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What does Oliver Burkeman’s new book tell us about our relationship with time, and how can it be translated into the world of architecture?
Three years ago, we began meeting at Norma to discuss books and texts in the series Reading Architecture. The format arose out of discussions after the 2018 Venice Biennale, with an enthusiasm borne of intellectual drive but also with a critical view toward large shows. A biennale is a form of personal isolation in a single place that forces you to think and saturates you with an endless stream of stimuli. After several days, we became oversaturated with information, and the discussions grew flat; more than new input, we lacked the tools, the language with which to discuss the topics in a relevant way. And we lacked the time to digest, grasp, and truly reflect on things. Reading Architecture always brought one text – one stimulus – and attempted to simulate that framed time dedicated entirely to discussions about architecture.

In the scope of Reading Architecture, we have discussed the perception of the human body in changing working conditions, the spatial prerequisites for a good school, the relationship between nature and culture, and mutual solidarity. And although the topics were well-received, in reality I always met a lot of people who responded to the invitation with: ‘I’m really interested in that topic… but I have too much work… I don’t have time…’

These kinds of responses have become the new norm. The glorification of busyness has been with us for some time now, and anybody who, when asked how they’re doing, answers simply with, ‘Fine’, is met with suspicion at the very least. I’m certainly not accusing my respondents of themselves trying to get to the point where they can’t keep up. This mindset is deeply ingrained in our society and hard to get out of. Maximum performance as the primary value. We’re masters of optimisation. Trello and Asana fill up every minute we have. We are hustling!

It could be argued that an awareness of the importance of mental health and overall well-being in life is already slowly making its way into the mainstream. It’s a topic even in the architectural community. But it’s as if this new current is running into an old and established machine that just won’t change. All around, I still see a culture of unrealistic deadlines and working into the night. And in the middle is a person who has no time for anything.

Technically, that person is right – nobody has time. Time is not an entity we are at liberty to handle – it’s never certain whether we’ll still be alive five minutes from now, let alone in a month. We simply don’t know. And we should treat not only time but our entire lives accordingly. At least this is one of the arguments in Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,1 a book which says that everything we know thus far about time management stands on rather shaky foundations. Using contemporary and historical examples, Burkeman attempts to discover the same thing that interested me: How we reached this point of absolute productivity and endeavouring to control time. And he tries to outline other ways of thinking about time.

Four thousand weeks is the average length of a human life. Let that number sink in a little. It isn’t a lot. It’s the lack of awareness of the finitude of our time on Earth that leads to the problems Burkeman explores one by one in his book. The current pandemic, with its quarantines and work from home creating a certain timelessness combined with a much closer awareness of death, may be awakening certain doubts in us about the handling of our lives, this time without the motivation to maximise work productivity.

According to Burkeman, the basic assumption that we must accept is the fact that we will always have to choose. No matter how efficient we become, there will always be two negative consequences: Firstly, we will simply have more things dumped on us, or rather, we will dump them on ourselves. Have you learned to deal with emails quickly and perhaps even achieved the mythical ‘Inbox Zero’? Congratulations, you’re probably now receiving more emails than ever. Secondly, even if we squeeze in a lot, sheerly from a statistical perspective, we won’t squeeze in the majority of things. ‘It means standing firm in the face of FOMO, the “fear of missing out”, because you come to realize that missing out on something – indeed, on almost everything – is basically guaranteed.’2

Does this mean that we should forget about any kind of planning or effort to control our lives? Of course not. But we shouldn’t fixate on some ideal future that will only come once we have a better job/speak better English/practice yoga daily/(insert your own goal). The goal isn’t in the future – the goal is now. Sounds like the pumpkin spice latte of Zen Buddhism? A little bit. But here it’s not so much about what is said but rather who says it to whom. Exploring the relationship between mortality and the perception of time is nothing new, and Burkeman knows this well. He refers to the classics such as Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Heidegger’s Being and Time. But what are you more likely to reach for – last year’s New York Times bestseller right on your reader or a five-hundred-page opus by a philosopher who’s been dead for fifty years? Burkeman serves it all up in his extremely accessible language. At the same time, he’s aware of his audience and knows that his advice only relates to a privileged group of people who have the luxury of thinking about things like free time and aren’t working two jobs while living on the brink of poverty.

We are all aware of the value of time, although more often in relation to its productive use. In an effort to save time, we surround ourselves with tools that make our activities easier and faster – from online shopping to virtual meetings. Gradually, however, we may find that we actually miss the apparent discomfort they relieve us of. It’s not just about the result – it’s about the process. Convenient doesn’t always mean better.

