Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

A healthy read for productivity-geeks like myself. I whole-heartedly recommend this book. As with any book, it has its flaws, but I enjoyed it very much.

5 min read

There's always more work to do

There's always going to be more work to do. The trick is not always to speed up, but to slow down.

The author implemented Inbox Zero, but found that, as he got more efficient at answering emails, the more he got.

You can race through your to-do list, only to find more work on the other side.

It never ends if you don't set boundaries.

Having enough

It was predicted by Maynard Keynes, in a speech in 1930, that by now we'd only have to work 15h a week.

But as you know, that didn't happen. We only found more ways to not be satisfied; more reasons to get more money, so we could buy more things. (See Hedonic Adaptation)

I feel like the mentality of "as soon as I get this done, I'll be happy" or "if I just got more done, I'd be more fulfilled and happy" is the same mindset as "if just I had more money/things, I'd be happy". I guess those mindsets are really all rooted in feeling a lack of something (or perhaps the desire for more).

But you won't ever be happy with that. If you aren't happy before you do the life hacks / get more money / lose weight / buy a new bag / insert desire here, you won't be after.

Continuously postponing our fulfillment and happiness until some condition is met is a trap.

When I lose weight, I will be confident.
When I finish my project, I'll be satisfied.
When I X, I will be Y.

But the thing is, we won't ever be Y. We just move onto the next thing. And the next. And the next.

Periodic reflection

We should always aim to reflect upon what we do in our days. If we do things we don't value, we should aim to remove (or reduce) time spent doing them. This is not easy. But would you rather endure hardship, or be unhappy because you never tried?

We should periodically reflect upon life itself, as well as our mortality. This may shift how it feels to be right here, right now.

What it takes to be productive

You won't ever "solve busyness" by becoming more busy. The trick isn't in learning to fit more into your day: it is to recognize that it's impossible to solve busyness by becoming busier. You will have to make hard choices about how you spend your time.

You will have to make sacrifices. Doing something is always doing it at the cost of something else.

Every moment, you are presented with an enticing menu of possibilities. You should be grateful that you get to choose, because you might as well never have been given the opportunity to begin with.

It is the doing of something rather than something else that gives it meaning. You decided that it's what counts most in that moment.

Stop being ungrateful of having so little life, and be grateful that you were given any at all.

Opportunity cost

The second aspect of this whole problem is that, when we learn to do more with our time, the quality of our tasks decrease. The more we can do, the less we evaluate potential things against others; so we end up doing stuff that isn't very important. Doing anything comes at an opportunity cost. The less we perceive that price to be, the more likely we are to take on less worthy activities. And increasing productivity seems to be one way to reduce our perception of the cost. Even worse, we may not even judge the activity at all.

Often, what we end up taking on is what matters to someone else: something that is very convenient to them, but which matters little to you.

That time never comes

We keep postponing the big, important things with small, urgent, unimportant things. We think we just need a big stretch of time, so we can focus on that big thing, and we just want to get that urgent task out of the way first: but it never ends, so we never work on the big, important thing.


Convenience makes things easy, but that isn't always ideal. Online ordering of food is easy and convenient, but you won't develop a relationship with your local food places. The same counts for many other convenient services.

Not all conveniences are bad - far from it. Gifting is an excellent example of where convenience is bad. Having someone else handle gifting for you takes away all meaning. Doing the effort yourself creates the meaning - and the more effort you put in, the more meaningful it can be. The same goes for relationships. Remembering names, birthdays, and other details is an important effort to have meaningful relationships. Not doing so is certainly convenient, but the consequences are severe.

On the other hand, automation and convenience of trivial things can be great. Personally, I don't want to spend all my time doing certain thing, but I do still want the benefits of having them done. For example, I'll resort to my car when going longer distances - otherwise I could spend days walking back and forth. However, one is not a substitute for the other: I still go on walks.

Pay yourself first

This is the principle of "paying yourself first", related to time management. Take time out of your day to do what matters to you. This may come at a cost. You may have to sacrifice doing other things you value, but it is a necessary choice to make. If you don't ever take some time - even just a little - you won't ever get to do what it is you want to do.

Limit what you do

The second principle: limit your work in progress. As is the teachings of Lean and Scrum, trying to do everything means that you barely do anything at all. You'll feel very busy, though. Chase two rabbits, catch none, but you'll still get to run.

A piece of practical advice that relates to this principle: limit the amount of things you do. In the book, Personal Kanban, it is recommended to only do three things "at once". Whatever else will have to wait.


Bad procrastination is often rooted in perfectionism. Any attempt to bring your ideas to life will always fall short of your imagination. This prevents many from ever attempting at all. However, if you're worried that you won't do a good enough job, you can relax - because you won't, as compared to your imagination. So you might as well try anyway.


Often, becoming distracted is a way to cope with, or to dull, some pain we feel in the moment.

Knowing that we get distracted to dull some pain also explains why most strategies for avoiding distraction doesn't work. Digital detoxes, for example, are about limiting access. Checking Twitter is a symptom. If you don't fix the cause, but just limit your access to Twitter, you'll just do something else to procrastinate - like daydreaming or reorganizing your desk.

There may not be a cure to the pain which causes distraction. In reality, the cure may be to simply recognize it as reality, and wholly embrace it. It seems as if, when you stop fighting it, it almost subsides.

Is distraction bad?

Being distracted is sometimes within our control, and it sometimes isn't. We might have our attention commandeered by a barrage of notification, which most would probably regard a distraction. On the other hand, our attention might also be commandeered by a bus coming our way, honking that we should pay attention, so we can get out of the road and not get hit. This is, most would probably agree, a good kind of distraction.

So isn't bad distraction doing something that isn't in accordance with our values? And good distraction something that is in accordance with our values, but unplanned for that moment? E.g. Not getting hit by a bus.

Nothing is ever guaranteed

A plan is a statement of intent. An expression of in which direction we want to shift the future. The future is, however, under no obligation to comply.

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