The secret to success in a world of infinite inputs could be as simple as accepting our limitations
This week, we talk with Oliver Burkeman. He is the author of Four Thousand Weeks, a book about making the most of our radically finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distraction, and ‘productivity techniques’ that mainly just make everyone feel busier.
Oliver is also the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. He wrote a long-running column for the Guardian, This Column Will Change Your Life, and has a devoted following for his writing on productivity, mortality, and the power of limits.
It’s a longer episode than usual because it is packed with wisdom. We discuss:
- Oliver’s understanding of ‘productivity’ and the challenges of productivity culture
- The finity of time and how to understand it
- Why we turn towards unimportant tasks and leave the meaningful work undone
- How technology makes us feel limitless, even though we are not
- How to serialise your life
- Why patience is a superpower
And so much more….
Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each week, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired. So let’s get to it.
This week, I’m in conversation with Oliver Burkeman. He’s the author of ‘Four Thousand Weeks’, a book about making the most of our radically finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distraction, and productivity techniques that mainly just make everyone feel busier. It’s a longer episode than usual because it’s packed with wisdom.
We discussed Oliver’s understanding of productivity and the challenges of productivity, culture, the affinity of time and how to understand it, why we tend towards unimportant tasks and leave the meaningful work undone, how technology makes us feel limitless even though we are not, how to serialize your life, why patience is a superpower, and so much more. We hope you enjoy one of our favorite episodes so far.
Oliver, welcome this morning to the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s fantastic to have you as a guest. Thank you so much for joining us.
Oliver: Thank you for inviting me. I’m glad to be here.
Georgie: So my first question is a question I normally actually end with, but I’d like to start with it. And I’d like to ask you how you have come to understand what productivity is, and how perhaps, those ideas may have evolved for you over time?
Oliver: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I suppose the way to answer it is what I think productivity is in the highest sense and should be, rather than the thing that I’m often in my writing, I think, pushing back against, kind of productivity culture, where it means something different.
I think there’s maybe something in other words that get at it a bit more directly for me, and certainly, how I think about it these days. And one of those would be creativity, a word that I think gets too narrowly applied to just people writing books, or painting, or writing songs. But I think that the sense of bringing something new into the world is central to a meaningful idea of productivity, probably.
And then a word that like, I keep hearing, sort of Jungian therapists use, which I’m trying to make more mainstream, I guess, which is generative. This idea that it’s something to do with growth somehow. And I think that’s an incredibly broad idea.
Growth, I think, it might not even be fully definable, it might just be a sort of intuitive feel about whether what you’re doing with your life is something that is helping you grow, or causing you to shrivel at the level of your soul.
But, and I don’t think it has to mean developing amazing skills or becoming more ethical or anything like that. But there’s some sense of growing, of bringing things into the world that matter. And this is obviously to distinguish it from sheer volume approach where the fact that you got a bunch of things done today somehow counts.
Obviously, it depends what the things are, right? Then I think that’s the constant risk. And I fall into, still today, myself all the time, that you sort of structure your day and judge your day, by whether you can say that you crossed a lot of things off a list, real or metaphorical list without any concern for whether they were the right things.
Georgie: I know as you wrote this book, you came to understand more about time and how to think about your life. But you had this wake-up moment, right, when you realized that the way that you’ve been trying to achieve all these things in one day, just was a bit futile, and perhaps wasn’t the best way to look at life.
Oliver: Yeah. So, I’m writing the book about this relatively minor epiphany, I would say on a park bench in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, where I was living at the time, at the beginning of a day when I had even more tasks I thought I had to get through the usual. It seemed even more impossible than usual.
And my totally natural direction of my mind then is to try and come up with the amazing scheduling solution that was going to enable me to push through all this stuff. Would it be working in five-minute bursts between different tasks, would it be Pomodoro, so a million different options, right. And just suddenly realizing that none of it was ever going to work.
In the sense that it was never going to work to provide me with the emotional thing that I was seeking when I was struggling to find the perfect productivity technique. I don’t mean that the Pomodoro Technique doesn’t work in some other sense, or that all sorts of interesting productivity techniques aren’t useful.
