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Embracing your limits in order to find creative freedom and fulfillment, with Oliver Burkeman

with your host Jessica Abel

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There’s no alternative here. It’s absolutely inevitable that things that matter will be being neglected while you do other things.
And this is just built into the condition of being a finite human who will always have more goals, ambitions, demands, felt obligations…always have more of those than can be met.

There is no escaping that.
And in that inevitability and that inescapability there is a kind of freedom, right?

Because it’s like—nobody’s getting outta that situation, so you can stop struggling to do it. You can stop trying to get on top of everything, because it’s definitely never happening.

Oliver Burkeman

NYT bestselling author Oliver Burkeman has more than a decade of experience discussing topics like productivity, procrastination, and anxiety in his column for The Guardian newspaper, This Column Will Change Your Life. On this episode, Oliver talks about his game-changing new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management For Mortals, his career path, how he came into the role of productivity expert, and the freedom of what he calls “a limit-embracing attitude.”

More from the episode

  • What are the added challenges of doing what you love professionally, in terms of productivity?
  • The importance of stopping, and how patience can help you reach the finish line more consistently.
  • Oliver describes his own system for finishing creative projects, and what productivity looks like for him.
  • Why learning to tolerate discomfort is essential to developing a healthier relationship with time and productivity.
  • Where do most people go wrong with time-management and productivity tools, and what can they do instead?
Oliver Burkeman Books

About Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is the author of the New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller Four Thousand Weeks, about embracing limitation and finally getting round to what counts, along with The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. For many years he wrote a popular column for the Guardian, ‘This Column Will Change Your Life’. In his email newsletter The Imperfectionist, he writes about productivity, mortality, the power of limits and building a meaningful life in an age of distraction. He lives in the North York Moors.

A time management technique can be approached in that spirit of like,
“this is gonna save me…”
or it can just be approached as in like,
“okay, this transcendence of all human limitation that I was going for is impossible.”

Oliver Burkeman

Connect with Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman’s bi-monthly newsletter: https://www.oliverburkeman.com/the-imperfectionist

https://www.oliverburkeman.com/

https://twitter.com/oliverburkeman

Additional Links

Want to get things done? Stop thinking, start doing | Oliver Burkeman – The Guardian

Why it pays to cut yourself some slack | Oliver Burkeman – The Guardian

Your new superpower: NOT trying to do everything | Jessica Abel

Endless to-do list? Here’s how not to waste your life | Oliver Burkeman – FT

Transcript

Click here to view the transcript!

Oliver Burkeman: It’s absolutely inevitable that things that matter will be being neglected while you do other things. And this is just built into the condition of being a finite human who will always have more goals, ambitions, demands. And in that inevitability and that inescapable there is a kind of freedom, right? Because it’s like nobody’s getting outta that situation so you can stop struggling to do it. You can stop trying to get on top of everything because it’s definitely never happening.

what does it really take to become successful as a writer or artist?

There are a lot of destructive myths out there about what a creative career is supposed to look like. We’re told we shouldn’t care about worldly success or money. We’re told that if we’re good enough, everything would magically fall into place. That’s a lie and it keeps us struggling, baffled, and hungry for any shred of information that might shed light on how to keep making the work we love. That’s why I get any two artists or writers or any creatives really together in a room. And it’s a foregone conclusion that the conversation will turn to money and the nitty gritty reality of being a professional, creative.

I’m cartoonist and creative . Business. Coach Jessica Abel.

In my own life. The studio visit back channel conversations with other artists where we share our insights and hacks anxieties and red flags have been critical to any success I’ve achieved.

And now. I’m bringing that conversation to you. This is the autonomous creative.

Intro

Jessica Abel: my guest today is Oliver Burkeman. Oliver has more than a decade of experience discussing topics like productivity, procrastination, and anxiety in his column for The Guardian, This Column Will Change your Life. He’s a hugely influential thinker about productivity and whether that’s even something we should want.

I’ve been a fan since I discovered his work four or five years ago. And I’m familiar with his healthy skepticism when it comes to life hackery and the cult of personal productivity. However, his newest book, 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, is next level.

As a fellow self-described recovering productivity geek. This book presents an entirely new way of looking at our personal and professional work that will have ripple effects for years to come. I’ve had a lot of amazing guests on this show, but this is the first time I wished I could turn the entire episode into a coaching call for myself.

Don’t worry. I didn’t do that.

Instead, we talked about how embracing our finitude is the gateway to a rewarding creative practice and rejecting goal setting is the key to doing things that matter. It’s a deep dive and we’ll get right into it after this.

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Now let’s start the show.

Interview begins

Jessica Abel: welcome Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman: thank you very much.

Jessica Abel: Alright, so let’s just dive right in. I just wanna get a picture at this point. I mean, the way that this show generally works is we talk about kind of your career and how you got where you are, which it’s gonna be I think an interesting counterpoint with the ideas in your books and in your writing.

But I wanna balance kind of both of those things. So let’s just start with like, what does your work life look like now? What are you doing all day now that you? Somewhat recently finished a book and like a massive PR tour. I mean, you’ve been everywhere.

What does your work life look like?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. Well thank you very much for this invitation. I’m really happy to be here and get to talk with everybody.

I mean, now is kind of strange because I’m sure you can relate to this. Well first, not to this part. We, we moved in, uh, in the fall last year from Brooklyn where I’d lived, we’d lived. My wife’s American, our son is a dual citizen to the north of England, where I am now, which is why it’s okay that I’m drinking a gin and tonic. I don’t do that at 2:00 PM in the afternoon. I want people to know it’s 7:00 PM here, so it’s acceptable.

And so there was that big upheaval, that was just right around the time the, the book was published in the US and the UK and it’s just been like, it’s really strange. I mean, it’s great, but it’s really strange cuz it’s done a lot better than I would’ve predicted.

I dunno what the metrics. You know, I dunno what the correct comparison points are, but just based on my expectations. And so there’s now all sorts of interesting conversations, whether it’s going places to talk about the book or writing other things off the back of the book. It’s all this kind of stuff that you couldn’t possibly like business plan for.

I’m writing my email newsletter and looking at things, things I can do with that. I am being under pressure from my agent to make further progress on a proposal for a new book, which I am, which I am sort of doing, but too slowly. She’s very good in exactly the best way at, uh, not letting me off the hook about that.

And just from, I mean, I dunno if this is interesting to anybody, but one thing I find is that the connection between, as compared to when I worked just as a freelance journalist, and that was the thing that I did all the time. The connection between the effort one puts in and the income that one makes from it get, get more and more completely detached from each other. And I don’t really understand what’s going on. Right.

