Oliver Burkeman on making the most of life


Uri Bram: I'm delighted to be here today with author and journalist Oliver Burkeman, who is the author of the wonderful book Four Thousand Weeks. We're going to play this game called The Last Word, where we ask very smart people to answer difficult questions in a very specific number of words.

So, first up – Oliver, could you please tell us the whole idea of your book in exactly 20 words?

Oliver Burkeman: 20 words? [smiling] I’ve just got to dive into this, right?, there's no point in planning out in advance. Which is actually part of the message of the book.

I'm counting down here: Life is very short. You can't do everything. So it makes sense to give up that struggle and focus instead.

Uri Bram: That is phenomenal.

Oliver Burkeman: I had another 10 words that I wanted to say, I had to rewrite it in situ.

On Being A Productivity Geek

Uri Bram: Well, I'd love to start there because I think in stark contrast to a lot of other productivity books, the message of yours isn't "here's how to do everything," it's "actually, you can't do everything and you need to come to terms with that." So... can you tell us a little bit about your background as a productivity geek, and how you've come away from that to this new perspective?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, totally. So, I wrote this column for the Guardian for a shocking number of years. And I'm really glad I did that, it was an amazing journey of self exploration and I got to meet and talk to an amazing variety of people. But I think by the end I had realized that in some ways it was maybe enabling a psychological hangup rather than helping, which is his thing I refer to – and others do too, but usually they mean it more positively – of being a productivity geek, this real fixation with the notion that if I got the right system or the right approach to task management or organizing my stuff or scheduling my day, that I'd finally break through to this feeling of being in perfect control of time.

And  the book recounts my stages of realizing that that wasn't going to happen, and what lies on the other side of it. I don't want people to think that this book is exclusively for people with that particular weirdness, although I think there are plenty of us. I think it's just an example of a broader universal point I'm trying to get at, which is that an awful lot of what goes wrong in our relationship with our limited time is some version of the desire to feel like the master of it, to feel in control, in the driver's seat, on top of things, that everything's in working order. And there are various reasons – both to do with the human condition and also to do with the way we live now – that mean that this is an impossible quest, that you're never going to achieve that kind of control.

And actually, more than that, lots of what goes wrong is not just that productivity geekery doesn't work, it’s that it makes things worse, right? That a lot of these things – stress, impatience, distraction, feeling that we're not spending our lives on the things that matter to us the most – that they all can be traced in some ways to this desire to avoid facing up to the truth of our situation, which is that we're finite beings in a world of infinite obligations and possibilities.

Uri Bram: I have to say, reading your book felt, for me, like a personal stab in the chest – like, this is a personal indictment of my life, which is great, it was very enjoyable and very uncomfortable.

Oliver Burkeman: [laughing] I hope that after the stab there's the follow-up care!


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Uri Bram: Absolutely. But I did wonder how much that was because I’m the kind of person that grew up with certain kinds of ambitions, some feeling that I was going to do “big things” in the world – I know I’m not alone in that particular affliction, I know many people have it – but I wondered whether your book has had different perceptions from people inside that world and outside it. Are there some people who have always been much less troubled by this kind of overwhelming ambition that therefore makes the finitude of life seem particularly traumatising?

Oliver Burkeman: I mean, I think there are people to whom it probably doesn't apply, but I don't think it only applies to the kind of person that you're describing there, which obviously I resonate with a lot.

I mean, I think there are so many different manifestations of this feeling that you want or need to do more than you can do. And you could imagine a continuum that has, on one end, the incredibly ambitious, entrepreneurial person who has all the freedom to launch a thousand projects, but you can't work on a thousand projects, you have to choose – that's where the tough choice comes in there.

And then at the other end you have people whose lives are structured by an infinite feeling about obligations instead, right? Maybe you need to just do the impossible in a poorly paid low status job – maybe you feel like you have to do an impossible amount just to keep a roof over your head.

There's a broadly gendered side to this where young men – I don't count myself as young anymore, but I was until recently maybe – have the productivity geek manifestation of it, and then for quite a lot of women, it's a feeling of needing to fulfill more obligations in a family and work context than the maths makes possible.

So it's a million different things, and I think even people whose time feels too empty to them are also suffering from this affliction because they're using up their time in a way that they don't want to be using up their time. I think there are retirees in a very privileged position to do whatever they want and still feeling that there's more that they want to do then they can do. So it fits in, in all sorts of different ways.

But yeah, I think there are people – I probably don't hear from them much for reasons of self-selection, but there are people who are just not very troubled.

The question always for me is whether these people are not troubled because they've understood more and done the difficult process of reconciling yourself to reality that this book is all about, they're just way better at that than I am, or is it because they haven't even really ever thought about it so they never think about the fact that their life is finite. Are they less mature than me or more mature? You know, I've got no way of knowing I suppose.

Historical ideas about time

Uri Bram: On this topic of never having thought about it, I though a very fascinating section of your book was this idea that, in the past, people didn't conceive of time the way we do now, and just really didn't have this problem on a more philosophical, fundamental level.

So I was wondering if, in exactly 10 words, you can tell how people used to view time, how that's changed.

