Oliver Burkeman

339: Time Management: Breaking Down the Facade of Productivity

This week’s conversation is with Oliver Burkeman, a British author and journalist who I’ve really enjoyed his writings on productivity, mortality, the power of limits, and thoughts on building a meaningful life in an age of distraction.

Oliver is the winner of the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, and for many years wrote a hit weekly column for The Guardian called This Column Will Change Your Life.

In this conversation, we dive into Oliver’s newest book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals – where he uses the average number of weeks that humans live, 4k – as a reference point to help us examine how we are living…especially in a world of impossible demands, infinite choice, and countless “productivity techniques” that mainly just leave us feeling busier – and less fulfilled.

Oliver’s perspective and insights were a breath of fresh air, and I hope you’ll leave this conversation inspired to do the work to get clear on your values and prioritize your time based on the things that really matter to you – so that, ultimately, you too can make the most of your remaining weeks.

“There are all sorts of ways in which we try too hard to be happy, to be in control, to know what the future is bringing. But it’s actually an incredible relief to realize that that is basically an impossible quest.”

In This Episode:

Why was he interested in time management?

Certainly, I do not come from a background of super laid back, chilled out people who can go with the flow and adapt easily to events. They have so many wonderful strengths and I love them to bits, but that I would say isn’t necessarily one of them. And that’s an incredibly useful skill for someone to develop. I think in these times, it’s more useful than it’s ever been to be able to sort of respond in that more flexible way and it’s one of letting go of control a bit and sort of being more at ease with not knowing about what’s coming is one of my particular challenges in life.

We’re trying too hard to be perfect

I’d like to convey my sense, which I sometimes think of almost like a sort of overarching philosophy here, that there are all sorts of ways in which we try too hard to be happy, to be in control, to know what the future is bringing, and that it’s actually an incredible relief to realize that that is basically an impossible quest and to give up trying to do things which are completely impossible for finite humans to do. Not just a relief, but actually the precondition for them accomplishing the greatest things of which you’re capable.

We’re all winging it (a dose of reality)

Imposter syndrome, for example. It’s a big deal. Everyone always talks about it. One standard way to respond to someone saying that they feel like they’re not good enough or that they don’t know what they’re doing is to really try to boost their ego and say, “No. You have as much right to be here as anybody else.” “You know what you’re doing. You’re really good at it.” I always feel like a more powerful way to address that is to sort of point at the ways in which it is quite correct that none of us know what we’re doing at any moment. That everyone is winging it in some sense. That we are all in this together.

How does he feel about the self-help industry?

Go back to the ancient Greeks, ancient Romans. It was not the case that philosophy and thinking was something that you did separate from the world of therapy in the broadest sense of helping yourself, of helping other people. The point of what ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were doing, the Stoics make it very obvious, especially now that everyone’s rediscovered them, but it’s true in lots of other traditions as well. The point was to find better ways to live or to reduce suffering. And as I’m sure you know, Buddhism, the founding texts of one of the major world religions is it’s like lists of like tips and processes to go through to feel better. Like it’s totally self-help. So I think something very strange happened when philosophy became sort of professionalized and moved fully inside the academy and then what’s left of self-help is this kind of rather dubious sector of people making wild claims, but there is nothing wrong with wanting to help yourself and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to share with other people your thoughts on how they might help themselves. There’s something wrong with bad self-help, but there’s something wrong with bad everything.

Why write a book about time management?

I took the time to sort of think about why I was so fixated on trying to feel in control of my time or get on top of things and how universal this feeling seemed to be and how the way in which we approach doing that, especially in a lot of sort of mainstream productivity and time management advice, is just systematically impossible, right? It’s an attempt by finite creatures to become so efficient and so optimized that they can do an infinite amount. And I sort of went pretty deep into that, both in my own life and introspection, but then also in reading and writing about it. I guess the idea that I’m trying to get at in the book is that we put a huge amount of effort into a kind of emotional avoidance, right? We think what we want to do, we may tell ourselves what we want to do is live accomplished lives and do meaningful things and help people. But a lot of the time what we want to do is kind of not feel the anxiety and stress that comes from acknowledging our limits and our finite nature.

The problem with productivity advice

One way to understand a lot of the appeal of productivity advice is people don’t want to confront that fact that like they’re going to have to choose which things they’re going to do and which things they’re going to let slide. They want to find a way that makes them so efficient that they never have to make tough choices about them or you find in some corners of self-help these approaches to prioritization that are not really about prioritization at all. They’re about sneakily finding a way to do everything and not have to make any tough choices, right? It’s not about actually facing up to that fact that like being finite involves choosing among things. Same with trying to control and plan for the future we were talking about before that again, is an attempt to sort of get into the driver’s seat in a way that I don’t think it’s possible for a human just finding themselves in human life to do.

Facing the truth

It’s good to face up to these truths. There’s something in the culture and maybe just in human life in general that wants to deny that, that wants to say, “I’m going to find a way to do everything. I’m going to find a way to feel certain about what’s coming down the pike.” And all the effort that we invest in that, number one, makes things worse for various reasons that we can discuss if you like. And number two, just takes away energy and focus from actually doing and accomplishing a few important things with your short time on earth. So my trick, as I see it, maybe other people won’t agree, is always to try to help people to see this insight by kind of saying the situation is even worse than you think, right? So it’s this kind of negative route to a positive end point.

