How to plan your life

11 minute read

Practical lessons from Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks”

The first post about the lessons found in “Four Thousand Weeks” can be found here.

I finished reading Oliver Burkeman’s “Four Thousand Weeks”. What a book it is! I still highly recommend it.

The book ends with practical things you can do to spend your time wisely. These tips can be used not only to make your life more meaningful in the long run but also to help you plan out your day.

Let’s learn how you can spend your limited time on this Earth wisely.

The five questions to ask yourself

The book ends with some things you can start doing today to implement the philosophy of the book.

The author encourages you to reflect on the following five questions. Below each question are the important ideas that give the questions some context.

  1. Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort when what’s called for is a little discomfort?
    • Doing the most meaningful things in life is inherently uncomfortable because we might fail at them for any number of reasons.
    • By avoiding this discomfort, we tend to make time allocation choices that “prioritize anxiety-avoidance instead.”
    • When making significant life decisions such as leaving a job or relationship (or committing to diving deeper into these things), ask yourself, “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?”
  2. Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet?
    • What would you choose to do with your time if you knew that you don’t have the time to accomplish all that you want in life?
  3. In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?
    • You enjoy doing the things you enjoy doing and not the things you think you ought to enjoy. We should accept this.
    • You’re talented in the things you’re talented in and not the things you wished you were talented in. We should accept this, too.
    • There’s a lot in this world that’s broken. That doesn’t mean that your contribution to this world is limited to making a large impact that can potentially change the world.
    • Maybe your contribution is more “local”. Perhaps it’s taking care of those around you. Maybe it’s making and releasing the music you’ve written. Maybe it’s being a pasty chef.
  4. In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing?
    • Many of us tend to treat our lives as dress rehearsals of the “real thing” that might come around in the future.
    • Maybe that takes the form of staying in a job you hate for “just one more year” as you gain the experience you think you need to get your next job.
    • No matter what you do, you’ll never feel 100% in control of that thing. You might take a new job and not know all the answers to the questions people ask you.
    • Everyone around you is winging it, all the time. The people you think are experts in what they do also don’t know all the answers!
    • We’re all in the same boat, and that’s a liberating thought.
    • So take the leap and do that thing you’ve been thinking of doing!
  5. How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition?
    • Don’t judge what you do by their results.
    • There are things that you work on during your life that you may never finish because we’ll die before we see them reach their conclusion.
    • We should allocate our time to do the things that we enjoy doing. We should work on the things that we find meaningful, and not the things that we think we ought to find meaningful.
    • This way, the results don’t matter.

How I’m implementing these questions into my life

I simply have a calendar reminder set up with these questions in it. I’ve got the calendar invite to repeat every 2 months. Simple!


I have the above dot points in the “Description” section of my calendar:


“Simple!” x 2.

The ten tools to embrace your finitude

In the appendix, you’ll find an additional set of tools that can help us remind ourselves that our time isn’t unlimited and that we need to make conscious decisions about how we spend it to build more meaningful lives.

  1. Adopt a “fixed volume” approach to productivity
    • Create two lists - one is the “open” list and the other is the “closed” list.
    • Your “open” list is where all the things on your plate go. This is going to be a huge list!
    • Your “closed” list is the few items you’ve moved from your “open” list that you choose to focus on.
    • You need to finish a task in your “closed” list before you can move a new task into it from the “open” list.
  2. Serialize, serialize, serialize
    • We try to get rid of that anxious feeling of having too many things to do by getting started on them all and not completing any of them.
    • Focus on one big project at a time and see it to completion.
    • Apply this same thinking at work if you can.
  3. Decide in advance what to fail at
    • You can’t over-achieve in every area of your life. You simply don’t have the time to be excellent at everything.
    • Instead, choose to be less than exceptional in certain areas of your life. For example, you could choose to have a poorly kept garden while you focus your energies on excelling at other parts of your life.
    • Proactively choosing to fail makes it easier to accept failures when they occur.
  4. Focus on what you’ve already completed, not just on what’s left to complete
    • If we focus exclusively on what we need to do, rather than to also take note of those things that we’ve completed, we wake up each day feeling as though we owe some “productivity debt” that we need to pay down during the day.
    • Keep a “Done” list that contains the things that you’ve completed during the day.
  5. Consolidate your caring
    • Social media and the news are full of depictions of atrocities occurring around the world.
    • While each of them deserves our full attention, we simply don’t have the capacity to focus on all of them.
    • Instead, devote yourself to working on a select few of them. This way, you’ll make real progress in addressing these pressing world issues.
  6. Embrace boring and single-purpose technology
    • Smartphones mean that we never have to be bored again, no matter where we are.
    • These things are detrimental to our being present in the moment.
    • Opt for technologies that don’t allow you to do much else but the main thing they are designed for.
    • A Kindle is a good example of such a device. It’s difficult to do anything using it but read books.
  7. Seek out novelty in the mundane
    • As we grow older, time seems to speed up.
    • One theory to explain this is that the older we grow, the less new information we process from moment to moment. We get to a stage where we’ve seen it all before. We move less, living in similar neighbourhoods. We commute to similar jobs. We see the same friends. When you’re younger, there are many more things you’re experiencing for the first time so your brain is processing lots of new information all the time.
    • Seek out novelty in what you do daily. Meditate to train your brain to appreciate the present. Take a different route to work. Go for an unplanned walk.
  8. Be a “researcher” in relationships
    • You can’t control how people act.
    • Instead of trying to achieve a goal from an interaction, be curious about the human being who is in front of you. Wonder what life they lead to become the person that they are today. Try to guess how this person might react to your proposal.
    • Curiosity is a better stance to take given the unpredictability of human interaction because curiosity is “satisfied by their behaving in ways you like or dislike—whereas the stance of demanding a certain result is frustrated each time things fail to go your way.”
  9. Cultivate instantaneous generosity
    • Whenever you feel the desire to do something generous like helping a stranger or sending a nice message to your friend, act on it right away.
    • This is simply a good way to live your life.
  10. Practice doing nothing
    • If you can’t stand doing nothing, you’re more likely to make a bad choice with your time because you’ll end up doing anything to convince yourself that you’re making progress toward some future goal.
    • Practice “Do Nothing” meditation. Set a timer for five minutes and do nothing. If you catch yourself focusing on your breathing, stop that. Keep stopping yourself until the timer goes off. One could argue that the act of stopping ourselves from doing something is us doing something - but that isn’t the point!