Oliver Burkeman: it's getting shorter now, so I can start to draft it in my head, right?

[counting] People didn't use to see time as a separate thing.

That's not the argument, really, it’s just a claim. It doesn't explain why that matters

Uri Bram: [laughing] well in your own free time, in as many words as you like, can you tell us more?

Oliver Burkeman: Sure. I mean, all these things are incredibly gradual, right? So I'm not really suggesting that there was a moment when people started to relate differently to time -- I think you can see the modern idea of time present in ancient, Greek and Roman thought. And then I focus on medieval peasants as a test case for not having the modern sense of time, and then even calling it the modern sense of time becomes fraught when you think that there are at least some indigenous people today who are perfectly modern in their own setting but who don't have this Western capitalist view of time.

Anyway, I think that if you were an early medieval peasant farmer in England -- and I'm not just pulling this out of nowhere, I think there's various reasons to believe it -- you would have had many, many problems, but you wouldn't have had time related problems. You wouldn't have thought of time as something such that you could be trying to fit more into it, than, that you were wasting it or that it was moving too fast or too slowly.

Because there's good evidence -- anthropological and other -- that people didn't conceive of time in this alienated way as something that they are not, that they have to use, that they could use well or use badly. I think a lot of people today, certainly me, when you think about some question related to time, you actually have mental pictures -- might be a calendar or a clock or a little yard stick -- but you're thinking about containers of some sort when you're thinking about like, have I got enough time to do everything I need to do to me?

And that doesn't really exist in cultures that are organized according to what the anthropologists call task orientation, where the rhythms of the day just emerged from that from the tasks themselves, they're not measured up against a clock. And a silly example I give in the book: if you rocked up to a medieval farmstead with a clipboard in your hand and suggested that milk all the cows, do all the milking of the cows for the month on one day, you know, to get it out of the way -- because you’re batching your tasks, like every productivity book will tell you to do.

Obviously that's really stupid, because that's an example of a job that is just completely yoked to time, you have to do it when you do it. And anyone who remembers the experience of being parent of a newborn, I think, often feels a little bit of this, right? Cause you're back into a world where you don't get to choose schedules, you're just living, time is this medium, you're just doing things when they need doing.

And there's lots of downsides, right? If you don't have this separate, disidentified notion of objective notion of time as a thing, you can't really organize large groups of people to do anything. You can't have the kind of societies that we have, which have lots of benefits for all their disadvantages.  But I think it probably is a more peaceful relationship to time because it's almost not a relationship, you just are it. And I think when people do experience that deep sense of presence, either through meditative techniques or amazing moments in their life, or maybe creative absorption or whatever it is, you do have that sense of being completely where you're supposed to be. And that there isn't any longer, this tension.

It's funny, it sometimes happens in real crisis moments -- something terrible could be happening to a close relative of yours, and it's not fun, and you don't fail to feel terrible about it. But then all tension about “am I using time properly?” vanishes because you're just in the flow of events. And so I think you can trace all our problems on some level to getting out of that mindset and then trying to struggle to control this thing that we've conjured into existence.

Uri Bram:  I think like a lot of people have this semi-idealized memory of my childhood -- obviously my school days were very regimented and you had to be at whatever class at whatever o’clock, but I had this feeling that maybe I was living that lifestyle outside of school, that I used to inhale books and do creative projects and, I don't know, go sit on the tree stump and look at the leaves for three hours. But it just seems a long time ago now, I don’t know if that’s really true. Do you get the sense that like people at various times of life might still be living without time in their free time?

Oliver Burkeman: Oh yeah, absolutely. And I think lots of people have written about the idea that something is lost there, between childhood through to adulthood, in the development of a sense of time.

I've been aware that my four year old -- as I would expect from a member of my family line -- has started asking questions that imply the existence of an objective sense of time very, very early on. And there's something sad about that, right? I mean, there's something sad about needing to think that you're trying to fit things in or that you might be late for something, but we do it to them anyway right? Cause we're hurtling them out the door to get to preschool on time or whatever it might be.  Yeah, I think that's probably one of the reasons that people remember their childhoods as having abundant time.

The other big famous one that I'm sure you’re aware of is the idea that we encode memory of duration through the amount of new information that's coming in. And so childhood is full of novel experiences, and if you're too routinised in your adult life it really aids that bad sense of time whizzing by because there's not enough new information coming in.

Uri Bram: I think another big theme to me from your book is autonomy and the burden of choice -- the pressure of knowing that we could choose all kinds of different things, is unless we learn to deal with it skillfully--

Oliver Burkeman: And that's an interesting thing that I hadn't really thought about with respect to childhood: you don't really get to choose the fundamental directions of your life as a child. We're just relocating to the north of England for a while while my wife's on academic sabbatical and, you know, we agonized about this, and you try to make sure you're making the right decision.

And then yeah, for the kid, this is just happening in his life. And I think on some level that must be a much less agonized way to approach it.

The unproductivity of multitasking

Uri Bram: Absolutely. For anyone watching, there is some great dating advice related to this in Oliver's book, which I recommend reading the book for.