So I, I’ll do lots and lots of things where I’m just sharing some things for free and that’s great. And then some things will come into my life that sustain it by giving me payments for the- but there’s no, like, I can’t predict it. It’s really strange.

And so, my working life looks kind of odder to me than it, than it ever has done. If you want a question, if you are actually asking a question about like, how I manage to do lists and stuff, we can have that conversation.

Jessica Abel: We can have that conversation too. We may get there, but no, I was actually asking this like how do you, how do you go from something? I mean it’s a massive bestseller. People are talking about it all over the place and that’s amazing. Of course you can’t predict that and that actually goes back to the content of your book.

That you can’t know before you do a thing what the results of it are gonna be. You can’t base your doing or not doing of a thing on what’s gonna happen down the line, but once it happens, well, you know, all kinds of other things get kicked off in different directions. And what I was really wondering is whether you’re managing to have any atelic time?

Oliver Burkeman: I mean, I am. That, for people who aren’t familiar with that word, comes from, or comes from lots of places, but sort of popularized by a philosopher Kieran Setiya who uses it to describe those kinds of activities we do where we’re not just focused on outcomes and goals. We do the thing for, for itself.

I’m not sure that I would be if I was, if I was left to my own devices as it were. So two things. Firstly, I think that having a still pretty small child acts as a sort of, um, a limit on what I might otherwise do, which is sort of dive totally into this kind of very tunnel vision kind of attempt to like launch and complete more and more projects.

And secondly, living here in the North York Moors, which is a place fairly near where I grew up, in which I absolutely love, love, love the landscape in which we’re getting to live at the moment. It’s sort of so present that it kind of, it’ll be, it’ll be so, it will be so wrong to go like day after day after day, never, never spending time in this landscape that it sort of guilts me into doing it in a way.

It’s um, you know, I don’t wanna make this sound like I’ve become completely capable of just plunging into the moment with no, you know, nothing needs to, I don’t need to make myself do that. That’s not true. But living here has a certain effect like that cuz it is just, it’s just here. So like, it would be criminal to not be spending time hiking.

Jessica Abel: I have committed that crime

Oliver Burkeman: Living in a place where, which is good for hiking and not hiking? Yeah. Yeah, no, and me

Jessica Abel: The place that’s good for doing something and not doing the thing, whatever the thing is. You know? I mean, I think we all can recognize that some

Oliver Burkeman: Right. For the first, for the first few months after getting here, when the real thick of the book promotion and stuff, I was that person too. But just in the last few months I’ve been like, okay, this is absurd. I’ve got no guarantee that we’re gonna be here. No, no guarantee that we’re gonna be here sort of indefinitely. No guarantee of anything ever as I write about. So, that’s a kind of a pressure towards atelic

Jessica Abel: Right. Having that moment of like, that’s the thing is like once you recognize this, you can’t, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. Right. And this is, I feel like I’m sort of in the state of just, I’ve been seeing it and I can’t unsee it, but I still can’t quite make it happen the way I want to.

And I do actually identify a lot with what you’ve doing cause I’ve moved from Brooklyn to France, and then from France to Brooklyn, and from Chicago to Mexico, and Mexico to Chicago. And I just moved house here in Philadelphia. So I get it. When you shift places and cultures that extremely, it’s actually a really great moment to kind of reset your expectations and do things differently. It’s hard when you’re sort of on that train track that you’ve established. And switching

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. No, I think the dis even just the sheer disruption. This has not just been a disruption because it’s also involves moving to a place that I’ve always loved and near family and old friends, and there’s lots of sort of things like that, that are not kind of striking out doing something new. It’s more like a return to something familiar. But yeah, the general shaking up of that stuff is just intrinsically helpful, I think. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. In sort of, yeah, resetting expectations and all that kind of stuff. Yeah. So let’s go back a little bit in your story because I feel like, I certainly haven’t gone back to the beginning of your column and read everything or whatever, but my sense is that

Oliver Burkeman: Wouldn’t do that. Take forever

Jessica Abel: to, but my sense is that you really started somewhere different in terms of your, I mean, you’ve said over and over again that you started somewhere different in terms of productivity, but also in terms of the way that you thought about what you were- what the project was of investigating productivity.

I mean, the fact that your column was called This Column Will Change Your Life. I mean, that’s incredibly snarky, you know? And as a Gen Xer, I appreciate that. That is how I, I am, you know. I resonated with that as they say these days. And so tell me how you went from what you were doing before that, because getting a regular column in a paper like The Guardian, that’s a big deal. I mean, that’s not, that’s a big career statement in some sense. What were you doing before? How did that happen? And then how did this idea for this column come up?

What was your career path like? How did you get a regular column in The Guardian? Where did the idea for your column come from?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, the super quick version, I mean, I left university. I pretty much thought I wanted to be a journalist, but for some reason I went to start the very early stages of, of a phD in political theory. Very, very swiftly realized that this was a bad idea cuz I was basically trying to become an academic so that I could become one of those academics who write sorts of journalism. I was just like, this is really stupid. I should just cut out the,

Jessica Abel: I’ve seen that happen.

Oliver Burkeman: The eight year phase. Well, I think for some people it’s the right choice, but for me it was just like, no, you’re just doing this to do something you could just go and do. And that was, that was a little bit of a, I’m sort of surprised in hindsight at what a bold move that was for me cuz I don’t feel like I’m a very sort of risk taking person.

But it sort of was cuz that was a very sort of prestigious thing to be doing. And then you can only really sort of worm your way into British national newspapers by doing something very sort of casual, casual shift work, little bits of copy editing here and there and working weird hours on a Sunday and, and all that stuff.

Then I became a part-time researcher on the, on the Guardian newspaper and a very sort of junior position. Anyway so a few years after that the editor of the Weekend magazine at The Guardian realized that I was to be seen reading these kinds of books and with them on my desk and things.

And I think she basically thought she would get some, get some content out of that. So it was all her idea really. But yeah, to your point, I think that I– now, unconsciously I’m sure I was doing something much more sincere and less snarky all along if you could have, if I could have got in touch with, that.

But what I thought I was doing was definitely something much more sort of mocking or satirical or something. And my idea was that it would be funny to sort of go on a tour of kind of cheesy self-help. I think it would be untrue to say that I thought it was all completely worthless at that time.

I think that would be an exaggeration. But I basically was imagining my sort of typical Guardian reader, I think I was doing this quite accurately, as sharing my kind of sardonic skepticism boarding on cynicism. And really the journey of that column, which yeah, I was doing for 12 years in the end, which was, seems absurd that one could ever be old enough to have done anything for 12 years, really, was a journey towards getting more sincere about that stuff.

