Oliver Burkeman on rejecting productivity hacks to regain focus
Published on May 05, 2023
For Oliver Burkeman, getting to do meaningful work means embracing the fact that you simply can’t do it all. His best-selling book, 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, takes a hard look at the cross-section of time and work and chases it with a large dose of reality: our time is finite and so are the possibilities of what we can do with it—choose wisely. The sentiment is ripe for our current era of remote work, where work is less about punches in a time card and more about the small choices we make every day on where to focus our efforts and attention. Burkeman spoke with Tiffani Jones Brown on what it means to be a recovering productivity junkie, embracing finitude, and practical ways we can better focus in the time that we have.
Your book is called 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. What were you hoping to evoke in readers with that title and subtitle?
Oliver Burkeman: Time is so short. You've got to really focus on trying to squeeze all the value out of life—to develop this incredible sense of urgency and spend every day you possibly can doing fantastic things. But what I'm actually trying to communicate, as became clear to me during the writing, is something else. It's not a question of trying to pack as much into it as you possibly can. It's a question of reconciling yourself to the fact that you're only going to be able to do a handful of the many, many potential meaningful things you could do with a life.
That's inevitable, that's built in, and that's okay. For me anyway, what enables that knowledge is what psychologically frees you up to really plunge in to those things. There's something very calming and liberating about really understanding what it means to have finite time.
What is it about the concept of time that is so compelling to you?
Time is just the medium in which everything happens. There's something kind of amusing in a way or appealing to me as an author in taking a concept like time management, which has this reputation as being something very down to earth—perhaps a bit boring, perhaps a bit cheesy—and actually taking it so seriously that suddenly it's about what we're doing on the planet and how to build a meaningful life.
You’ve described yourself as a “recovering productivity junkie.” What does that mean?
This book certainly was a book of advice that I needed to hear. It came at the end of a long period of being fixated on productivity systems and time management philosophies and techniques. [I was] really searching for the magic bullet that was going to transform my life into a wonderful thing where I could handle every demand that was thrown at me and fulfill every ambition that I had without disappointing everybody.
That desire to feel secure and in control and like you are doing enough and that you are worthy is something close to a universal story. I wrote a column for many years at The Guardian where I tested out all these kinds of [productivity] systems. When you try so many systems and philosophies and approaches, though some have merit, none of them bring you this holy grail of finally feeling in control and like you can do all you need to do. That's actually a very psychological experience to go through because you're like ‘Oh, okay, maybe I'm asking the wrong question here.’ Maybe there isn't this one brilliant system out there that's going to solve all these problems.
There's actually nothing intrinsically wrong with being a finite human with finite control.
Why do you think some of the more popular systems or methods for “productivity hacking” ultimately fall short?
I think that we are all in some way or another— and certainly productivity junkies especially—trying to stay in control of life and of our unfolding lives in a way that is actually just not open to human beings. We want to feel like we can get our arms around a limitless quantity of stuff. And we also want a certain degree of control over how things are going to go. We want to know that we can trust in what the future holds. But it’s not feasible for finite humans to do an infinite amount of things.
So we're trying to solve a problem that isn't open to us to solve. And to get sort of Zen Buddhist about it, I suppose the suffering comes from trying to find a solution, right? There's actually nothing intrinsically wrong with being a finite human with finite control. The problem is thinking there ought to be a way out of the human condition in that sense.
In your book, you outline a few tools for embracing finitude. Can you give us one practical example of how to go about that?
What really matters here is a shift of perspective towards embracing finitude. There's nothing wrong with many of those approaches, as long as you're doing them in this spirit of really understanding your finitude instead of thinking that they're going to somehow save you from your finitude.
All that said, one of the ones that I come back to again and again is this idea of choosing in advance certain domains of life that you are going to fail at—at least for now, not necessarily forever. If you decide at the beginning of a month or a year that this is not going to be a season where the house is anything but just doing its minimal function as a house, then it's not a source of sadness that you don't get to those things because it's all part of the plan. You're stepping into the truth of your limitations, freeing yourself up to focus on the things that you've decided to focus on instead. It’s just being honest about your capacities and, as a result, being able to perform at a higher level in the domains that you choose to focus on.
How does this idea of limited time play into work-life balance?
I think hiding in the back of the idea of work-life balance is [this idea that] there must be a way for you to be a hundred percent the perfect worker and a hundred percent the perfect person with a life outside work. Percentages don't work that way.
The real point there is that because we have limited time, there's always going to be something and probably many things, that to some extent, are being neglected so that other things can be focused on. It’s much healthier and calming to recognize that situation. To work with your particular circumstances and to figure out what kind of imbalance is right for you this time given your options.
The point is to use the time on something important or meaningful, not to get to the end of all the things...
In this era of burnout and multi-tasking, how can you choose what to focus on in any given moment—especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed?
The first thing that I try to remember in situations of overwhelm is that there will always be too much to do. The point is to use the time on something important or meaningful, not to get to the end of all the things that the world is asking you to do because that is never going to happen. Then you can shift your outlook from ‘What should I be doing for the next hour in order to stay on top of everything?’ to ‘This is an hour of my life and I would like it to be meaningfully spent rather than meaninglessly spent.’
So what could I do with it? Of course that might involve some rather tedious chores that you'd rather not do because that's a part of everybody's set of things that need doing. But at least then you're doing it not from any notion of ‘I'm somehow going to win the battle with time.’
How do you think workplaces or even managers can help people rethink their relationship with time?
I don't want to push the analogy between management and parenting too much because I think it leads to some wrong conclusions, but it's a bit like how I always am dismayed to realize that if I'd like my kid not to just be on screens all the time, I actually am going to have to do that myself as well. You can't just lay down the law. You actually have to embody it. In the same way, if you are asking people who report to you in the workplace to prioritize some project, then you can be open about and allow the conversation about what they're going to deprioritize. Because in a finite situation, focusing on something means not focusing on other things.
You can absolutely demand high performance and high energy and discipline, but you can stop short of demanding impossible combinations of things, right? Which is that people should spend all their time focused on priority A, but also somehow on priority B. Organizations more generally, have some scope to set up those kind of collective temporal boundaries that we were talking about.
For more of their conversation, listen to Remotely Curious, a Dropbox podcast on remote work.