Review: An antidote to the cult of busyness

5 minute read

Commuters cross London Bridge during morning rush hour in London, Britain, November 18, 2021. REUTERS/Tom Nicholson

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LONDON, Dec 3 (Reuters Breakingviews) - The pandemic provided not just intimations of mortality but brutal daily klaxon calls. Yet even without the menace of a deadly virus, human lifespans are short, as Oliver Burkeman points out in “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It”. The title references how long someone will live if they make it to around 80 years. His reflections on how easily that brief time can be filled with joyless urgency or distractions are an articulate and useful antidote to a modern tendency to make busyness a badge of honour.

Burkeman traces the roots of the problem back to how time came to be viewed as a resource that’s used and valued only insofar as it lays the groundwork for future achievements. For example, once employers began to pay workers for units of time rather than piecework, the former had a strong incentive to demand more was done in the same amount of time without bothering about the toll that might take on the quality of the latter’s lives. It may be perfectly rational for employers to behave that way, but a focus on efficiency has become so pervasive that it’s increasingly common for individuals to treat themselves in the same way. Productivity hacks are used to shave minutes off whatever needs doing while an array of techniques offer different ways to prioritise and power through to-do lists. But it’s a Sisyphean task as there’s no end to chores, worries, or indeed email.

While Burkeman says the quest to become ever more efficient is a trap, he is neither judgemental nor sanctimonious about those who fall into it. A recovering efficiency geek, he likens his former job of writing a weekly newspaper column on productivity to an alcoholic being employed as a wine expert. Burkeman is also clear-eyed about how the world conspires to suck people into the delusion that time is a resource to be owned and mastered. Capitalism could be viewed as “a giant machine for instrumentalising everything it encounters”, be it the earth’s resources, or people’s time and abilities – the “human resources” of corporate jargon – in the service of future profit. Even leisure becomes a means to an end: either the vigorous pursuit of self-improvement or ensuring workers are more productive because they have rested.

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Burkeman takes a similar approach when tackling people’s propensity to be distracted. He acknowledges that this is an unavoidable characteristic of a species whose survival depended on being perpetually alert to danger. He includes anecdotes about his own propensity to succumb to Twitter’s allure. However, he’s forthright about how social media companies exploit this trait to keep people glued to their platforms. Despite these critiques, “Four Thousand Weeks” is neither a diatribe nor a call to arms for revolution, or even specific regulation. Instead, it focuses on the ways that people collaborate with the forces that seek to distract them or make them into “lean, mean production machines”.

Those who seek to impose control on a chaotic, uncertain world might plan in advance how to use every waking minute, tick off a list of chores, or think up ways to future-proof their lives. Others might resort to distractions to avoid applying themselves, since they are subconsciously fearful of discovering they lack sufficient talent. And there will be those who try to pack life with experiences to ensure they have lived well. For Burkeman, all these tactics risk being counterproductive.

Unforeseen occurrences like a leaking roof or an emailed request from the boss can derail the best-planned days. To-do lists can become overwhelming and never-ending. Resisting the unexpected causes stress. Meanwhile striving to make the best use of one’s time by packing in enriching experiences can obscure the experience itself.

“Four Thousand Weeks” offers no glib solutions. Burkeman makes a case for patience of the sort required to look at a single piece of art for three hours, or to take inconveniences and delays in one’s stride. He’s also a supporter of hobbies since they serve no other future goal. But even here, he makes the distinction between pop star Rod Stewart’s passion for model trains, a pastime so at odds with the singer’s image that Burkeman feels he pursues it out of genuine love, and Richard Branson’s kitesurfing, which also burnishes the entrepreneur’s public image as a daredevil.

There are other nuances, too. For example, Burkeman points out that achieving total autonomy over one’s time often means bypassing the social connections and commitments that make life more worthwhile. Nor is he advocating turning one’s back on aspirations, foresight, or social activism. Instead “Four Thousand Weeks” offers a framework to think without panic or resistance about a short, uncertain lifespan. Its enthusiasm for embracing limits is bracing in a world that feeds busyness by promising ever more choices for how to spend our money and, more importantly, our time.

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- “Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It” by Oliver Burkeman was published in August by The Bodley Head.

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Editing by Peter Thal Larsen and Oliver Taslic

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