Book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman

  • Title: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
  • Author(s): Oliver Burkeman
  • Published: August 10, 2021 (Initially)
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
  • Formats: Kindle, Hardcover, Audiobook
  • Available: Amazon.com, Amazon.in
  • Notes: Bestseller in New York Times, Sunday Times

A Quote from Chapter 1

“… the more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets.”

Four Thousand Weeks is a book about making the best use of time – while acknowledging that known time management techniques have not worked, and that we need to change our approach. The book makes us aware and conscious of this through multiple examples and stories.

However, the book assumes that we will look elsewhere for concrete tools and steps to identify and adopt to a new approach.

Key Messages In the Book

The book has a lot of insights, spread across many chapters. I have listed things that made a deep impression on me:

  • Most productivity tips focus on how to do things efficiently – the time ‘freed-up’ gets filled up with more things to do. For example, when I am prompt at answering emails and calls, I get more of them.
  • A life-span of around eighty years, converted to weeks, is slightly over 4000 weeks. After I deduct the weeks that have already passed, I have less than 1000 weeks remaining.
  • And ironically, time seems to fly by faster, now that I am older.
  • Life will be more satisfying when I internalize the finite nature of life, and accept my lack of control over many things. It will be good to distance from the ‘Fear Of Missing Out’. Missing out some things may make my choices better.
  • Instead of blaming social media for my distractions, I may actually be wanting distractions – like peeping at whatsapp, while doing work that requires focus.
  • Maybe, I tend to focus too much on the future, at the cost of enjoying the present. For example, when I visited a zoo the last time, I spent more energy clicking pictures (for the future), rather than enjoying what was in front of me.
  • Tasks that I plan for often take longer than expected. However, when I ‘buffer’ the plans (like reach a meeting early), I end up wasting my time drinking coffee or doing work without access to the right information or my regular tools.

What is likely to help me:

  • Keep aside time and do the things that are most important to me, even if it is at the cost of neglecting other things.
  • Become aware of and know when to stop – and not aim for perfection. It is easy to fantasize about stellar performance (as a worker, life-partner, friend, etc.) – but almost impossible to achieve this.
  • Focus on and eliminate things that I “need not do” and limit the items that are “work in progress”.
  • Increase focus on whatever I am doing, and even boring tasks are likely to become interesting.
  • Just enjoy relaxation, without linking it to potential improvement of efficiency.
  • Experience life concretely, finitely and simply .

Summary

Four Thousand Weeks emphasizes that we may be focused on managing our time to the last minute. We are doing this at the cost of actually ‘living in the present’ and enjoying life. The book confirms that it’s impossible to master your time and why you shouldn’t make it a priority anymore.

I also started thinking whether penning and publishing book reviews (like this one) was the best use of the limited time that I have :-).

Here is another quote from the book:

“The peace of mind on offer here is of a higher order: it lies in the recognition that being unable to escape from the problems of finitude is not, in itself, a problem.”

Though, the book convinced me of the need to change my approach, and provided some broad directions, it did not provide readily usable processes and tools to start implementing the change. I guess, there are other books and resources designed for those aspects.

About Oliver Burkeman – the Author

Oliver Burkeman has authored many books. For many years he wrote a popular weekly column on psychology called ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’, in the Guardian. His work has featured in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. His writing revolves around productivity, mortality, and a meaningful life.

Other books by Burkeman are: ‘The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking’ and ‘Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done’. You can get more information about Oliver Burkeman at www.oliverburkeman.com

Book: Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

TitleDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Author(s)Cal Newport  
Initially PublishedJanuary 2016 (English)
PublisherGrand Central Publishing  
Formats AvailableKindle, Hardcover, Paperback  
Available AtAmazon.com; Amazon.in
NotesAvailable in other languages. i.e., Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Telugu, etc.