But I gradually, this didn’t all happen on a park bench. But I gradually came to see that I’d been pursuing all these things to try to feel a kind of control over my time and over the world really, that I think and I argue in the book, like none of us ever can have.
And yeah, so I think it’s to do with sort of wanting to achieve a kind of limitless control or power or sense of security. And we’re just not limitless as humans. And the whole of the rest of the book is sort of unpacking that idea in different ways, I think.
Georgie: Exactly. And as you say, the title might be misleading [inaudible 00:06:33] saying, okay, I’ve got 4,000 thousand weeks to live, like, how are we going to maximize it? How are we going to fill as much in? But actually, for me, it was a book about just accepting that humans are limited, both in time that we have and in our capacity to make the most of that time. And the sooner we accept that, then more filling actually life can be.
Can you talk a little bit more about that, our understanding of time, and why so many of us have got it wrong in thinking about time?
Oliver: Yeah. I’m not sure, getting it wrong, it seems a bit harsh. I think at the most fundamental level, there is something we assume about time, that is the sort of, from which everything else that goes wrong follows.
And that’s this very basic idea that like time is something you’re supposed to use, that you’re in relationship with, and you’re supposed to use as well as you can, and you can waste it. And you have to think about ways to save it and treating it as a resource in that sense. We totally have to do this. And I do it every day. And I’m not at all saying we can just completely give ourselves to the moment and make no plans and have no goals.
But the idea, that’s the only way to relate to time, I think gets us into a lot of trouble. Because apart from everything else, it puts you in this relationship to time where you are so completely focused on whether you’re using it well, that you end up placing the whole value of life in the future, in that time at which whatever goal you’re currently working to pays off. Or the time at which you finally get all your systems and approaches to productivity in perfect working order.
You have to relate to time instrumentally, or you couldn’t do anything. We had to make a plan to use this portion of time to record this, otherwise, it wouldn’t get made. But you don’t have to put 100% of your understanding of life’s value in that process of are you using time well for future benefits.
In the book, I talk about how if you’d asked an English medieval peasant, the kind of questions that we discuss when we talk about productivity these days, they would have been meaningless because you just didn’t relate to time in that way. You didn’t think about time as something that was separate from you that you had to sort of maximize. You just lived in time and the rhythms of the natural world that would have dictated so much of people’s work back then just lent a shape to your life.
There wasn’t this weird separation between you and time. And I would also then add specifically, today we live in a world of infinite input. There is no effective limit to the number of emails you can receive, number of demands your boss can make, number of business ventures you might want to launch, or places you might want to visit.
And so, if you try in that kind of situation, to get on top of it all, to try to build a productivity system that is going to enable you to get through it all, there’s a pretty obvious mathematical problem with that. Which is that you can’t build a system for getting through an infinite supply. You never will.
Once you see that we’re trying to do something impossible when we try to conquer time, win the battle with time, all these different metaphors, that’s when you can drop that struggle, not to spend the rest of your life in a hammock on a beach. Although fair enough, if you have that option. But precisely as the prelude to being able to do meaningful, important, productive things.
Because once you’re no longer trying to do everything in a context where that’s systematically impossible, that’s when you can pick a few things that really count and make sure you do actually do them.
Georgie: And to surrender into that, and we’ll come back to that a bit more. At the end, I want to talk about these solutions and how we decide that, and how you move into understanding what to pick and what to drop.
But before that, I wanted to understand more about the factors that had led us to see time as a resource in this way. Is it that our lives are becoming separate from the cadence of nature? Or is pervasive technology more to blame?
Oliver: I think it’s just a huge number of different forces and causes. And I certainly don’t try in the book to sort of isolate one or two and say, it’s really them. I think, sheer technological things, the invention of the clock was an incredibly important part of this, then economic forces, industrialization led to a requirement that time could be synchronized in mass ways that everyone could show up at the same time for their shift in the mill that they needed to show up for.
Then I think that sort of translates, really, in the 20th century, those ideas that have then been worked out in industry for efficiency in a mechanistic sense. And that gets applied to all the intellectual and knowledge work that we start doing. And then it’s about how to be more efficient in your personal work and more fitting in your personal life. It’s overdetermined, right.