The current mindset of construction culture is headed in this convenient, ‘ideal’ direction – everything as smooth as possible, the best, automated. But what if we don’t want the best? Do we want a garage (if because of it we can’t afford a car)? What if we don’t want so-called standard (or normal) housing – perhaps we’d prefer just one room, but on a big plot of land? Do we have any chance of finding that kind of layout? Can architects, themselves caught up in the frantic pace of work, go against the grain? How much inertia does the entire construction culture have?

The importance of rejecting convenience also applies in relation to the design process. Digital tools and the ability to see everything instantly via Google Maps are great as one of our means. But they also speed up the way we work and deprive us of possibilities that we don’t even know we’re missing anymore. It’s possible to design a house for a place we’ve never been, for people we’ve never seen, using materials we’ve never touched. I’m not saying that AutoCAD is to blame for poor quality construction. A critical approach to one’s own arsenal of tools can weaken their role as facilitators of quick designs without context, with no root in actual needs.

Think it would be nice to slow down, but you’re usually not alone in the process, and you’re under pressure from the client/bank/construction company? Of course. Time shared with others binds us in a tight loop, and being the initiator of a change in mindset is a thankless job. It’s almost tragicomic to read in hindsight the prediction that our workweek in the twenty-first century will be fifteen hours long and that our real problem will be deciding what to do with our free time.3 Despite the current debates about universal basic income, where leisure time is an important aspect, we are yet to reach that fifteen-hour paradise. And this is in spite of all the conveniences the last decades and centuries have brought – not only for the practice of the architectural profession. After all, the moment we stopped doing laundry on a washboard and chopping firewood for heating, our hands should have been unbound. But our experience is the opposite. ‘It’s somehow vastly more aggravating to wait two minutes for the microwave than two hours for the oven – or ten seconds for a slow-loading web page versus three days to receive the same information by mail.’4 Busyness drives us into ever higher gear. Why?

We could draw two conclusions from the book: We are pressured by social status and by the idea of our own importance. Burkeman, like Max Weber, lays the origin of the first reason at the feet of the Protestant work ethic, which argues that success and an orderly life are indicators that a person is moving in the desired direction along their predetermined path – no matter how much we may argue about the principles of success or predestination. But the fact is that not only wealth but busyness itself has become ‘an emblem of prestige. Which is clearly completely absurd: for almost the whole of history, the entire point of being rich was not having to work so much.’5

But in spite of the obvious absurdity, we throw ourselves onto the merry-go-round again and again. One of the reasons could be what Burkeman calls ‘egocentricity bias’6 – the mistaken belief that everything revolves around us. What at first glance seems conceited is actually an evolutionary necessity. If our actions weren’t important to us, our motivation to live and reproduce would be greatly diminished. For this, the book recommends what it calls ‘cosmic insignificance therapy’.7 All of us have probably become that grain of sand at some point and realised that in a cosmic context, we personally don’t really matter that much. But that belief still lives on inside us that someday we will. When we’re the fastest or the smartest or build the best house, then… Well, according to Burkeman at least, nothing will happen anyway. The universe still won’t care.

A mindset reeking of nihilism is easy to criticise – the fact that the universe doesn’t care about something doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care about it on a general human level. But the book is probably deliberately overly critical in many passages, taken to an extreme that makes our brain rebel and loudly disagree. And that’s a good thing; only by formulating our own position in relation to the opposing opinion can we better clarify where our position really lies. And Burkeman, with a bevy of authors at his back, brings quite a few points to reconsider. And even a certain solace. You can’t help but think about death almost constantly as you read, but in a kind of ambivalently pleasant way. It grinds down the sharp edges of self-importance and social conventions.

I’m a little disappointed that the book ends with the obligatory ten commandments, the fulfilment of which should help us to achieve a more balanced relationship with time. All the while, the entire output of the book sounds more like a situation with no solution. It’s the difficulty of accepting this fact that is so hard, and ten rules will just create a new structure in which we will want to control our time.

When I came across this book, it struck me as a good candidate for the Reading Architecture series. Then I remembered all those busy people for whom a three-hour discussion is out of the realm of possibility. Perhaps the format of a written reflection will be more accessible and, in the end, will also spark the coveted discussion that we don’t always get to. Or not – perhaps potential guests will prefer to spend their time on something else. And that’s fine too.
1 Oliver Burkeman, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (New York: Vintage, 2022).

2 Ibid., 33.

3 Ibid., 7. Here Burkeman is referring to a speech by J. M. Keynes from 1930: ‘For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!’ John Maynard Keynes, ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,’ in Essays in Persuasion, pop. ed. (London: Macmillan, 1933), 368–369.

4 Ibid., 10.

5 Ibid., 11.

6 Ibid., 211.

7 Ibid., 210.