the time they take— is a way to derive satisfaction from the doing itself, rather than in deferring all fulfillment to the future. Next time you are in a traffic jam, practice patience and allow reality to unfold at its own speed.

We’ll never be able to handle every demand or pursue every ambition that feels important.

But by accepting that time is limited and making conscious choices about what to focus on and what to neglect, we can make the most of our 4000 weeks. 

Lisa Buck practiced corporate law in Minneapolis and was an adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law. When she isn’t writing for the Hennepin Lawyer, you can find her behind the lens at Lisa Buck Photography.

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