Here is a paragraph from the Introduction of the book:

“The Deep Work Hypothesis: The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

“Deep Work” (a term coined by the author, Cal Newport) is the ability to focus without distraction on a complicated and cognitively demanding activity. Newport explains that this is work that requires attention, concentration and continuity for long periods. It is typically done alone and pushes one’s mental abilities to the limits. Some examples are: working on strategy (product launch, investment), design of complex systems, learning something new, analysis, writing a book, writing complex code.

Newport points out that many people have lost the ability to do deep work – doing multi-tasking and being driven by e-mails and social media, without being conscious of it. People often do deep work while they are in the learning mode, and then coast along with the skills they have assimilated, doing work in a ‘shallow’ manner. They also lose their ability to pick up new skills. Later, when their skills become irrelevant (e.g., due to automation), or their profession is significantly transformed, they are unable to learn new things that require concentration – and hit a crisis – typically in the later part of their lives.

Over the years, I too had gradually lost my ability to do deep work – and I am trying to pick it up again, using the tips listed in the book.

Key Messages for Me

  • Deep work requires deliberate, focussed attention for long, continuous, periods of time (45 – 90 mins) at a stretch without interruptions where we take our mind to its limits, concentrating, and losing ourselves in the activity (the maximum recommended deep work time is 4 hours per day). Deep work is essential to stand out and make contributions in demanding fields. It is also more satisfying than reading-answering emails, chatting on the net, and forwarding jokes on social media.
  • Frequent use of emails, WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, etc., along with mobile phones, and networked computers do not let us spend long periods of uninterrupted, focussed thinking and do any cognitively difficult work unless we take deliberate steps to rearrange our time. Many of us have become addicted to social media and such distractions.
  • Doing important work in a scattered way, with frequent interruptions, significantly increases the time to complete it and reduces the quality of the output.
  • Deep work is rare and hard. Shallow work is easy and all-pervasive.
  • Maybe Google search has reduced the capacity of our memory and our cognitive abilities. Because we can always search and retrieve information easily, we no longer have the ability to hold a set of ideas in our mind at the same time – to enable our brain to make new connections.
  • Many people, including tech giants (like Bill Gates, Neal Stephenson) took long periods ‘off’ from being connected – to think big and deep.
  • To adopt deep work, one has to understand, minimize and optimize shallow work – tasks that make us look and feel busy!

Why Do Deep Work?

According to the book:

  • Deep Work is Valuable. It creates the High-skilled Workers (who do cognitively tough, innovative and complex work) and Superstars (good actors, sportspersons, artists, programmers). Both need to master hard things and produce meaningful results – abilities that are created by doing deep work. Speed of creation and the quality of new products and services are also enhanced by deep work.
  • Deep work is Rare. Current work environments and expectations from knowledge workers do not easily support deep work. Open offices, instant responses to emails and other messages, meetings, presentations, etc. are not conducive to deep work. Combined with the principles of “least resistance” and “short processing time”, deep work takes a back seat. Measures for work have been substituted by “# of likes” on social media, and time to acknowledge an email (with just ‘Thanks’?). It is easier to show ‘busyness’ with shallow work. Being constantly connected (all-pervading Internet) adds to the problem.
  • Deep Work is Meaningful (to the worker). Doing focussed work makes people happy, more than relaxation activities (relaxation activities generate happiness only up to a point). Also, doing deep work makes one less conscious of minor annoyances.

How To Do Deep Work?

Cal Newport explains this in the later part of Deep Work:

Adopt one or a combination of the following philosophies:

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Book: Conscious Living, Conscious Aging by Ron Pevny

TitleConscious Living, Conscious Aging:
Embrace & Savor Your Next Chapter
Author(s)Ron Pevny
Initially Published2014
PublisherAtria Books/Beyond Words
Formats AvailablePaperback, Hardcover and Kindle
Available AtAmazon.com and Amazon.in

Many of us will live much longer than the preceding generations, and we are likely to be healthier – physically and financially. So, ‘retirement‘ will be different. We need to approach our later lives afresh. However, retirement planning, even now, typically focuses on finances, health, place of residence, and (maybe) hobbies.