It, it sort of waystation on that journey was realizing that actually it was, it was much more fun, even just in a kind of provocative way. It was much more fun to try to sort of make my imagine– my archetypical Guardian reader accept the fact that there were some things of value hiding amongst all the hokey corny self-help stuff than it was to just like be rude about it. Like that’s a more counterintuitive point in a way for that audience. The fact that there’s good stuff in some of that, that world.

And yeah, you know, in hindsight, clearly it was, you engage with these things because there’s something in them that compels you, that you need to work out in your own unconscious. And being jokey about it is a sort of a defense mechanism. And doing it for work is a good defense mechanism cuz you get to read all sorts of books that you’d be sort of, like, you’d feel awkward reading otherwise.

Jessica Abel: Right. If you’re not serious at this, then you can’t, it can’t be sort of attributed to you in some sense. Like you’re in there

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. And

Jessica Abel: As a skeptic and a debunker instead of as an adherent, which would make you soft headed or something. Right.

Oliver Burkeman: Right. And I, yes, and I think, you know, one could make some more general points about the, it’s not universal of course, but the one common psychology that attracts people to journalism, which is a job where you get to like, watch things and comment on them and sort of hold yourself at one remove from being engaged with them.

I don’t wanna like, slander all my colleagues, but I think there’s definitely something of that in why I was drawn to it. On the other hand, I’ve always written to try to make sense of things that I genuinely, truly care about. So those two sort of tracks got merged and confused somewhere.

And for a long time doing that column if I would give a talk or something, somebody would say as if they’d really kind of got my number, they would say something along the lines that they thought I was really just using this column as kind of therapy for myself. And after the first like year of doing that just became so obvious that it just wasn’t a– I was just like, yeah, of course. What, why?

And I think, you know, probably surely everybody participating here tonight can say that the things that they write about or make art about or anything like that, it’s not the stuff that you don’t struggle with. It’s not the issues that you don’t care about because you’re really good at them and have always have never had any problem with them.

It’s the things that you, that you grapple with. And, you know, when I try to think of something, I’ve just always been really good at: spelling. I mean, sorry, I would never be interested in thinking about that for more than two minutes. It’s obviously being happy and feeling like you’ve got to do a certain– feeling like your self worth is dependent on your productivity and all these kind of

Jessica Abel: Have you

Oliver Burkeman: issues

Jessica Abel: you

Oliver Burkeman: that were deep in my psyche that needed to be worked on. Yeah. Sorry. Go.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. No, I was just saying, have you seen David Ree’s deep investigation into pencil sharpening?

Oliver Burkeman: I am. Yes, I have. Yes.

Jessica Abel: So there’s re– there are reasons to do this right? To do, do something you’re really good at and really teach it and investigate it. No, I, I, I hear you.

Oliver Burkeman: I feel like he’s using it as a vehicle for other things, but anyway. Yes. No,

Jessica Abel: Well, yes, obviously. But I think that the, I think you’re right. That, like you do.. I, as a teacher of somebody, you know, I teach creative focus, right? Well, creative focus has been a struggle for me in various ways. And I could see that other people struggled with it in some of the same ways, in some different ways. And trying to figure out how to fix that is intensely interesting because it’s a struggle and because it’s been a long process and I’ve learned a lot of things and I love sharing what I’ve learned. So I totally get that.

I just think it’s really… I can imagine you back then, 12 or however many years ago it was now, thinking you were gonna be doing one thing and then slowly and then quickly sort of figuring out you were doing something completely different.

Like thinking you were gonna be sort of, oh, this sounds fun. It’s kind of, you know, I’ll just like make a hash of these various books. And then going like, oh wait, now I actually have to take this seriously. Oh wait, now, you know. And you’re managing your time as a journalist cause I mean, I worked with a lot of journalists who are trying to recover from the journalist pace of life.

The deadlines are real. They’re real, they’re all the time. It’s, there’s this constant pressure to be producing and you’re doing that in order to write about managing your time. So it’s, there’s this kind of ongoing cyclical thing. And I also recognize that.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, no, I mean, the deadline cul– we don’t need to talk about this in detail or anything, but the deadline culture is such an interesting double edged sword I think. I think it was really useful for me in terms of being a perfectionist minded person. It was really useful to be put into that context where if it’s midday on a Tuesday and you don’t have a good idea for your column you just have to use one of the bad ideas instead.

that’s tremendous. On the other hand, I was definitely sort of extending and reinforcing certain kinds of neurosis about productivity through that kind of atmosphere where you just sort of relentlessly doing it and nothing counts except the next deadline. And the moment it’s gone, it’s gone forever, and it’s just like, it’s that total sort of chasing the future kind of

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Tunnel vision. So that brings me to this other question that this was just such an interesting section of the book for me. You know, as I was reading the book there were all kinds of things I recognized in it about myself, about people I’ve worked with. There’s so much stuff in there, but I get to one section and I just stopped and I looked at Matt and I was like, “Oh, now he’s talking about me. This is the part that’s about me.” And that’s not the part where I show up in the book either.

Oliver Burkeman: There is a part that is literally about and your wise advice.

Jessica Abel: It’s literally from me, but like this is the part that’s about me, which was the instrumentalization of time part and this is what I wanted to connect to you, you know, your earlier journalistic career.

The challenges of becoming a professional at the thing that you love doing + instrumentalizing your time.

Jessica Abel: I’d love to talk a little bit about what it means, because this is very relevant for this audience, what it means to do your creative work for a living. It seems like there’s something inherently… I won’t say problematic, but challenging about becoming a professional at the thing that you love doing.

By definition you are instrumentalizing that work, which I’d love for you to define for everybody in a second, but does that somehow like preclude being able to be happy while you’re doing it? There’s a whole section of the book that’s about instrumentalizing your time so let’s just talk about what that is first and then kind of get back to this question.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I’m just referring very straightforwardly to the idea that all the time, for very many good reasons, we are judging the value of how we spend an hour or a day, or any period of time, by how well it helps us get to some future outcome. And I am absolutely not, it would be hypocritical of me to suggest that we give that up completely. I don’t think it would be possible, and I don’t think it would be desirable. Obviously, all through the day we’re doing things with that instrumental thought in mind. I think the problem is that if you, if you go all in with that then clearly you get to a point where you are not experiencing any meaning or value in the moment itself, but everything is always for some future time that ultimately never arrives until there’s no more future left.

All these cultural pressures, I think, encourage us to treat our time that way. If you are the kind of person who, for whatever reasons, is a bit fixated on issues of productivity, you’re going to be much more deeply in that thing because that’s all about how to use time well. So it’s gonna sort of redouble that.