Like, capitalism wants to do this to our time, and the technology we invent wants to do it to our time. And we as just humans want to do it to our time as well, because it is a form of ultimately, just to get really deep, I suppose, is ultimately a form of avoiding the confrontation with mortality.
The feeling that you can do everything with the time you have, do anything and everything is basically equivalent to the feeling that you get to live forever. And to be sort of infinite with respect to time would be a wonderful thing because then we wouldn’t have to face the real truth, which is that we’re very, very, very finite and don’t get very much of it and don’t get all that much control over the bit that we do get.
So, I don’t think there’s something new going on when you read about and talk to 24-year-olds who are experiencing burnout, which used to be the preserve of 50 somethings. But I think it’s something coming to a head, right? It’s things that already existed reaching a sort of point at which more and more of us are like, okay, this can’t go on.
Georgie: The question goes on, though, because it’s not just how we perceive time, that is the problem, but also how we choose to fill that time. In his book, Oliver talks about how in our overwhelm, we are often choosing easy tasks over the meaningful ones. And that’s because the meaningful ones are hard. They may evoke emotional vulnerability, leave us feeling bored, or force us to confront our limits. I asked Oliver to discuss this a little more.
Oliver: Yeah, absolutely. I think there’s sort of two ways into this. One is to say, why does it feel so good to do the unimportant stuff, or relatively good? And then the other is, why does it feel so difficult and unpleasant to do the important stuff, as you mentioned.
So just quickly, on the first one, as we’ve been speaking about, right, in this position of feeling inundated and overwhelmed, then there’s a really strong desire to clear the decks to feel like you have a handle on everything, and also a sort of socially reinforced idea that busy people are doing the right thing because they’re getting through stuff at a faster rate than others.
And in that context, there is a very strong set of reasons why spending your day doing 200 little things that aren’t very important. But at the end of the day, you get to feel virtuous and satisfied that you got through them. It’s obvious why that would be so rewarding in a shallow sense. And I still, you know, totally feel that despite having gone on this long journey with productivity and time, it’s like it’s totally there.
But I think maybe even the more interesting part is why it feels so difficult to do the things that we thought we really wanted to do, and do really want to do. But then when the moment comes, it’s much more pleasant to get into distractions. And in that sense, distractions could be aimlessly scrolling through social media, or distractions could be seemingly very important tasks, but just not the most important task.
The basic reason is just the things that matter bring us up against our limits. It’s not a coincidence that these things that we care about are the ones that are difficult to do because the stakes are high.
Because if you’ll be getting a piece of writing, say, just to use an example from my work, you don’t know for sure that you’ve got the talent to make it work. You don’t know for sure that you’ve got the ability to do it by the deadline if there’s a deadline. You don’t know for sure that other people are going to praise it. And yet, it really matters to you that all those things happen.
So you’re in this kind of scary situation, and it’s not within your control to be sure that they will happen. That’s a recipe for feeling various different kinds of negative emotion that it’s much more easy to escape from than to go into. And I think even boredom. But we talk about boredom as if it’s a sort of absence of feeling, but it really isn’t, I think.
If you sort of think about a time, either as an adult or as a child, when you experienced intense boredom, it was intense, right? I mean, it’s a sort of an aggressive feeling that, yeah, arises, I think, from not being able to dictate the pace at which something unfolds. Or to dictate the fact that it should always feel happy to be doing it or inspiring at every moment, and nothing worth doing is.
So yeah, all these emotions are just like, they’re totally par for the course, with interesting, important creative stuff. And they’ll totally the kind of thing we want to avoid if we possibly can.
Georgie: Yeah. In the book, you talk about digital distraction as being a perfect way out from those feelings. We’ve always had distraction, we actually had a really good interview with Nir Eyal who talks a lot about this, you know, we’ve always been distracted. And we just got to train ourselves to be indistractable. And it’s the same reason because we always seek distraction from emotional discomfort.
But do you think it’s more easy now than ever to be distracted? And do you think that’s impacting our ability, therefore, to stay in the present with difficult emotional feelings?
