My birthday present to myself last week was a book entitled “Four Thousand Weeks,” which addresses the absurdly, insultingly brief span of time — 80 years and some change — the average person …
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My birthday present to myself last week was a book entitled “Four Thousand Weeks,” which addresses the absurdly, insultingly brief span of time — 80 years and some change — the average person gets here on Earth.
My 58th birthday came and went without much fanfare, which is just how I prefer it. As I inch closer to 60 — an age which once seemed ancient, but then again 35 seemed ancient for the first 25 years of my life — I’m not lamenting the progression of years so much as how I’m constantly reminded of them, and of the rapidity by which time passes.
I have social media to thank for that. If you’re on Facebook, you’ve no doubt seen the “Memories” pop up — posts from the past that Facebook encourages you to re-post in recognition of how great your life used to be. “Memories” from five, eight and even 10 years ago seem eerily recent. On Instagram, celebrity birthdays from fan pages show up in my feed, and often my response is either a) I can’t believe they’re that old!, or b) I can’t believe they’re still alive.
I’ve no interest in writing about or expressing the disbelief that goes with getting older; if you’re not there, you will be soon enough, and it’s definitely one of those “you had to be there” experiences. What I am interested in is making the most of those remaining, aforementioned four thousand weeks; 58 years isn’t enough time, for me, at least, to master life.
Hence my birthday present.
My Kindle e-book tells me I’m only 16% through it, but already I’ve highlighted a multitude of passages I want to revisit and learn from. The author, Oliver Burkeman, subtitled the book “Time Management for Mortals.” It’s fitting. He describes time as those hours, weeks and years being like containers carried on a conveyor belt — containers which we must fill as they pass if we’re to feel like we’re making good use of our time.
“When there are too many activities to fit comfortably into the containers, we feel unpleasantly busy; when there are too few, we feel bored. If we keep pace with the passing containers, we congratulate ourselves for ‘staying on top of things,’ and feel like we’re justifying our existence; if we let too many pass by unfilled, we feel we’ve wasted them.”
There was a time, Burkeman says, when mankind was untroubled by the notion of time “ticking away.”
“Before, time was just the medium in which life unfolded, the stuff that life was made of,” he writes. But that changed with the industrial age and the relatively recent invention of clocks and watches and work that was measured by hours, not the sun and the seasons.
“Afterward, once ‘time’ and ‘life’ had been separated in most people’s minds, time became a thing that you used — and it’s this shift that serves as the precondition for all the uniquely modern ways in which we struggle with time today,” Burkeman says.
For the modern man in a rat-race world, our self-worth is bound up with how we use time. Time is no longer “the water in which you swim,” as it’s been described, but rather something we feel compelled to dominate or control. Fail in the endeavor, he says, and we feel guilty, panicked or overwhelmed.
We’ve all been there. As I struggle with my to-do list and a calendar that seems to book up weeks ahead, the book’s premise made me curious.
The point of Burkeman’s argument is that most of the trendy productivity systems and tools we use are bound to fail. The only workable alternative in life is not to use time, but to let time use you. To approach life “not as an opportunity to implement your predetermined plans for success, but as a matter of responding to the needs of your place and your moment in history.”
In other words, to build meaning into life.
The truth, he says, is that attempts to “get on top of everything” always fail, because there’s always more “everything.” Because time is finite, doing anything requires sacrifice — the sacrifice of all the other things we could have been doing with that stretch of time.
I figure that being 16% through this book and — by Burkeman’s estimation, about 70% through my years — there’s still enough space ahead to get a better grasp on it all.
What I’ve learned so far from the book: there will always be a gap between what I’d like to do and what I can do. Being deliberate about the “what I can do” is a pretty good goal for today.
And today is all we’ll ever have.
Bill Horner III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @billthethird.