This is going to what I think your next line of question might be, but there’s clearly one sense in which people who, in which people who are fortunate enough, or courageous enough, or whatever it is, to pursue what they take to be their creative callings as a career, are gonna be especially at risk of sort of eroding the value of the very thing that gives the meaning to their lives by turning it into this thing that they need to sort of reach certain outcomes with.

Not just financial outcomes. I mean, this is partly that point that if you turn your passion into a job, it feels like a job because you’re doing it for external motivations instead of the internal ones. But it’s partly just any future goal as opposed to the doing of it itself, so that somebody who like finds their day job incredibly boring, just does it purely instrumentally for a paycheck and then they live for the times, like on the weekends or the evenings they get to spend an hour painting or something like that.

That’s not how I would want to be. I don’t think it’s as happy a situation as or as fortunate as the kind of that I get to do. But it does come with this one like weird advantage, which is that you’re not going to get into so much into this idea where the very center of what you live for has become totally instrumentalized sort of mortgage to the future or whatever. So that is a challenge. Yeah, I think so.

Jessica Abel: It seemed to me that this is a thing that I come up against in myself and also in people that I’m coaching and teaching all the time. Not being able to start something, not being able to finish something, not being able to effectively engage with the thing because they’re focused on the outcome.

I mean, we talk about this constantly and the outcome being, as you say, not just financial, although that compounds the issue because then it seems like you’re doing it for real reasons. You know, you’re doing it reasons that are logical and have to do with paying your rent. And I think that’s just, it’s really a problem.

And in fact, I’ve started this new program where I’m teaching creatives to create a business that’s not their primary thing, in order to make room for their primary thing and create space for that that isn’t… they’re not trying to instrumentalize what they do all the time.

But this is a, another piece of this that I thought of while I was reading this, I was like, when have I been in that sort of non-instrumentalized atelic kind state for myself? And I certainly, I’m really into gardening. I don’t cook much now, but I’ve been in a place where like cooking is a huge thing for me. I never wanted to be professional, but I was really into it and will be again, I think. I’ve done woodworking. I’ve done other stuff where I had no career ambitions with this at all. And especially something like gardening is just an ongoing, like, there’s always something to do. There’s no end point.

But then I was like, okay, but what about my work? What about like the work that I have made my life? And it occurred to me that when I’m in a flow state with my work, whether it’s writing or drawing or anything else, when I’m fully engaged with the work that is… it’s like a window into that kind of non-instrumentalized time within the container of something that’s instrumentalized. Is that something that you, does that ring true for you?

Flow state: non-instrumentalized time within the container of something that’s instrumentalized

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. No, it does. And I mean, I struggle with this and grapple with this all the time. I think that one manifestation of it, which is for certain people, and I think it’s my personality, is that sort of anything you, as soon as you commit to doing something, as soon as you signed a contract or agreed to meet a deadline, it becomes a burden in a way that it wasn’t when it was not in that situation, right?

So that you are in this very ironic situation that like you want assignments or you want work or you want customers or whatever the context would be. And then as soon as you get them, it’s like, “Oh, screw it. Now I’ve got to like serve these people.” And it turns it into that sort of sense of duty and that pulls you out of the absorption.

One of the things that I have found so powerful in this context is… it might take a little bit of explaining, but is to try to cultivate patience in how you work. So one of the things that I talk about in the book, which comes ultimately from this guy Robert Boyce, who did a lot of research on what made academic writers productive, is this idea that, that stopping is as important to starting.

So we all talk all the time about how important it is to like just start in on some project and it’s true. But then people tend to think that if you decide to do that for like, I don’t know, an hour and you’re on a roll at the end, you should just like keep going cuz you’re on a roll. And that’s wonderful. And Boyce made this point that’s always resonated with me, that actually what he found was that it was the people who were able to step away after a designated small period of creative work who, who did the most over the long haul. Because actually a lot of that desire to keep going is really some kind of impatience.

It’s a desire to get to this end point that we’re talking about here, right? To get to that goal as fast as you can so you can get onto the next one. And that sort of discomfort that comes from only doing a modest amount on something that is so central to your life each day is actually a really good kind of discomfort to sort of learn to tolerate because it… I’m at the limits of my language here, but it sort of returns you to yourself, right?

It stops you sort of constantly just leaning out over the edge of the day into the next day, or out of the hour into the next hour, and brings you back to like, “Okay, there is no way that I’m going to be finishing this book today, or this week, or this month, or whatever. I’m not going to be reaching this destination point. I can work on a single brick of this construction and another brick the next day. And then just keep building it without being so focused on the end point. I hope that makes sense.

Jessica Abel: Totally does. It absolutely does. And I think that that’s, you know, this is one of the, I see people doing like NaNoWriMo or doing 30-day challenges on Instagram for illustrators or something like that. And frequently people will do that and then just like fall off the cliff at the end. They don’t keep going.

My last two comics Out on the Wire and then Trish Trash both were done in like a sprint for months and months, years, really just like on and on and on. And I just, I burned out. At the end of that, I just couldn’t do more. And I think that’s… I think part of that stopping is retaining impatience for tomorrow. Like, you get to come back and do it.

I love that as a sort of way to think about this, is create a container, stopping. And that is a tip I will try to take with me. I have a really hard time with it, but that tells me that’s a, that leads me to my next question, really, which is, you’ve looked at so many different ways that people go about trying to be productive and finish their work and so on.

What does your system for finishing work and being productive look like?

Jessica Abel: What does your system look like now? What do you do? I mean, do you have those kinds of short writing periods? And I know as you’re saying, like lots of offers are flying at you right now because your book’s really popular. People are excited about it. And I know one of the things you’ve talked about is this idea of choosing what to neglect, choosing to not pay attention to certain things. Do you have new ways that you have approached this that are helpful to you?

Oliver Burkeman: Well, I mean obviously this kind of question leads me to want to talk about my ideal days and days when it goes really well, but it’s maybe worth, it’s useful to do that just as a sort of model to work from. And then I can talk about what I,

Jessica Abel: Okay. Yeah, Let’s do

Oliver Burkeman: that.

But I mean, I think the most important thing that, that works for me, and again, I’m fortunate to be someone who sort of gets to control the contours of a given day, or within my discretionary time anyway before the school run or whatever. You know, I get to choose what I do first and what I do second. And for me it is all about sort of blocking time by type. I’m not very good at, and I don’t really get along very well anymore with really sort of rigorous time blocking where I’m trying to assign something to each hour of the day.

But that basic idea that like, I will do three hours or so on my most important creative writing project and then I will do all the rest of stuff that there’s time for after that. Just that simple act of putting that stuff first, making all the, the little bits wait till I’ve got that outta the way. This is like the oldest advice in the book, but I think it, it expresses this kind of, something of the essence of what I’m trying to say in 4,000 Weeks, which is just that trying to clear the decks in order to make time for the– I mean, I’m just giving you your pay yourself first advice here, but this

Jessica Abel: Just say it. Just go.

