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Four thousand wild and precious weeks
Getting more done just means there’s more to do.
I was 27, and squealed when I saw the print at a craft fair. “I AM VERY PRODUCTIVE,” it read, in all-caps letters.
“Oh my gosh, this is so me,” I excitedly said to my friend, who knew how much I prided myself on making to-do lists, succeeding at work, and generally staying busy. “You should get it!” she encouraged me.
So I did. The following Monday, I proudly brought it to work. I didn’t have an office or walls to hang things on, so I propped up the framed print on my desk, a cubicle in the middle of a busy newsroom. I am very productive, I thought to myself, smiling, as I sipped my coffee and perused the hundreds of new emails that arrived in my inbox overnight. Just like every other day, there was already an unrealistic amount of work for me to accomplish. I relished that impossible task.
I was good at getting things done—at least the relatively small things, like approving time-off requests, responding to emails, running meetings, and making budgets. My job kept me busy and made me feel important. When I wasn’t working, I read books like Thinking, Fast and Slow and Lean In. Being productive wasn’t only a requirement for work; it was my hobby.
As Oliver Burkeman wrote, “You know how some people are passionate about bodybuilding, or fashion, or rock climbing, or poetry? Productivity geeks are passionate about crossing items off their to-do lists. So it’s sort of the same, except infinitely sadder.”
Yep. I was a productivity geek.
I never did move from a cubicle to an office at that global news organization, but I did climb the proverbial career ladder. In seven years, I moved from a temporary position, to a full-time associate producer, to a producer and manager, to the head of an audience-focused team. I left in January 2015, for a job at a small, but respected non-profit, where I hoped to take what I’d learned from the newsroom trenches and help other journalists become better, happier workers.
I was 29, and now had my own office—a place where I could hang all the motivational prints I wanted! I found a spot for my PRODUCTIVE print, and added a new piece to my collection: A large black poster that read, “GET SHIT DONE.”
This workplace didn’t have nearly as many emails to sift through nor the demands of breaking news, but there were even more expectations placed on its few employees. I traveled often, worked long hours, and bristled at how often the advice we gave in our sessions (give feedback to your employees! advocate for reasonable workloads!) didn’t seem to apply to our own jobs.
Still, I prided myself on my ability, as my poster announced, to get shit done. I stayed on top of the myriad requests. I managed an increasingly heavy workload. And I applied all of my productivity learnings to my own teachings, showing journalists how to manage their own overwhelming responsibilities.
At some point, however, something started to nag at me; the more I got done, the more work there seemed to be. And the more I worked, the more exhausted I became. Slowly but surely, I was discovering productivity’s dirty secret: becoming better at work simply means that there’s more work to do.
I was largely able to ignore that thought—until my husband died, and everything in my world turned upside down.
I was granted a month of bereavement, and, upon my return to work, I requested to move offices. I needed a fresh start, and an office that was closer to my friends and colleagues, rather than an isolated corner of the building, seemed just the fix.
As I packed my items into a box to move across the atrium, I did a bit of decluttering. The wedding photo of me and Jamie (that was next to yet another print)? Keep. The absurdly large GET SHIT DONE poster? Toss.
Suddenly, accomplishing loads of small tasks and tracking my worth by how many things I got done seemed ridiculous. The idea seemed gross, even. None of this matters in the end! I wanted to scream at my colleagues. Instead, I kept the idea to myself.
I was 31, and felt completely confused about what mattered in life.
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Last week, I finished Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It was one of those books that, the minute I began reading it, I knew was intended for people like me.
“Though I’d been largely unaware of it, my productivity obsession had been serving a hidden emotional agenda,” Burkeman wrote. “For one thing, it helped me combat the sense of precariousness inherent to the modern world of work: if I could meet every editor’s every demand, while launching various side projects of my own, maybe one day I’d finally feel secure in my career and my finances. But it also held at bay certain scary questions about what I was doing with my life, and whether major changes might not be needed.”
The book dragged me. As I read Burkeman’s words, I thought about past versions of myself—the Katie who excitedly bought prints and posters that unknowingly celebrated capitalism. I thought about how many weeks of my life I spent trying to be as productive as possible. How much of my limited time on Earth I spent valuing work over everything else. How many times, exhausted from all the doing, that I said, “I can’t wait for this week to be over.”