Making conscious choices

Because you’re finite and the opportunities and tasks and emails are infinite, you’re always choosing effectively not to do huge numbers of things. It’s just that you’re doing it unconsciously in a way that then tends to leave you at the whim of other people’s agendas or doing whatever seems easiest in the moment or something like that. So the move here is really from unconsciously choosing to consciously choosing. And that requires you to face up to the fact that these are choices, that there isn’t a magic way to sort of evade the terms and conditions of being human.

A common misconception about our time on earth

It isn’t that because time is short, you’ve got to like absolutely cram it with amazing experiences so that you can still end your life feeling like you’re kind of like you reached sort of God level at being a human. In fact, it’s just that like it’s okay to come back down to the level and the scale of a human life and to live wholeheartedly in a human way and in a really full human way instead of constantly trying to sort of break the limitations of your situation. And by the way, I think that is completely consistent with doing incredible accomplishments in your life, in your career. I don’t think those are at odds at all, but it’s about sort of not fighting the reality that you’re in.

Building a relationship with productivity anxiety

Yes, go deep, but you can change, you can course correct. There’s an anxiety in letting things go undone. That it’s actually very useful to be able to tolerate. So like if you’ve got like 10 amazing things you want to do with your business say, like there’s a real skill in being able to pursue two of them and accept that the other eight are on the back burner for now. Like that high achieving driven people don’t like doing that. They want to feel like they’re moving forward on every front and it’s actually a real inner, psychological skill to be able to say, “Okay. I feel that anxiety, but this is the right way to make the most progress.”

Confront your limitations

The acknowledgement that you can’t do everything and that you can’t do many, many things effectively and that you need to put some things on the back burner so that you can pour your energy into others. That is a confrontation with limitation. If you could be present everywhere at once and you had an unlimited luck time, if you were God, these issues wouldn’t arise. So it’s a confrontation with limitation and ultimately it’s a reminder that you’re going to die and that’s the organizing thing that we’re keen to not have to confront.

What patience means to him

We’re accustomed to thinking about patience as something that you say it to the four year old who really wants to go and do something now. And it’s just like, “Deal with the fact that you don’t have any control in the situation. Find a way to just live with the fact that it’s another half hour until we’re going to the amusement park or whatever.” But as Jennifer Roberts points out, as our society has accelerated and as we live now in a culture that is geared for rush and hurry, to be able to be patient is actually a kind of control. It’s a way of exerting influence over a situation. To be able to give certain things the time that they really just do take, whether that is appreciating a work of art, creating a work of art, or any of the many moving parts of any kind of business. So in that case, I’m trying to bring these two things together that you rightly note our intention and say it may be that you need results fast, but it also may be that the fastest way to that result is patience on a moment to moment, day-to-day level. In other words, go as fast as you need to go, go as fast as the process allows, but don’t go faster because you’re just giving in to this inner emotional tension that says like, “I need the world to go much faster than it’s going.”

There is discomfort in prioritization

For people who aren’t in a position to do that or feel like they’re not in a position to do that or just feel like they’re totally going against the grain, I do think this can be approached incrementally. It really can. And what you learn, if you sort of try to lean into this way of being a bit more, is two things. It feels uncomfortable and then you get almost instantaneous feedback that that discomfort is fine. Like it’s not going to kill you. If you go into some of the writers who’ve looked at the sort of, in the psychotherapeutic vein of this, there’s a writer called Bruce Tift whose work I really, really admire. And he points out that like on some unconscious level, the reason that one person finds it difficult to let go of something, to stop doing something, to focus, to disappoint someone in order to focus on something more. There’s some concern there that you’re going to feel a feeling and that that feeling would somehow destroy you. Right. That it would be so intolerable to feel that you’d let your parents down or to feel that you hadn’t kept on top of all the things you think a good person would keep on top of. And so it’s incredibly useful to expose yourself to little bits of that feeling and to realize, guess what? They don’t actually destroy you. They don’t annihilate you.

The two to-do lists

Keep two to-do lists. One of them is open. It’s just everything goes on it that you could possibly need to do or have on your plate or thinking about doing. Maybe it’s got 300 items on it, right? It’s going to be insane, but you don’t have to complete that to-do list in this approach. What you do is you keep a second list, a closed list, that has a fixed number of slots on it. Let’s say 10 slots. And you feed items from the open list to the closed list. So you take like 10 things that need doing and you put them onto those 10 slots. And then the rule is you can’t move anything else onto the closed list until you freed up a slot by completing one of those activities… the basic idea here is just create a deliberate bottleneck in your workflow so that there has to be a moment when you say, “Okay. Here are 300 things I could in principle do, but here are the ones I’m going to do now and I’m going to make the others wait until some of these are done.”

Listen, Watch & Subscribe

Related Episodes

For a complete list of all Finding Mastery sponsors, vanity URLs & discount codes, visit Our Sponsors.
Stay up-to-date with the latest high performance and wellbeing podcasts and content with the Finding Mastery weekly newsletter.