Oliver: Yeah, definitely. I mean, I’ve had some very good-spirited back and forth with Nir about this stuff, because I know he comes from a slightly different perspective on it than me. But I think, you know, he’s right. And yet, at the same time, there are certain unique things about digital distraction that need to be taken seriously.
It’s true that if I had no access to the internet, and I was frustrated by a piece of writing, I would probably stare out the window or daydream about something or go and, you know, hammer out tunes badly on the piano.
But none of those experiences have kind of thousands of incredibly well-paid people working constantly to make sure that once I’ve given in to that distraction, I stay there as long as possible, and get as angry or as, I guess, angry as somebody who’s on Twitter speaking. But maybe there are other more positive emotions that work in other places.
But, you know, technologies that come straight from the people designing casinos, right, to sort of keep problem gamblers gambling. Then adopted into our social media, and more generally online environment, in a way to keep us there. So it’s not a fair fight in a way that would not have been the case with non-digital distractions.
And then also, this really kind of interesting to me phenomenology of being online, the sort of what it feels like to be online in a space, like a social media platform. It does have this limitless feeling, right? So if what you’re really objecting to about your thing you’re trying to focus on, is that sort of feeling of being trapped in reality, and wishing reality didn’t have these kinds of annoying constraints and limits.
It’s the exact opposite experience to sort of float like a god around cyberspace, and to find out what’s happening thousands and thousands of miles away without any limitation of geography, present yourself as whoever you want to be without any limitations of who you actually are. Just kind of to be limitless or to feel limitless.
So I think there’s also that very special attraction of what happens there. Which again, wouldn’t be present if I went to clean the kitchen. It would just be that cleaning the kitchen was an easier way for now of being in contact with my limitations. Whereas actually feeling like you’re leaving them behind altogether. It’s very intoxicating.
Georgie: Yeah, the internet is this escape room for, yeah, believing that we’re bigger than we really are, which you don’t feel when you’re in your kitchen cleaning it. In fact, it’s quite humbling to be in a kitchen cleaning it and it’s probably quite grounding, relative to just running away from it all and thinking, yeah, that we can, in a way, be non-human.
I don’t want to get too deep. I want to get practical. But before we do, I think this is also really important because the other thing I was thinking about as I was reading your book is this, you know, Tristan Harris talked about this a lot, this kind of concept of the downgrading of humans.
It resonates here because what we’re basically saying is all the difficult stuff that makes us human, having relationships, deep relationships, which are uncertain and hard, or doing work which requires us to sit with boredom and uncertainty and putting ourselves out there, whatever it might be, becomes increasingly difficult to commit to. And yet, that is the thing that we need to lean into if we’re going to better ourselves as human beings.
And so it does become this kind of race in a way of what it means to be human, versus the ever-improving digital distractions, which are taking us away from those kinds of core elements of human being.
Oliver: Yeah, totally. So, on the relationship front, I don’t think that an aversion to making commitments is new with the internet or new with the 21st century. But I, that’s just one example of a place where maybe I’m speaking to personally from my sort of early adulthood.
But that sort of not wanting to commit to one relationship because you feel that if you do, you’re sort of, you’re not in control anymore of where things might go, you’re not keeping your options open in a way that is supposedly very pleasing compared to closing options down. I think that’s basically what commitment phobia is.
Not new with the internet, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to be supercharged by internet dating apps, where you’re sort of constantly presented with the thought that there are maybe thousands of other alternative people that you could be dating than the one that you are dating, and where it is in the business interests of at least most of those platforms to keep you dissatisfied, and not committing to one lifelong relationship and then stopping using that app, and canceling your subscription.
This is one example of that because the logic of the attention economy is to get us at that level of impulses and what feels good in the moment. And so we already are humans with these two sides to us, the sort of higher goals for our life that prove more richly satisfying, and the impulse for an easy life or a shot of pleasure, or whatever. But one of those is exploited and hugely maximized by the digital environment.
Georgie: And also this kind of constant search that there might be something better for us. And this idea in your book, you talk about how we have to accept to settle. And that’s also a really difficult emotion to sit with, the same as boredom, recognizing that there are lots of other choices for you in your — whether you’re on LinkedIn, there’s all these job opportunities coming at you or you’re on a dating site, and there’s all these other people coming at you, to recognize that at some point, you just have to settle, and that’s uncomfortable.