In the context of 4,000 measly weeks—roughly the amount of time you’ll get if you live to be 80—wishing even one away is upsetting. And, Burkeman argues, trying to spend those weeks getting as much work done in hopes of one day achieving a calmer, happier existence is futile.
“Productivity is a trap,” he wrote. “Becoming more efficient just makes you more rushed, and trying to clear the decks simply makes them fill up again faster.”
The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control—when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life; when nobody’s angry with you for missing a deadline or dropping the ball; and when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. Let’s start by admitting defeat: none of this is ever going to happen. But you know what? That’s excellent news.
I knew exactly what Burkeman was writing about. When we’re faced with our own mortality, whether due to a serious diagnosis, a near-miss, or the death of someone close to us, it’s only natural to rethink our approach to life—and therefore, work. We can’t help but revisit what really matters. It’s something that huge swaths of us are currently reckoning with, in the wake of the pandemic. It’s something that people like Tricia Hersey have preached for a long time: productivity culture is toxic and oppressive.
I stayed in my job for a little over 10 months after Jamie died. At the end of the calendar year, I put in my notice. I’d saved up enough money to take several months off of work—a massive privilege—and planned to use that time to grieve, travel, and figure out what was next for me.
Not long after I left my job, my friend Nicki gifted me my favorite print of all. It read: “TODAY’S A GOOD DAY TO RECOGNIZE HOW FAR YOU’VE COME.”
In writing this essay, I found the print online. Customers who left reviews noted how versatile it is. “It reminds me of my recovery and life in sobriety,” one person wrote. “A must-have for every home,” said another.
The print is indeed versatile. When Nicki gave it to me, I’d look at it and feel good about the fact that I simply got out of bed. Now, I look at it and feel proud of the values-driven life I’ve created.
I no longer work in a cubicle or a wood-paneled office decorated with startup-culture posters. I work at home, in an alcove of my bedroom. It’s a space I recently painted in a cheery shade of pink and have spent the past few months slowly decorating. My goal for my home office is to create a sense of calm and joy. So far, so good.
I’m now 37—a decade older than the version of me who was thrilled to buy a print about being productive. According to Burkeman’s math, assuming I live an average-length life, I have around 2,200 weeks left on Earth.
As the poet Mary Oliver reminded us, we all have only “one wild and precious life” to live. Sometimes, that feels daunting. Most of the time, though, it feels like a gift.
If we’re lucky, that life will amount to around 4,000 weeks, but, as Burkeman noted, that time isn’t fully ours. “Nobody ever really gets four thousand weeks in which to live—” he wrote,
Not only because you might end up with fewer than that, but because in reality you never even get a single week, in the sense of being able to guarantee that it will arrive, or that you’ll be in a position to use it precisely as you wish. Instead, you just find yourself in each moment as it comes, already thrown into this time and place, with all the limitations that entails, and unable to feel certain about what might happen next.
For me—and for almost all of you reading this newsletter, I suspect—work is a necessity; it is something we have to do in order to afford things like housing and food, and it is something that takes up a significant portion of each week. And that’s okay! Sometimes, I get immense pleasure out of work. I find flow. I make connections. I write something that makes someone think, or complete a task that makes someone else’s life easier.
At the same time, there are plenty of other days when work is a slog. That’s okay too.
What’s not okay is for work to be the point of life. The goal of being productive shouldn’t be to cram in more work. Just as the goal of relaxing shouldn’t be to become more productive. This is something I’m constantly trying to remind myself.
It’s hard to shake all of my productivity-geek habits. I still write a mean to-do list. I’m still good at getting things done. But I am also getting better at using those skills to build in time to rest. Now my goal is to appreciate each week, not get through it as quickly or efficiently as possible. Every day, my to-do list includes items like walks, meditation, and stretching.
Last week, instead of jumping straight into another work project, I challenged myself to finish Four Thousand Weeks. I read the final chapters outside, in our backyard, in the middle of a sunny Thursday afternoon.
“The world is bursting with wonder,” Burkeman wrote. “And yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”
Despite the productivity reading and teaching I’ve done, I don’t consider myself a productivity guru. I do count myself among the many recovering workaholics out there. I’m someone who’s now trying to separate my self-worth from work, and spend my time appreciating the wonder of being alive instead.
My new workspace doesn’t feature any productivity-celebration art. But Nicki’s print will get a place of honor.
Today is a good day to recognize how far I’ve come. I bet it’s a good day for you, too.