Oliver Burkeman: It’s a manifestation of Jessica Abel’s fantastic advice to pay yourself first with time. The time is not going to arrive, as you say yourself, where this, where, where you’ve got everything outta the way and there’s this sort of expanse of time is now available to you with a great feeling of freedom to just sort of spend hours and hours on the things you care about the most. You just have to do that first. You have to give up trying to clear the decks before you do that stuff, and you have to sort of just organize your day so that you do a few hours, not too many, because I think that attempting to do more than, more than a few hours brings all sorts of other problems.

But you have to do those few hours first, tolerating the anxiety of knowing that there are people in your email inbox who want you to reply to them, and that there are things that totally, genuinely matter. Like, it’s not, you don’t have to cultivate this attitude that I see sometimes that like all those other people who want stuff from you are kind of evil or stupid or something. It’s all totally legitimate, but there’s just more legitimate stuff than there is time in the day. At some point you have to make some decisions and that is gonna probably involve disappointing somebody or making somebody feel impatient.

I mean, they’re probably far less mad with you than you think. Right? This is another thing I’ve noticed in myself, this bizarre assumption that somebody who’s waiting for an email from you is spending all day, every day pacing up and down their office wondering what the hell’s happened to you. I mean, they’ve got their own lives to live and their

Jessica Abel: Right. You’re just not that special, you

Oliver Burkeman: Absolutely. Exactly. But, but all the same you still have to sort of, you have to sort of

steal

Jessica Abel: I did pace a little when I wrote you. I was a little, little pacing a few times.

Oliver Burkeman: You, you have to steal yourself. You have to steal yourself to that feeling regardless of whether it’s an accurate feeling about what people are actually doing and sort of tolerate the anxiety of not getting things done in order to focus on some things that really matter. And the, the master key for me in getting a bit better anyway, tolerating that anxiety and tolerating that sort of feel discomfort of neglecting things is the understanding that is at the core of the book, I suppose.

There’s no alternative here. It’s absolutely inevitable that things that matter will be being neglected while you do other things. And this is just built into the condition of being a finite human who will always have more goals, ambitions, demands, felt obligations. Always have more of those than can be met. There is no escaping that. And in that inevitability and that inescapable there is a kind of freedom, right? Because it’s like nobody’s getting outta that situation so you can stop struggling to do it. You can stop trying to get on top of everything because it’s definitely never happening.

I find this in all sorts of areas. This is, this is my sort of cast of mind, I suppose, but it’s much more liberating to sort of understand that something is completely impossible, so you can let go of it than it is to sort of try through just sort of sheer kindness to oneself or something to say like, “It’s all right. You don’t have to struggle to do this.”

It’s like, no, you can struggle to do as much as you like. It’s definitely never happening. So maybe that will be enough to sort of smack around the head a bit and get you to, get you to stop trying to do that, and to focus instead on just like putting a few hours in to the thing that you care about the most today.

Jessica Abel: I love the brutal logic of this. I counted up all the definitely’s, not literally, but I, I, I said, okay, so in the book, in 4,000 Weeks, right here. Ready? 4,000 weeks everybody should get one.

“You will definitely fail to make work as perfect as you imagine it to be in the future. You will definitely not do, accomplish all the things you dream of doing. You will definitely settle for a partner or a job or career because you can’t not, there’s always gonna be other choices, right? You will definitely feel discomfort and boredom doing things that you really care about. You will definitely never be satisfied and reassured that things in the future will turn out as you demand.”

So don’t avoid work you love. Don’t avoid commitment. Lean into distraction. Pay attention to what’s happening to be less distracted, don’t worry about the future cuz why bother? It’s, it’s not gonna turn out. It’s not. And that’s not to say it’s not gonna turn out well, but it’s not gonna turn out as you demand it to turn out. It’s not gonna turn

Oliver Burkeman: right, right.

Yeah. No, the fall, the falling short of the fantasy of perfection or of omnipotence or of omniproductivity or whatever is so, or hyper- efficiency, is so built in that you get to, you get to let go of it.

I collect all these quotations. They often end up coming from Zen Buddhist for maybe obvious reasons I don’t know about, like, there’s a quote at the beginning of the book from Charlotte Joko Beck, the American Zen, late American Zen teacher who says, ” What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.”

There’s another one from Mel Weitsman, I think, which is “Our suffering is believing there’s a way out.” And then just finally, while I’m spinning these, this quote that I’ve repeated all the time– I’m sorry, I’m gonna do it again because it means so much to me– from Jiyu-Kennett who was a British born Zen master. Peggy Kennett was her original name many decades ago now, who said that her teaching style, she was a by all accounts apparently very problematic, difficult character, but she had this great line that her teaching style was “Not to lighten the burden of the student, but to make it so heavy that he or she will put it down.”

I’m not as Zen master, but this is so exactly what I hope I can do a little bit of in this book and what I’ve benefited from in my own life. It’s like you can see that certain things you’re trying to do are so structurally, logically, inherently, intrinsically. I still don’t quite have the right word. So impossible that you don’t have to tie your self-worth to trying to

Jessica Abel: You do not let us squirm out of it. You do not.

Oliver Burkeman: It’s like trying to tie yourself worth to not being able to make two plus two add up to five or to jump three miles in the air or something like that. Like you can’t do these things. So that’s great. And then you get to pour all of your attention and your energy into some really important things that you can do. So it’s not a counsel of despair, right? It’s precisely a counsel of getting around to the things that count now, cuz you’re not engaged in this other futile thing.

Jessica Abel: Absolutely. Yeah. No, but it also requires some courage to face it, right? It requires some courage to kind of take that on and go like, okay, I see the truth of that. And moving forward.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. No, absolutely. Well, yeah, the question of where you go, how you go from insight to living into these things I think is really fascinating. I dunno if that’s where you’re going, but

Jessica Abel: This is the time management book to end all time management books. Right? You can’t, you can’t manage time and you, you’ve pointed out the fatal flaws in any comprehensive approach to trying to. It’s count– it’s actually counterproductive to try to manage time, right? So anything from here is basically a step backward. Anything that people would do to try to manage time is sort of going backwards. So you’re a guy who made your entire career writing about time management. Where do you go from here?

Now that you’ve debunked time management, where do you go from here?

Oliver Burkeman: That’s really interesting. Anything someone tries to do is a step backwards.

Jessica Abel: In terms of time management, in terms of like productivity, time management. I mean, what could you do now?

