Several years ago, the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman asked some of his friends to guess, off the top of their head, how many weeks make up a typical human lifetime. One threw out an estimate in the six figures, but as Burkeman notes in his new book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
Someone who lives to age 80 gets far fewer—close to the number in the title of Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” he writes. Given this limitation, it makes sense that the typical approach to time management is to seek ways to cram ever more into our finite number of days.
But Burkeman argues that this is the wrong way to manage time. Rather than looking outward to productivity strategies and hacks, Four Thousand Weeks encourages an inner shift in perspective. It confronts a series of comforting illusions that many of us hold onto instead of internalizing colder truths: that we will die not having done a tremendous number of things we care about; that every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us; that our lives are already ticking away. I recently spoke with Burkeman about how a philosophy of time management that accepts these daunting realities can help us do the things we care about most. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.