Oliver: It is uncomfortable. Though I think when you see what’s going on here, it’s actually weirdly liberating, right? Because lots of these things that we think are very bad to do, of which settling is one, and there are parallel examples in other domains of life throughout the book that they’re bad things to do, so long as you think there’s any alternative, right?
So the same goes for like fear of missing out when it comes to your social life. If you think there’s a sense that you might find a completely perfect situation, in terms of your relationship, or where you live or your job or anything like that. It’s really tormenting to feel that you’re not there yet.
Once you see that is off the table, that it’s in conflict with the very nature of who we are as humans, that you’re definitely going to be missing out on most enjoyable experiences you could be having at any one moment. And that’s totally legitimate to want all the freedoms of singlehood and all the joys of commitment, but you definitely aren’t going to have them both at the same time.
Once you see that you’re trying to do something impossible, I think it’s really freeing, because you don’t need to beat yourself up for failing to do that, because nobody can do it. And it’s the same with becoming so hyper-productive and optimized that there’s no limit to the number of tasks you could handle. Like, it’s off the table for human beings. And I think once you’re, once you get a little bit of a glimpse of that, it’s a real relief, because it’s just not going to happen, and so you don’t need to worry about it.
Georgie: You’re not going to do it all. So then what can you do? I know you’ve actually got some really practical advice on how to rethink work, and how to prioritize and serialize what you’re trying to achieve.
Oliver: Yeah. I mean, I think any productivity technique can be misused for the purposes of trying to reach this kind of perfect, hyper-optimized, hyper-productive, limitless godlike position with respect to time. And probably almost all of them can be used in a much more healthy, limit-embracing way. But I do think there are certain specific general approaches that are more in tune with this idea of embracing our limits.
One really obvious sort of family of ideas is anything that encourages you to do one thing at a time before moving on to the next one. And that can be on the level of individual tasks, right? It’s just the sort of way of making sure that you’re not literally attempting to multitask in ways that we know are impossible. Or it can be at the level of sort of major projects in your life.
So, I think it’s very useful to figure out those major domains of your life. They might be work and family and health or whatever they might be personal finances. And really, try to only have one major goal that you’re trying to achieve or thing that you’re trying to change or skill that you’re trying to develop in that domain at a time. And make all the other ones, all the other exciting ideas that you have to wait in line until one of these is completed.
Obviously, people have different work situations, your level of autonomy over your workflow is going to affect exactly how you do this. But anything that sort of serializes projects like that. I’m sure many people listening will be familiar with Kanban and Trello board approaches to managing tasks.
It’s kind of anxiety-generating, right? Because it obliges you to say, here are like 30 things that all have a really legitimate claim on my urgent attention. But I’m going to not even try to do 27 of them today because I have faith that actually, focusing on three of them. And finishing those before moving on to the next is actually the best way to get through them all as rapidly as possible.
But it means thinking like, oh, God, I bet that person is really annoyed with me now that it’s another day that I haven’t replied to their email. Or I’m really worried about what will happen to my work for this client if I’m two days late for the deadline or all those different thoughts. But it’s essential because if you’ve got more than you can do in a day, it’s essential to impose those kinds of limits on what you’re going to try and do in one of those days.
Georgie: Yeah, and I think you made the point about how, when you’ve got multiple tasks in parallel, what will happen is you just do all the easy bits on all of them.
Oliver: Right. Yes, exactly. We all know that multitasking is something to be avoided, or maybe more specifically, that most of the time, when you think you’re multitasking, you’re actually not multitasking but just very rapidly switching between tasks. And then imposing a lot of costs psychologically in terms of energy with that switching.
I think the other problem that comes into focus, when you look at it all through this lens of embracing your limits is if you have eight big projects on your plate, it’s tempting to try and touch each one of them today because then you feel like you’ve got a finger in every pie, you’re taking care of business, you’re in charge. So, you’re like the air traffic controller of your work.
But actually, what really happens is, the moment any one of them gets difficult, the moment you get to the point in any of those projects where like good stuff happens, because you are up against your limits and it is getting challenging, you just bounce off to another one of the project so you can keep going round in a circle effectively, feeling like you’re doing stuff that matters on all of them, but never actually pushing yourself through the hour of hard thought that was required to make it this specific article workout or whatever. Again, I’m just picking examples from my own work.