So, one thing I really like about your book is that you don't pretend to be some kind of impossible superhero at any of this, and you don't pretend that there are any super easy methods or techniques that could solve all our problems instantly, but you do offer some useful possibilities for people to look at.

So I was wondering if, in exactly five words, you could tell us a technique that would help people with managing their time.

Oliver Burkeman: This is great, I love this discipline. It's not easy, but it's good.

[thinking] Wow, that's six words: Do one thing at a time.

I mean, that's not even a technique, right? In the book -- and I can talk about them -- specific ways of handling your to-do list, if you want that kind of guidance, but the basic idea here  is that one of the key ways in which we try to assuage our anxiety about feeling that there's more that we want to do or need to do than we can do is by some form of multitasking -- not necessarily literally trying to do two things at once, but feeling like at the moment you've got your finger in multiple pies and you're moving everything forward and, you know, you're taking care of business.

And I think what that mainly does -- that approach to work and even to tasks and chores and duties outside work -- it makes you not feel anxious that you're neglecting things, but the reality of it is that you don't make much progress on any of them because as soon as one of them gets difficult, you just bounce over to another one that feels easier.

And so you can go around in circles forever, never really making progress. And it triggers anxiety, certainly for me to say, “okay, there are, four home improvement projects that all feel essential to making my living space  acceptable. I'm going to deliberately give up all hope of making progress on three of them until I have seen one of them through to completion, or consciously abandoned it because it turned out to be a bad idea, that's okay too.”

That's the way to do things, but it requires you to have this tolerance for the anxiety of not accomplishing things. And that same idea applies to this idea of “clearing the decks” that I write about in the book: if you come into work every morning and you're like “first of all, I'm going to get rid of all the emails and all the little stuff, and then I'll have this expansive time to focus on what matters.” You'll find it doesn't work because the email situation is infinite and you make it worse by actually answering emails.

Again, what you need is this ability to tolerate that mild discomfort of like, well, “there probably are a lot of important things in my inbox, but first for two hours I'm going to focus on this thing that matters to me more.” So yeah, it's doing one thing at a time not in a relentless rigid focus on a single thing, but just this recognition that choosing to do something that matters when you've got more things than that matter than you can handle is always going to come with that feeling of anxiety about what's going unaddressed.

Uri Bram: That was one of the moments in the book that I really felt, you know, had deliberately been written for my consumption.

Oliver Burkeman: Well, the reason is it's been partly deliberately written for me, right? I mean, and I'm glad you saw that,  it would be ridiculous and insincere and inauthentic to suggest that I had all this totally nailed, but I have got better at it and I have probably got better at it because I had to in order to complete the book in an honest fashion

Uri Bram: Oh interesting -- not just the fact that the book itself is a task that needed competing.

Oliver Burkeman: Yes, there was that also. And yes, there are a number of people involved with this project who would tell you that it did not stay to schedule and that I was doing other things at the same time.

Uri Bram: [laughs]. I thought the idea of admitting to ourselves that we're not going to do everything we want to do seemed really  important and really valuable. And also that idea that trying to do too many things at once is in some ways comforting, because it means that for most of the day you get to pretend to yourself that you are somehow going to complete all these tasks.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, and we're always going to do a bit of that and make ourselves feel better -- none of this is about staring mortality in the face from every minute to the next. But I think there are ways that you can push yourself gently into spending the first couple of hours of the day more profitably than you than you otherwise would have done.

A friend of mine, the meditation teacher Susan Piver, says that busy-ness is a form of laziness, which really speaks to your point there that it’s the comfortable option, in many ways, to feel like you're darting among all these projects instead of holding yourself to one of them for awhile.

Uri Bram: Amazing. So, just to finish up, I was wondering if in one word -- exactly one word -- you could tell us how to make peace with mortality and the finitude of our time on earth

Oliver Burkeman: [laughs] That suddenly starts to become a little bit easier again, doesn't it? cause I don't have any choice. I'm not tormented by different strings of syntax.

I guess it would have to be: surrender, or accept.

It's this idea of, at least somewhat, stopping avoiding how it feels to confront the fact that we have a short amount of time and not much ability to control how time unfolds or to plan for the future. To just drop back down into reality on these matters and to withstand some of the discomfort of that -- not so that you then say “life sucks and there's no point trying to do anything,” but precisely so that you can get some purchase on life and use your time and attention to do some things that matter instead of pursuing this futile dream of doing everything one day, but not yet. So it is a sort of surrendering move or a giving up move, but it has an empowering effect, if I'm right.

Uri Bram: Well, thank you so much. It was really such a pleasure to talk to you. Can you please tell people where to find you and where to find your work?

Oliver Burkeman: The book is 4,000 weeks. It's everywhere you would expect to find a book, and my website is oliverburkeman.com/books, and I’m on Twitter at @oliverburkeman.

Uri Bram: Thank you. I really, really recommend the book to anyone and we'll recommend it to everyone. It's very, very thought provoking. And one of those rare times you read a book and think “this might actually change how I live day to day.”

Oliver Burkeman: Amazing. I'm so glad to hear that. Thank you.


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