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Four Thousand Weeks

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals

by Oliver Burkeman

read in Dec 2021

book info on goodreads

I told myself that I would not read any more productivity, self help, or time management books anymore. Yet, Burkeman’s “Time Management for Mortals” seemed to be different and made it on my reading list regardless. What attracted me personally to this one is the radically different view and critique of the extant time management literature. Professionally, I was interested in the fact that Burkeman reviewed and challenged our fundamental understanding of time itself.

The abstract notion of time that we experience today is a relic of the industrial revolution. Hunter-gatherers and even farmers during the agricultural revolution did not think about time in terms of “work time” or “leisure time”. Modern ideas such as “wasting” or “saving” time did not make sense to them. Workers got up with the circadian cycle, even experiencing variations in the length of their days depending on the seasons. Time was not something abstract and separate from life. Time was inextricably enmeshed with their daily work and lives. Their rhythms of life emerged from the work tasks themselves. Burkeman calls this a task-oriented understanding of time.

Today we have aradically different understanding of time. We are able to talk about tasks and events in terms of concrete units of time. This did not make sense before the invention of clock time, because there was no reference standard. Time or differences in time had to compared to other concrete tasks. When thinking about time as an abstract entity it is only natural to start treating time as a resource that can be bought, wasted, saved, used efficiently, and so on. Before the construction of clock-time, time was simply the flow in which life unfolded, the flow of action that life was made of. Clock time separated time and life.

Based on this interesting review of the development of our modern understanding of time, Burkeman then argues that most of the time management problems that we are trying to solve today are caused by this socially-constructed separation of time and life.

“The trouble with attempting to master your time, it turns out, is that time ends up mastering you.”

Interestingly, Burkeman refers to Heidegger as a way out of this dilemma. He argues that we need to acknowledge our limitations as human beings, always already finding ourselves thrown into this time and place, uncertain about what comes next. Here he draws from Heidegger’s idea that we are time. There is no meaningful way of thinking about a person’s existence except as a sequence of moments of time. This is a truly process philosophical understanding of time.

Another point that Burkeman makes and that resonates well with my own work on digital nomads and temporal rhythms is the notion of temporal relationality. Classic economical theory suggests that time is a regular good with the implication that the more of it you command the more valuable it is. However, time is also a networked or relational good. It derives its value from within the unfolding of relationships over time. The more people time is shared with, the more valuable it becomes.

I see how this idea of relational time or process-relational philosophy could explain questions of identity, belonging, and loneliness in the case of digital nomads. Digital nomads are different from traditional nomads in that community and social relations are not as important for work. Most digital nomads are independent workers or work highly asynchronously, communicating almost exclusively via digital means. Traditional nomads’ survival depends on their working together with others. This difference is again established, at least in part, by our modern understanding of time and the accompanying time management techniques. Digital nomads are optimising for personal spatial as well as temporal freedom. They want to work wherever and whenever they want. This gain in personal temporal freedom comes with a loss in social temporal coordination. Digital nomads’ lifestyle lacks the shared rhythms required for deep relationships to take root. Misaligned schedules make it difficult to forge connections for two reasons: on the job because you are off when others are working together and socialising, during free time because you are trying to socialise when everyone else is working. In sum, digital nomads desynchronise their schedules from the established socio-temporal rhythm.

“The unbridled reign of this individualist ethos, fueled by the demands of the market economy, has overwhelmed our traditional ways of organizing time, meaning that the hours in which we rest, work, and socialize are becoming ever more uncoordinated.”

For less privileged digital workers such as gig workers the supposed personal temporal freedom seems to turn even into concrete loss of freedom manifesting in “on-demand scheduling”:

“[personal temporal freedom] means unpredictable gig-economy jobs and “on-demand scheduling,” in which the big-box retailer you work for might call you into work at any moment, its labor needs calculated algorithmically from hour to hour based on sales volume—making it all but impossible to plan childcare or essential visits to the doctor, let alone a night out with friends.”

The key message of “Four Thousand Weeks” is that our misguided attempts at managing time are based on a modern understanding of clock-time. Without a doubt, the invention of clocks, time zones, and more and more precise scientific measurement of time has come with invaluable technological advancements. Yet, for our work and social life, Burkeman argues a different understanding of time more in line with process philosophical ideas may be more useful to organise ourselves. I think, at least, digital and remote workers should take Burkeman’s ideas seriously.