Our entire life is only 4000 weeks

I’ve been obsessing about this fact since reading Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 weeks (his earlier book the Antidote is also worth reading) which is predicated on the observation this is a typical human lifespan. In practice we have far fewer than 4000 weeks, in the dual sense that I’m reflecting on this in my 36th year and that we rarely have the capacity to control each week such that we could be seen to determine how we spend it. The fact I’ve said ‘spend it’ is rather fitting given Burkeman’s underlying thesis is that many of our existential challenges reflect a fundamentally self-defeating orientation towards time as a resource we could accumulate and leverage if only we were better able to manage it. This leaves us in a state of clearing the decks in which we triage our way through small stuff in the belief we’ll eventually get to the important things. The idea of ‘catching up’ leaves us imagining a state of being ‘caught up’ in which we can approach life in a relaxed way, letting events unfold with a leisurely pace as we finally make time for the things which really matter to us. It is, argues Burkeman, an attempt to control the future which leaves us failing to engage with the present. There are a few points here which are familiar from the philosophical and sociological literature but which I’ve never encountered cashed out so persuasively and concretely in existential terms:

  • If we imagine we can do everything then we don’t have to make choices about what we actually devote our intensely finite time and energy to. We juggle too many things in the self-defeating hope that we will at some indefinite point in the future learn to productively manage them i.e. once we have ‘caught up’. In reality we’re simply trying to do too much and this precludes a real commitment to the things we might otherwise decide really matter to us.
  • He argues for the joy of missing out in which renunciation of alternatives deepens our engagement with the things which we have chosen. The internet makes many things easier to do but also vastly expands the pool of things which we might do. It makes it harder to commit to any one course of action by bombarding us with all the other potential things which we could spend our time doing. There is a skill in resisting the urge to consume more experiences.
  • The more efficient we become, the more we push ourselves and the more other people expect of us. he makes this point most convincingly with regards to e-mail, suggesting that ultra-responsiveness generates more e-mail both directly (in terms of immediately inviting a response from the person we have quickly responded to) and indirectly by creating a sense we can be contacted in a way likely to elicit a rapid response.
  • We see ‘problems’ as undesirable things which we imagine might finally be resolved leaving us floating freely in our own undisturbed balance. However a problem is something which demands our attention i.e. ‘something needing to be dealt with and overcome’. In this sense a life without problems would be a meaningless life in which nothing commanded our attention or effort. Life is about solving problems and the existential sensibility we adopt to this constitutes the experience we have of life.
  • He argues we misunderstand time as a resource which we seek to accumulate in order to maximise our value. This means we try and ensure the greatest possible control over it, minimising commitments which we regard as unwelcome and maximising our capacity to choose how we spend our time. As he puts it, every gain in temporal freedom entails a corresponding loss in the capacity to cordinate with others. In reality it is a network good which increases in value in proportion to the time of others which we can share it with.

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