We have 4,000 weeks on Earth: How should work fit into this?

According to British journalist, psychologist, author and productivity guru, Oliver Burkeman, our time on this planet is distinctly short – some 4,000 weeks to be precise.

In that time, we’re supposed to have a work-life, a family-life, and a post-work life – which feels like not much time to fit everything in. That’s why his new book ‘4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals’ attempts to show us all how to think about time better.

But what food for thought is contained within it for HRDs around how work should be organized? TLNT asked Eric Taussig, founder and CEO of Prialto, the managed virtual assistant provider, to give us his thoughts on the book and how time is thought about in his own organization:

No matter how hard I tried, reading Oliver Burkeman’s fabulous new tome kept reminding me of the opening lyrics of Jackson Browne’s Your Bright Baby Blues:

Everybody is going somewhere
Riding just as fast as they can ride
I guess they’ve got a lot to do
Before they can rest assured
Their lives are justified
Pray to God for me, babe
He can let me slide

Burkeman’s central premise is that we each have about 4,000 weeks on this planet, and, as such, “time management is all life is.”

But he immediately turns the concept of time management on its head. Instead of saying we need to adopt better systems for task management, he argues we ought to stop trying to justify our existence, and stop trying to be hyper-productive. In the end, he says, what we do in this life will not matter much to the universe, so we should all give up the stress of striving. In other words, he wants us all to let ourselves slide.

Should productivity be an end in itself?

As the CEO of a company focused on enhancing executive time management, you might think I regard this view as anachronous. But hear me out.

I have never believed that productivity is an end in itself. I’ve long thought time management is less about accomplishing more tasks and more about producing a better life for yourself and the people you touch – be they your loved ones, your employees, and your communities. Getting all this right is the highest level of productivity, and it needs to be the “why” for your daily efficiency routines.

That’s the reason Burkeman conceived the book in the first place. For many years he wrote a column on time management and wellbeing called “This Column Will Change Your Life” for The Guardian. In it he used to like poking fun at the pieties of the self-improvement movement. He wanted to get beneath the surface of task management, to find liberation in our finitude, or what he calls “the joy of missing out.”

Like many of us, Burkeman began his career hoping to find a system for productivity. There are plenty of methods to be found. And while he gently mocks “seven habits” and the like, he knows productivity systems can work. His favorite was “inbox zero,” where you maintain a constant state of throwing the ball to another’s court so you can get on with your work without interruptions.

But you will never get around to doing everything, Burkeman explains. And that’s his central big idea. He says every decision you make kills off the infinite options you could have chosen. To “de-cide” is to murder alternative choices, he argues, just as “homo-cide” kills a human. Yes, you should choose carefully, but his message is this: you should not beat yourself up about what might have been because, well, it is not, and will never be. It was only recently, he observes, that humans saw time as a thing they own. But as Burkeman prefers to say (quoting philosopher Martin Heidegger), we do not have time; we are time. Our lives are successions of incidents, chosen and un-chosen. Better to live each one rather than analyze and judge, he says, which only produces more anxiety about how we spend our time.

The ‘network good’

There is plenty of data in his book about how distracted, anxious, and self-conscious we have become. We are too concerned about how our lives appear to others on-screen and off it.

However, what really got my attention was being reminded of the concept of “network good.” A network prospers when more people use it. Telephones are only valuable if most people have one, for example. By itself, a single phone is useless.

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The point he is trying to make is that people enjoy life more when doing the same things simultaneously. Burkeman cites research in Sweden that found all Swedes are more content in August – even those working – when most of the country is on holiday. Swedes also take a 30-minute break each workday, throughout the country, to socialize over cake and coffee. Previous attempts to eliminate this tradition have caused steep declines in happiness and productivity.

The value of office culture

“Network good” has important implications at this moment in relation to the work-from-home fever and questions about the value of office culture. I have always believed that we work better when we are co-located and experiencing the same environment and rhythms of the day.

Our virtual assistants worked in central offices pre-Covid and will return when safe. There is constant learning in a cohort of people being together that is difficult to replicate online.

It’s better to use time to ‘amplify’ people

So what are my closing thoughts? On the one hand I accept that there is nothing wrong with time management – we do not have a choice but to pursue it. But it is not a term I like to use to describe our purpose. Prialto’s mission is to positively “amplify people.” To amplify is to make something larger, greater, or stronger – to turn up the volume.

We believe we are here to amplify our customers, fellow employees, families, and communities by becoming a growth platform for these constituencies. It is not a contest to see who can be the most productive and wring the most tasks out of a day or week.

Which brings me neatly back to Burkeman. He begins and ends 4,000 Weeks with this observation: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, and insultingly short.” If time management is all life is, he asks us to consider “the outrageous brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks.”

At Prialto, we work to be our best selves every moment that we can. We do so in a way that also contributes to customers, our families, and our communities being their best selves. As Burkeman reminds us, we have less time on this earth than we probably want. So, the question is, what will you do with your time?

 

Eric Taussig is the founder CEO of Prialto, a global service that hires, trains, and supervises executive assistants in Southeast Asia and Central America and places them with businesses in North America and Europe. His work has been featured on National Public Radio and in places like Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine and Inc. Magazine.

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