Oliver Burkeman: I mean, the thing that I am thinking about all the time at the moment and talking about, and maybe thinking about doing little bits of writing about, is this question of… it’s not quite the question you’re asking, but I think you’ll link up to it. What do you do with this kind of insight, or any kind of insight, I guess, into sort of how things are?

One kind of feedback I’ve occasionally had to the book is someone saying, “I totally agree with you. I totally, it totally shifted my way I think about these things. But like, now what? I’m worried that in three weeks time I’m just gonna be back to my old ways,” which is certainly sort of omnipresent thing in, in my life too.

And so sort of that question of how you get from knowing to doing, or sort of living your way into these different ways of being. And to come to your question, whether you, whether you fail at that every single time you try to do something, sort of executive functiony about your time and productivity.

I’m not sure that… I don’t think it’s true that anything you do to manage your time inherently sort of violates the spirit of what we’re talking about here. I think it depends why you are doing that thing.

So, an example that I’ve given before is, you know, I, the Pomodoro technique was one of the things that I grabbed onto as part of my sort of unhealthy attempt to achieve some kind of existential salvation through becoming super productive. It was unhelpful. It was as frustrating as all the other ones. It didn’t get me where I wanted it to get me. But having been through some of this, at least some process of transformation with regard to how I think about these things and giving up this, or somewhat loosening my grip on, let’s say this notion that there’s gonna be a moment when I’ve sort of mastered my time and I can do everything and don’t have to make tough choices and all the rest of it.

The Pomodoro technique is a perfectly good way of giving some shape and structure to the day. There’s nothing wrong with it at all. And actually the reason I use that example is if you go to the little book that the guy who invented it wrote about it, I think he’s on my wavelength and my wavelength now actually, you know, talking about how time can be an ally instead of an adversary and all the rest of it.

It’s all– the problem was the spirit that I came to that technique with. And I think that a time management technique can be approached in that spirit of like, this is gonna save me. Or it can just be approached as in like, okay, this transcendence of all human limitation that I was going for is impossible. But there are better and worse ways to give sort of shape and structure to the day, and to sort of constantly exert a gentle pressure on yourself to go back into this kind of limit embracing attitude instead of the kind of method that encourages you to go back into your old ways of trying to sort of master everything.

So I’m incredibly interested at the moment in kind of the role of sort of rules, not as things that you sort of aggressively try to make yourself follow, but the idea of kind of a, like a rule for living, maybe in the spirit of like the rule of Benedict, people who know about the history of monasteries will know about this.

Just sort of… practices, I suppose. I suppose the word is practice, right? Ways of sort of doing things that, and of, of living your life that are not predicated on this idea that they are the killer solutions that are going to save you from the human condition, but that are better rather than worse ways of structuring the rhythms of your life.

And obviously a lot of those, the best are communal social rhythms. And that’s something that, I think traditional religion has tended to get right, to create these frameworks where we sort of end up living in a certain way rather than another way. Just because that’s, that’s where all the environmental cues push us.

So I think it requires something different and probably time management is not a good phrase for it, but I don’t think it means that suddenly you just have to try to sort of be here now all the time in a way that, I don’t, I Which you

Jessica Abel: also point out is impossible

Oliver Burkeman: Right. Yes, exactly. So anyway, that was, that was a sort of long introspective stream of consciousness thing that may not be particularly useful to other people. But that’s where my head is at at the moment. Cause I do think that how you live your way into these things instead of just like having an intellectual insight and then moving on is, is really important to me. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Cause I mean, leading a community like the Autonomous Creative Collective, we do a lot of these kinds of… we do pomodoros together, like in co-working sessions we frequently use Pomodoros as a way of just kind of making a container for chunks of whatever it is you’re doing. You’re just gonna be in that moment and you’re in a virtual room with other people.

And we also talk about the idea of a flexible container. That’s what I, I talk about a lot in terms of the way that I teach my courses and run coaching is like, there are guidelines for how, there’s sort of… I don’t know, best practices for going through this stuff. Or there’s a way that you can go through it and you can go through it a certain pace, a certain way, but things will happen and maybe you need to be paying attention to something else.

You can come back. You know, the idea of setting deadlines for yourself just seems, has always, it didn’t initially seem this way. Cause again, like learning from the way people learn and from their reactions to the way I presented material, coming from that productivity geek point of view initially, it’s really changed my understanding.

Things like that article Pay Yourself First, and a bunch of other things like that, have all come out of working with people and seeing, well, that didn’t work. You know, like, that’s not gonna happen and reacting to that. So this idea of a flexible container, something that’s come out through working with people that, people want to be, they want acc- quote unquote accountability.

They want to somebody to make sure they’re doing the thing they wanna be doing, which doesn’t really work. They have to do it for themselves. But putting some kind of border around that and saying like, here’s our collective expectation and we’re all doing it, and let’s do this helps to move things along. I think that’s kind of what you’re talking about, but on an individual basis in your own

Oliver Burkeman: Well, I think that word container is everything. Yeah, absolutely. And other words that come up when you talk about these things to people are like, frameworks, guide, guide, handrails, you know

Jessica Abel: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. We talk a lot

Oliver Burkeman: This notion, right? Right. It’s not, it’s this notion, not that we need or could possibly manage to successfully kind of enforce on ourselves rigid boxes, where you sort of, this kind of mind first approach, where you decide what the day’s going to be and then you just make it happen. This is a recipe for disaster, but there is a role for conscious thinking about how we’re spending our time. Absolutely.

Jessica Abel: I certainly hope so.

Oliver Burkeman: And, Right.

Jessica Abel: I do a lot of it, you know.

Oliver Burkeman: And structure and giving structure to it. I think that’s the, that’s what we’re talking about here. And structure doesn’t need to be rigid, but it does need to sort of rule some things in and some things out.

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Okay. Back to the show.

New Strategic Thinking

Jessica Abel: mean, I was really thinking about the implications for strategy, essentially. Strategy is, by definition, it’s a coming up with a plan for what’s gonna happen in the future. And we, as you point out very rightly, we can’t know what’s gonna happen in the future. We cannot fully predict or control that in any way.

But strategy is about trying to predict and control that to some extent, to the extent that you can. And that’s something that like is, you know, when I do my strengths finder, like I’m way up there in strategy. Like it’s a thing that I, that’s a way that I think. And it feeds into my own. . It feeds into my own instrument, instrumentalization of my own life, where I’m always thinking about.

I love that quote you had from Keynes where, he was talking about how the person who sort of lives this instrumentalized life is not thinking about, he’s not enjoying his cat. He’s thinking about his cat’s kittens, and not even his cat’s kittens, but his cat’s kitten’s kittens.