I am now in my mid-sixties. Earlier, I had (unconsciously), thought of retirement as pottering around the house, putting my feet up, playing sports, keeping fit, reading books, time with friends & relatives, lounging around, and so on. Basically, “chilling out”, and not having too many targets (self-driven or externally driven). And, I implicitly thought that I would be content – drifting through life in this mode. But in reality, I became restless, impatient, irritable, annoyed and sometimes angry and sarcastic. I sought and demanded attention from people close to me. I became oversensitive to my reducing capabilities, especially my memory lapses. I often slipped into despondence – “anyway, what difference does it make?”

I had read this book some time ago, without assimilating or absorbing it. Now, while examining how to make life more satisfying, I was reminded by my wife about the book. Somehow, I too had an urge to re-read the book, based on a faint recall. I read it again, and then made yet another pass of the book – very, very slowly – digesting and trying to figure out how to apply the concepts and ideas.

This time, something clicked – maybe because the time was ripe for me, or because I had read it multiple times. Or, maybe a combination of the gentle narration, no ‘boilerplate’ solutions, more focus on concepts, and guidance on what ‘may’ work (or what worked for others). One impactful message for me was – it will take time, it won’t be easy, but I need to keep at it – even if I get stuck or there are dark periods when I feel like giving up. The book gave me additional insights each time I read it.

Worth Reading For Me!

I am sharing below my thoughts and reactions in my current context.

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Book: Headhunter by Michael Slade

Headhunter Cover Image

Title Headhunter
Author(s) Michael Slade
Initially Published In 1984
Publisher W H Allen & Co.
Formats Available Paperback, Hardcover

Headhunter is a murder mystery, a psychological thriller,  a whodunit and a horror story with plenty of details of police investigation procedures and methods. The novel is based in Vancouver, Canada in the 1980s and revolves around a set of grisly murders of young women, whose bodies are found headless. While the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) is investigating, more victims are discovered. Graphic violence, traumatized bodies, and perverted sex are all depicted with powerful imagery in this extremely well-written book.

I have read Headhunter three times, and each time I am gripped by the narrative and held spellbound even though I knew the ending.

“This is, beyond all doubt, a real chiller!”

 Robert Bloch, author of Psycho

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Book: The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon

Speed of Dark Cover Image

Title The Speed of Dark
Author(s) Elizabeth Moon
Initially Published In 2002
Publisher Orbit Books
Formats Available Paperback, Kindle, Hardcover

The Speed of Dark is a near-future story about a young autistic man, Lou. Lou is computer analyst, who is also a good fencer. The novel is a combination of science fiction and a thriller, often narrated from the autistic man’s point of view.

“Every once in a while, you come across a book that is both an important literary achievement and a completely and utterly absorbing reading experience—a book with provocative ideas and an equally compelling story. Such a book is The Speed of Dark.”

Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel

The main character in The Speed of Dark has been inspired by the author’s own autistic son.

The World

The Speed of Dark is a futuristic story, where the world has found treatments to manage the condition of autism. This treatment is administered in very early childhood.

In this scenario, autistic children born before the treatment was available try to live ‘normally’ with their condition, and also work hard to be useful members of the society.

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Book: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Enders Game Cover Image

Title Ender’s Game
Author(s) Orson Scott Card
Initially Published In 1985
Publisher Tor
Formats Available Paperback, Kindle

Ender’s Game brought immense fame and recognition to its author, Orson Scott Card. It is a science fiction book, set in the future with a ‘military’ theme.

“Superb! This is Card at the height of his very considerable powers–a major SF novel by any reasonable standard.”

— Booklist

The novel won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1985, and the Hugo Award for best novel in 1986. Ender’s Game was also nominated for a Locus Award in 1986.