Georgie: One final concept from the book, which I wanted Oliver to discuss was the presence or loss of patience. Why exactly have we become so impatient?
Oliver: I think this is another manifestation of this desire that we have, in some ways, to escape our limited situation to gain a kind of control over the world and over time that we don’t actually have any right to expect.
And in the case of patience, it’s largely to do with speed, right? It’s to do with this idea that things take a certain amount of time. And impatience is the kind of experience of frustration that realizing that actually can’t be made to go as fast as you wanted to go or as fast as you think it needs to be able to go in order for you to meet your deadlines and feel in control of your time.
I go into some depth in the book about the example of reading, because I think it’s very illuminating. Lots and lots of people now say they don’t have any time to read. I’ve said it. And I think that largely that’s not quite true. I’m sure there are a few people who literally don’t have 20 minutes on any day of the week to sit down with a book.
But I think the more common experience is that people do that, and then they find they can’t read in that time because their minds are racing too fast. They don’t want to slow down to the speed that reading requires. Because to read almost anything, certainly novels, you don’t get to decide how fast it’s going to take.
The book imposes something of its own tempo on that experience. And you have to be willing to slow down to it. And I think that does get a lot harder in a technological environment where so much has been sped up, obviously, because the things that remain in life that can’t be sped up become, by comparison, becomes more unpleasant.
I also write about this weird thing. I mean, it’s quite strange when you think about it that it is more aggravating to wait two minutes for food to cook in the microwave than two hours for it to cook in the oven or eight seconds for a slow-loading web page to load than to just receive the same information in the post three days later or something.
I think broadly what’s going on there is just that these technologies take us to the cusp, they take us to the brink of feeling limitless, right? It’s very easy to believe in a world with microwaves that you might be able to have hot food instantaneously by clicking your fingers. And therefore, all the more frustrating that there’s still that two minutes you have to wait.
And the same with the slow-loading webpage, right? It feels like everything ought to happen in no time at all. And therefore every extra second, beyond no time at all, is just enraging. And yet, I think that for a lot of what meaningfully counts as productivity, you do a lot better if you can understand patience, in the modern world anyway, as a kind of subversive power, right? It’s a way of resisting the cultural pressure to do everything as fast as possible.
And I think that, in all sorts of contexts, can give you an edge, right? Just to get a bit more cynical about it, I think in a work situation, if you can learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes with spending an hour just pondering a piece of writing before you start writing it, you just do a better job, I think you’ll do better in your work professionally, by being able to resist that hurry.
Georgie: Yeah, let it percolate. Very, very valuable. Okay. Just to finish off, is just to summarize, if you had to give one piece of advice to our audience, what would you say it should be?
Oliver: Yeah, I guess it would be to try to think a little bit differently about experiences of discomfort and to think, okay. If I made a plan for the next few hours, that really, I felt was in tune with my highest values and the things I want to do. And then I were to sit down and start trying to implement it. And I were to feel some form of discomfort, impatience, boredom, fear of failure; is there a way that I could relate to that discomfort other than running away from it into distraction?
Is there a way that I could just hang out with the discomfort, keep going a little bit, see what happens to the discomfort? I’m not talking about fighting and trying to eradicate intense negative emotions or staying in a job, let alone a relationship that you really think is terrible for you, none of that.
But the sort of mild discomfort that comes from just being a human who is limited but capable of conceiving of limitless things. And running into those limitations all the time and feeling the discomfort of them; is there a way that you could just let that discomfort flow through you a bit and keep going with the plan that you made, instead of being thrown off course the moment it feels a little bit unpleasant? And I think that’s a superpower. I think that on the days when I manage that, not only do I accomplish far more value, but ultimately, they are just more satisfying days, even though they featured a bit of that discomfort. So I think that that’s one thing to bear in mind.
Georgie: Oliver, thank you so much for joining us today on the Freedom Matters podcast. It’s been fantastic to have you on the show. We’re really grateful for you joining us.
Oliver: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.