For a book that aims to get us thinking about our time (and using it) differently, and hammers home the point that here in the West our average lifespan is limited to only four thousand weeks, it initially seemed out of kilter that it would inspire me to go and sit in a quiet gallery and observe a 16th Century icon for 3 hours. There are better ways to use that time surely? Especially when I’m past the half-way mark on that pretty small number of weeks.

But that’s the sort of impact Burkeman’s book had on me.

He paints a picture of a life that isn’t based around always doing things for an economic purpose, or always using our free time to ‘achieve’ something – like training for a marathon or starting a side hustle. Instead the reader (or at least this reader) is left feeling a sense of relief about how her Saturday afternoons are sometimes (read: often) spent just relaxing. With no boxes to tick. And that is ok.

Because the reality is the boxes are never all going to get ticked, the inbox isn’t going to be clear (for longer than half an hour at best) and there is not going to be enough time to see everyone and do everything we’ve convinced ourselves we want to do.

So maybe we can ease into that knowledge with a gentle acceptance, rather than so often wishing things were different.

But back to the icon – there is a passage in the latter part of the book where the reader learns how Harvard Art Professor, Jennifer Roberts, tells all new students to ‘choose a painting or sculpture… then go look at it for 3 hours straight’. I have no idea why the thought of doing this appealed to me so much, but it did. And late in January I found myself staring at this icon.

Knowing little to nothing about who or what was depicted, I simply looked and looked and looked. The first 35 minutes were excruciating, but it quickly became meditative, and the hours ticked by surprisingly and frighteningly quickly. And every time I looked over the icon, I noticed something I hadn’t seen. Even with just 10 minutes to go before my time was nearly up, I was noticing facial features, expressions and shades of colour I hadn’t registered before.

This is not to say everyone needs to get to their nearest gallery for a three-hour observation session, but maybe this will get more of us thinking about all the things we are not noticing as we rush through our four thousand weeks. And perhaps slowing down a little bit wouldn’t be such a bad thing.


Special thanks to Sir Richard Temple for letting me sit in his warm gallery on one very cold Friday morning in January, and for telling me some wonderful stories about his work. Information about this icon and more can be found here