Kittens. And like, everything’s about three steps down the line. And I just was wondering, you know, and I think this, you kind of answered this, but just wanted to throw this out there, this idea of like strategic thinking. You know, is there a way that we need to reshape. How we approach that in order to sort of bring in this awareness of lack of controllability, of those feature steps and, and not get too, not get too stuck on down the line, but living in this, the phase you’re in now, even if you have a strategic plan that’s like six phases long, you know, be here now, you know, do this, like do this thing and, and, and do the best you can with it.

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I mean, I think it goes to that point and I quote the, uh, quote Joseph Goldstein, the meditation teacher, saying that, you know, what we forget is that a plan is just a thought, right? It goes to, that can sound dismissive, like planning is pointless. But I think what I take from that is that, uh, plans are planning is a present moment, activity, like all the others.

And the most detailed strategy in the world is, is a statement of intention. Um, issued, formulated now, uh, and that where we go wrong is not in, is not that there’s something wrong with having those formulations and using them to guide our actions and using them to measure. Uh, results against, but in thinking that we are somehow putting a straight jacket around the future from the position of the past and, and that it’s going to cause things to go the the way that they need to.

So I think, at least in principle, and I, I will say in principle, cause I still grapple with this quite a bit, it ought to be possible to have like the, the complexity and detail or ambition of a plan or a strategy ought to be independent of your emotional investment in it. It ought to be possible to have a really detailed plan, let’s just say for a day, right?

You ought to be able to time box every 15 minutes and at the same time be completely willing to just change that on a dime when circumstances mean that it’s more sensible to do it something in a different way. In practice, those two things are very closely linked, at least for me. And if I, and when I try to sort of come up with an incredibly detailed schedule for the day reality.

Banging up against that and colliding with that in, in ways that, uh, I was not predicted, was not predicting is sort of painful in a way. So one of the things that I have had a lot of success with, I wrote about in my newsletter a while ago is this idea of, um, I mean it’s only, it’s only a sort of compromise solution in a way, but this idea of sort of, um, daily or weekly or monthly, um, uh, uh, sort of intentions, things that you’re going to, things that you’re gonna do in the course of a day that are far, far are gonna take far less time than you can confidently predict you’re gonna have in the day.

So it’s a sort of, it’s sort of, um, not aiming to make comprehensive plans about time, but just saying, you know, I’m gonna spend two hours at least on, on the current major project, and I’m going to like, Attempt to knock off three smaller tasks from the list or something. Things that, things where every day I can sort of go into the day not feeling that everything has to go just right in order for me to make the plan work, but that they’re sort of minimal in a way.

They’re kind of, um, they’re the sort of things that I’m going to do. Maybe this is just some other version of that sort of three most important tasks approach to, to,

Jessica Abel: Yeah, pretty much. I mean, but in a, in a way that’s helpful to, to differentiate it from what you would be doing otherwise.

Oliver Burkeman: Right. And to right, and to not think about the day as like, I’ve got to get through all this, but also not to think of it as, as long as I do those three things and that’s my whole life. Right. But to, I, I, there’s a point at which I find you can bring down the sort of aggressiveness of the planning to a point where it, it stops you, you stop falling.

That perception that that defines your life. And then anything that gets in the way is an interruption. And anything that is not on the plan is a distraction. It’s just, it becomes like a navigational tool. Um, by that doesn’t sort of, it’s not as so susceptible to this kind of overreach because I don’t want to have a way of planning my day such that, um, you know, many of the things that end up interrupting me are, are count as bad because they’re often wonderful and they’re often better ways to spend that part of the day than what I had, uh, than what I had had thought i, I would do.

So it’s this kind of giving up of controls. This is the language I used to try to get it at least for myself, right? You’re sort of giving up a certain kind of control in order to exercise a certain kind of agency, um, or influence over things. It’s kind of, it, it’s kind of taking seriously the, the power that I have to, uh, Influence the direction of the day or the, or the week or the month without, without thinking that, um, my self worth depends on sort of achieving dictatorial control over it or something like that.

Jessica Abel: Yes. I love that. Um, do you have a few minutes to stay and answer a few questions

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I do. Absolutely.

Question 1: gut feeling

Jessica Abel: there’s some great questions. Yeah. Um, so. This is a great one from Rauni who says, uh, who asks, have you developed a stronger relationship? This relates directly to what you were just talking about. Have you actually developed a stronger relationship with your gut feelings or instinct instincts through this inquiry? I imagine, you know, starting out with a lot of the, sort of holding off you trying to control things with productivity and then coming to this place where you’re trying to react, there is, there’s something different there and she’s asking, um, I find there are usually examples to illustrate the importance of diametrically opposed approaches.

And there’s something to learn from opposite views at different times. Um, and so she gives the example of the Helsinki bus station theory, um, versus flip it up, play and start afresh.

Oliver Burkeman: Yes.

Jessica Abel: on the bus, stay on the bus, keep doing the thing versus try stuff. Experiment.

Oliver Burkeman: Right. And the thing that brings to my mind in that, exactly that context, it’s a great question, is, is, um, you know, a lot of what I’m talking about in the book has this spirit of like learning to tolerate discomfort and not, um, not, not running away from a project you’re focusing on just because it starts to feel a bit kind of, um, there’s some friction there that you’d rather strap yourself or being willing to tolerate.

We were talking before, right, than tolerate the anxiety of not doing things while you focus on this thing. And that is true, but I think that, and in a way that’s kind of against instinct, right? That that’s requiring you to sort of resist, uh, your instincts, not your intuitions. I guess that’s different, but.

But at the same time, I’ve benefited tremendously from getting a little bit better at, at sort of following the question, like, what, what would be fun? What would be pleasurable as a, as a way to navigate through, uh, through work. Because definitely I come from a, my sort of biography is of someone sort of being rather self punishing in all of this stuff.

And that’s, I think, very common among people who really fixate on productivity. Um, now there’s a kind of discomfort that you need to tolerate, which is the discomfort of realizing that you can’t be everything to all people and do all the things you want to do. But there’s another kind of discomfort which is like, I’m just gonna do this because I’ve decided it’s my duty that actually maybe is worth letting go of and pursuing something.

And actually, like, you know, in your heart of hearts, whether you are the kind of person for whom it’s a radical question to ask. What would be fun to do today, and it has been for me, a radical question. If you are the kind of person for whom it’s like what you do every day anyway, then you probably need more of the, the other, um, uh, Susan Piper, the Buddhist teacher, who I, who must be a mutual friend.

