I’m reading Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks these days. It’s not quite what I had expected, but it’s a perfectly enjoyable read, if you like that sort of thing. In any case, I think I’m too invested in the issues to give it a fair reading, so this post is by no means a review. You can consult Mathew McFarlane’s “I read it so you don’t have to” post at Marker to get a sense of whether you should, or Joe Moran’s friendly but cautious review in the Guardian. I’m on a slightly different errand in this post.
Burkeman and I are of like mind in at least one very important respect. He wants you to “embrace your finitude”. I’ve long been arguing that you should “appreciate your finitude” (in fact, I hasten to add that I’ve been saying this for over ten years.) As far as I can tell, Burkeman’s aim is mainly to “liberate” us from the idea that we have to get any number of things done before we run out of weeks to do them in. According to his unobjectionable math, we each have about 4000 weeks to work with and he thinks micromanaging them and worrying about whether we’ll get to everything is a waste of, well, time. As a philosophy of life, I tend to agree, but I think I was expecting something less philosophical and more practical.
After all, I normally tell the scholars I work with to imagine 32 reasonably disciplined weeks per year, 16 in the spring and 16 in the fall, divided by a one-week break into 8-week periods, leaving the summer and winter months more or less open for the usual exuberance and melancholy that these seasons reliably provide. (I give 5 weeks to melancholy and 15 to exuberance as a rough approximation, I should add, but it’s up to you.) Scholars can expect a career to last 30 or 40 years, so lets say about 1000 weeks of disciplined, deliberate work. To me, appreciating this “finitude” does in fact mean managing it quite tightly, and I have some very practical ideas about how to do that.
First, approach each of those 32 weeks as 30 hours of plannable work. Expect to be able to write for at most three hours a day, i.e., 15 hours a week. Learn how to predict how many hours of writing time you will have in every 8-week period before it starts and then try to make that prediction as true as you can. (That means not writing much less than you hope, but also not much more.)
It’s perfectly okay to let Burkeman’s philosophy liberate you from this image of a disciplined, goal-oriented life, enslaved to perpetual planning and endless frustration. But why not find a middle a ground where you can enjoy your freedom 20 weeks of the year, freed from worry about what you’ll “get done” precisely because you can trust the process that will go on during those 32 weeks of discipline.
Like “being good”, writing well means “finding ourselves correctly attuned in the apportionment of the moment” ([William] McNeill [in The Time of Life], p. 89, quoting Heidegger’s course on Aristotle’s Rhetoric). Our students need to learn how to establish a moment of composure and make deliberate use of it. The five-paragraph essay, then, when used properly, provides a great occasion on which to dwell on the essence of composition — to appreciate our finitude.
So my approach to finitude is not to leave it at the insight that life is short. In fact, the opposite is in a sense true. If you could find three hours a day, five days a week, 32 weeks of the year, for 30 years, you would be able to 6 x 5 x 32 x 30 paragraphs throughout your career as a scholar, one moment at a time. That’s over 28,000 paragraphs, or 720 journal articles, worth of prose. If you were hoping to publish 2 papers every year, you’ve got time to write each of them, carefully and deliberately, seven times.
Now, having three hours a day to write a on a regular basis will seem like a ridiculous extravagance to some scholars. But I know some who have found a way to at least approximate that goal for a substantial amount of weeks every semester. And I’m leaving you plenty of weeks for more spontaneous, “liberated” activity, the free exercise of your imagination, not to mention the pursuit of pleasure. As a writing coach, I’m only interested in half your day. And, if you do the math you’ll see that, I’m only proposing that you think this explicitly about the management of one quarter of your life!
I know how it sounds. And I know it’s not for everyone. But maybe it’s worth trying for a few weeks? I’m here to help.