The World

Ender’s Game is situated far ahead in the future, where human beings have left the confines of the earth and started expansion to other planetary systems. During this expansion, humans encounter another species on a similar expansion drive. This results in two wars between the two species. At the end of these wars, both species retreat to locations near their mother/ home planets. There is no communication between the humans and the alien species, who are officially called ‘formics’ and unofficially called ‘buggers’ (because they look like insects) by the humans.

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Book: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

The Name of the Rose Cover Image

Title The Name of the Rose
(originally published in Italian under the name ‘Il Nome Della Rosa‘)
Author(s) Umberto Eco
Translator William Weaver
Initially Published In 1980 (Italian) 1983 (English)
Publisher Multiple –  Bompiani; Martin Secker& Warburg; Harcourt; Vintage Digital; Everyman’s Library; Mariner Books
Formats Available Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, Audio

I was planning to re-read and post the review of this book after a few months. However, when I heard of the death of Umberto Eco (the author) on 19th February 2016, I decided to pick it up ahead of my original schedule.

The Name of the Rose(Italian: Il Nome Della Rosa, 1980), is the first novel by the Italian author Umberto Eco. It is an intellectual murder mystery set in an Italian monastery, in the year 1327. It combines semiotics, biblical analysis, medieval studies and literary theory. It was translated into English in 1983 by William Weaver.

“The most intelligent and at the same time the most amusing book in years”

— Der Spiegel

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Book: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

One Hundred Years of Solitude Cover Image

Title One Hundred Years of Solitude
(original Spanish title: Cien años de soledad)
Author(s) Gabriel García Márquez
Translator Gregory Rabassa
Initially Published In 1967 (Spanish) 1970 (English)
Publisher Multiple –  Harper & Row (US); Jonathan Cape (UK)
Formats Available Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle

One Hundred Years of Solitude, originally published in 1967 in Spanish and later translated to English in 1970, is considered to be one of the best novels of the century. According to some reports, the number of copies of the Spanish version is next only to the Bible.

“The narrative is a magician’s trick in which memory and prophecy, illusion and reality are mixed and often made to look the same.”

— Robert Kiely, The New York Times

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Book: The Shift by Lynda Gratton

 

 The Shift - Cover Title The Shift:
The Future of Work is Already Here
Author(s) Lynda Gratton
Initially Published In 2011
Publisher Harper Collins
Formats Available Paperback, and Kindle
Available At Amazon.comAmazon.in.

The Shift by Lynda Gratton looks at the forces that will change the way we work in the next fifteen years, and the key ‘shifts’ that individuals need to make to survive and thrive.

“A compendium of modern management and social science theories … the novelty of Gratton’s book is her synthesis of so many contemporary ideas about the changes to our working lives ”

— FINANCIAL TIMES (book of the year) 

Summary

The Shift takes a long and hard look at the trends that will affect work in future. The author conveys this through short ‘stories’ of individuals in the future – these scenarios include the negative as well as positive.

The Shift starts by identifying five emerging forces and the way they will impact the future of work. The five important forces identified by the author are (1) Technology (esp. the Cloud), (2) Globalization, (3) Demography & longevity, (4) Society, and (5) Energy resources. The book goes on to describe the history, trends and how these will affect our lives in the decades to come.

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Book: The Shore of Women by Pamela Sargent

The Shore of Women Cover Image

The Shore of Women, originally published in 1986, is treated as one of the classics in the science fiction genre. It is also a romantic story (with a mild dose of eroticism), and a story about a dystopian society. Some label it a feminist novel.

“With her luminous prose and vivid characters, Pamela Sargent has written a compellingly and emotionally involving novel”.

–Publishers Weekly

The World

On the earth, far away in the future,  the human society is gradually being rebuilt after nuclear devastation brought on by men wielding immense power and devastating technology. As the society is being rebuilt, men and women live separately – the women in city-enclaves and men in the wilderness, in small bands. The women have taken charge of the world and make sure that the men remain savage, superstitious and ignorant and have no say in running the world.
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