How I’ve implemented the ten tools

In the true spirit of the book, I’ve chosen to focus on using a few of the above tools rather than focusing on all of them.

Implementing the fixed volume approach to productivity and paying attention to the things I’ve completed

I’ve set up a few lists in Google Keep:


As I complete things in my “Closed” list, I get a list of things I’ve completed during the day:


I clear the “Done” items every morning when I choose what I want to move from the “Open” list to the “Closed” list.

Implementing the serialised approach to projects

Right now, I’m itching to work on another blog post. Completing this blog post before moving on to the next is one way I’m implementing the advice in this section.

I have too many unfinished blog post series. The main reason for this is that I invest a lot of energy into each one and it gets tiring! I’m going to opt for working on blog posts for 15 mins per day on most days. My hope is that by doing this, I’ll keep making progress while having fun writing blog posts about solving tricky problems. I want to avoid my pattern of working on a problem for 3 hours straight and eventually hating the problem I’m working on!

Implementing seeking out novelty in the mundane

I constantly fail at this but try my best at paying attention to the present by implementing meditation into my life outside of the dedicated (sitting) meditation time. In my decade or so of meditation, it only became apparent to me a few years ago that I should be paying attention to sensations and thoughts while I go about my day.

When I catch myself using my phone too much, I’ve started putting my phone away in a cupboard so as to be more present in what I’m doing.

Implementing being a researcher in relationships

I’ve found wondering why a person acts in certain ways to be very interesting. Some questions I’ve wondered about are these:

  • What was the person’s life like before this moment where they are interacting with me?
  • What happened in their life for them to have the reactions they have?
  • What does this person value? Why do they value these things?

Being more curious about people at a deeper level has helped me become more compassionate as these are questions I’ve used to psychoanalyse myself!

Implementing instantaneous generosity

I just try to do this day-to-day. When I feel like I want to help someone, I try to act on it straight away. It feels good to help others!

The other day, I was at the post office. A lady was trying to send something to a family member in Greece. The post office employee told her that she needed to complete a customs declaration form. That form was much easier to complete using a smartphone. The alternative was to fill out a paper form. The lady didn’t know how to scan QR codes to access the online form as she had just bought a new phone so she opted to fill out the paper form. I saw her struggling with it so I asked if she wanted some help. It turns out that her kids didn’t have the patience to teach her how to use her new phone! She was very grateful for my help. She felt happy. I felt happy. Everyone was happy! It felt great to have made this small, positive contribution to this lady’s day.

Ending with a beautiful quote

This is from the last paragraph of the book:

If you can face the truth about time in this way—if you can step more fully into the condition of being a limited human—you will reach the greatest heights of productivity, accomplishment, service, and fulfillment that were ever in the cards for you to begin with. And the life you will see incrementally taking shape, in the rearview mirror, will be one that meets the only definitive measure of what it means to have used your weeks well: not how many people you helped, or how much you got done; but that working within the limits of your moment in history, and your finite time and talents, you actually got around to doing—and made life more luminous for the rest of us by doing—whatever magnificent task or weird little thing it was that you came here for.

I hope you read this book.