Your 4,000 Weeks: Time Well Spent

Posted by Scott Allenby


On a good day, there isn’t time to get to everything on my to-do list. During a January complicated by illness on campus, winter storms, and all the complexities that come with operating a boarding school during a global pandemic, to-do lists at the start of each day merely serve as a feeble attempt at grasping for what little control we have in how we choose to allocate our precious time. The anxiety that daily walks arm in arm through the door of uncertainty impacts us as adults, and most certainly impacts our students. 

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When two different colleagues share a podcast with me within the span of a few days, I take it as a sign there might be a theme that will resonate with a larger audience. Krista Tippet’s On Being interview with Oliver Burkeman discussing Burkeman’s new book, 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, is worth the listen, especially during this chapter of life. Burkeman discusses his own relationship with time and the idea that the average lifespan of an American is roughly 4,000 weeks. What we do with the time that is given us consumes so much of our emotional space. Are we using our time efficiently? Are we tackling life’s biggest questions? Are we making enough of a difference? 

The below excerpts from the podcast with Burkeman force us to rethink our perception of time management: 

“...If we only managed our time correctly, we could get everything done that we want to get done — like, this notion that we could get ‘on top of things.’ And this is where, you know, you walk into time management, but you actually unfold that this is about the meaning of our lives. This is about the big, existential questions. And you write about this feeling that goes deep, ‘the sense that despite all this activity, even the relatively privileged among us rarely get around to doing the right things…’

Mary Oliver has this lovely phrase, ‘the intimate interrupter,’ to refer to this trait inside us that wants us to do anything apart from the thing that five minutes ago, we knew was the thing that needed our attention and our care. It is mysterious. But I think it can be explained. It’s not a coincidence that the things that matter trigger these feelings that we’d rather run away from into the pleasing and numbing and comfortable world of distraction, right? I mean, it — they bring us up against our edge...things that matter bring us to our limits.”

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Earlier this week, Academic Dean Derek Nussbaum Wagler shared his fear that the omnipresence of uncertainty in our lives is distracting us from that which really matters: retaining our own humanity, recognizing the humanity in others, and taking action toward the macro-issues of our lifetime like climate change and its disproportionate impact on populations around the world. He wrote to a group of us, “We need to live in and through this pandemic and we need to do it alongside as many different people as possible with a focus on ‘we’ not ‘me’.” If Burkeman’s analysis holds true, we welcome invite the distraction of minutia because wrestling with those big, important issues is just a bit too uncomfortable. 

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During Monday’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration, we discussed in our all-school assembly and in our advisory groups what it means to feel a sense of “belonging”. Over and over, students shared personal experiences of feeling welcomed by peers and adults - in their dorms, on their teams, in their classes, in their advisories. There was this overwhelming sense that time spent in the presence of others - listening, hearing, understanding, sharing experiences - is perhaps the most important, critical building block of community. 

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Our daily lives, and our students, are filled with commitments. Be here, do this, check in, check out, log on, log off, be on time, hustle to the next “thing”. This routine, this external cultural assessment of our productivity, teaches us to check the boxes on our to-do list, but fails to teach us to optimize our 4,000 weeks. Now, more than ever, we need to rethink our perspective on time and how we fill it. Let’s each commit to realigning how we spend this next week that we have been given. 

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