I don’t know if you know, uh, if you’ve come across her and her work,

I’m, I’d be surprised if somebody in this room must know anyway, wrote a blog post that made a huge impact on me, uh, years ago with the headline. Um, getting things done by not being mean to yourself. Um, we actually sort of, uh, singing the, the, the productivity virtues even of this, right?

Even if all you do care about is getting lot of stuff done, there is a case for being, uh, you know, going with your intuitions, uh, here. And she picked out that quote from Chuck Close that everyone loves or used to love. Chuck Close’s, reputation has altered, but, um, which was, um, which was, you know, uh, uh, inspiration as parameters professionals.

Just show up and get to work and how there’s kind of something wonderful about that. And there’s something really awful about it too, which is like, I’m not going to follow where my juices and energies are, are, are, are flowing creatively. I’m

Jessica Abel: unless it’s just you show up to work to your container.

Oliver Burkeman: Right. And that’s why I think a container is such a great metaphor and a great idea because you get to sort of, you’re getting the best of both worlds there and you are, you’re not the sort of, the, the structure of the container is not, um, colonizing the contents of

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah, very much so. Yeah. I have an article, uh, that I, uh, refer to a lot, refer people to a lot, which is called, um, treat Yourself like a Dog, which is the same basic idea. Yeah. Um, so this is related though to this idea of, uh, uncomfortable.

Question 2: from the intellectual to the physical

Jessica Abel: So Car Caroline asked, um, on the theme of what next, how to take this wisdom forward is part of the challenge moving on from the intellectual understanding or acceptance to a more bodily based attention or practice, like learning to notice and tolerate in patients or anxiety.

You were just talking about that kind of physical sense and you know, your instincts. So does that, has that changed for you where it’s not, it’s not all in your head anymore?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, it has, it’s definitely like my point of like, where there’s room for lots more growth in me. I don’t, I, um, I’m definitely a thinking type in the y uh, quadrant or whatever. Um, and sort of being a brain on a stick is definitely my risk as opposed to other people who have, um, you know, other kinds of, kinds of, uh, go in the other, other directions.

But yeah, no, I think it really, I’m, I’m constantly struck by how much of this is about, um, the rubber hits the road. Is, is, is, is where, is where it’s about feeling. Physical sensations, you know, tensions in the stomach that you then can get curious about instead of trying to stamp out through another intellectual strategy.

Um, and, and always how little minor discomfort is it takes to sort of at least threaten to throw you completely off what you were hoping or planning to do. Right? How, how I lived evidently without realizing it, years of my life, like having all these great plans and then the moment that it sort of caused some kind of very minor bodily discomfort somehow that I didn’t want to be sitting in the chair doing that thing.

You know, I’d call off the day and it would be like hours wasted doing something else instead. And, um, you know, the answer is not to sort of, uh, um, Sort of aggressively push through those kinds of feelings, but just to sort of see them a bit more for what they are. I think that’s why I’m, I don’t go around preaching the virtues of meditation, cuz I’m not consistent.

I don’t feel consistent enough in doing it. But, uh, but I, I know that that is a lot of what sort of body scanning, kinds of meditation, uh, uh, help with. Um, and, uh, yeah, I mean, I’m constantly struck by that dimension of things. The thing I do around here, um, that has the, one of the biggest impacts on my mood is go and swimming just offensively cold streams and ponds that, uh, are up here.

Uh, cold swimming is, uh, I mean, it’s a bit of getting to be a bit of a cliche now. There’s like a feature in The Guardian every two weeks about how cold

Jessica Abel: Yeah, I, I, I actually know a few people who

are here in the crowd who are

Oliver Burkeman: but it, but it works. I can, I can speak to it. Yeah, absolutely.

Questions 3 (for Jessica): rethinking time tracking

Jessica Abel: alright, I got two more quick ones, relatively quick ones, ones for me actually. Um, which I’m gonna answer cause it’s, I’ve thinking about this, which is Taran asked in light of Oliver’s insights about the futility of productivity techniques. Do you think you’ll still start the creative focus workshop with time tracking exercise, which is what we do with, the first thing we do is time tracking exercise.

And I’ve been thinking about this actually ever since I started reading this book. Um, and the, the short answer is yes, but the longer answer is that my approach to the time tracking exercise has changed a lot over time. Um, over the years that I’ve been doing this, and initially I think it was very much more like, you know, time, block your time and make sure you’re doing what you’re trying to do and all that kind of stuff.

But the way it is now, and I think I need to revise the way it’s written a little bit to reflect this more fully, but it’s in there, is, it’s an awareness exercise where you, you track your time. What I, what I have people do is there’s two columns and the first column is a plan where they write out what they think is gonna happen in the day.

And then the second column is, is tracking and seeing what do they actually do during the day. And I also ask people to set their top three things for the next day before the day before. Like at least the day before, decide what the top three things are. So there’s this kind of reflective time, um, quote unquote pre-deciding, not just deciding, but you know, deciding beforehand, um, that you’re gonna do certain kinds of things.

You’re gonna try to get those in and then you see what happens. And it’s that. Awareness of what you’re actually doing. That is the point of the exercise more than trying to match these things up. And people all, you know, scream about it and, oh, I hate time tracking and oh, I don’t wanna put, you know, I hate putting half hour blocks in and trying to plan the whole day.

And very, like, I’ve tried very much to release that. You, you don’t have to do that. Like, that’s not the important part so much as it is just paying attention, you know, do two weeks of paying attention to what you do every day. And so, yes, I will still do it. Taran, you still have to do it. Sorry, that’s lesson than one.

But that’s why, that’s the reason why is to get that awareness in. Um, any thoughts on that? Doing a time tracking kind of exercise or something more, you know, traditional as a, as a tool.

Oliver Burkeman: No, I’m just struck, but it just makes me realize how, I mean, I’m not, your exercise sounds a little bit different, but, but, um, the basic idea of, um, you know, There’s a sort of very, a lot of sort of more conventional time management books and systems begin with this. Sort of like, before you do anything else, just make a record of how you are using your time.

Now, that’s not what you’re talking about because it, it has this notion that like, I forget the name of, uh, the, the effect that we’re talking about here. It’s escape me. But obviously if you start monitoring your time, you start using it in a different way. So it’s not a, it’s not an necessarily an objective measure of how you were using your time.

I have never been able to make those things work. Now, I might be able to, in a, in a collective group context that is different. It might be very, very useful. But like, um, I, I’ve, I’m just interested by that cuz I just makes me realize that I’ve don’t think I’ve ever successfully, uh, created a sort of a, a record of my, of my days in that way.

I think there’s probably something to be said for at least for some people in, for something a little bit that does the same thing, but does it in a slightly more, um, Uh, what’s the word? Um, uh, I was gonna say illustrative, but that’s wrong. Just a sort of a less precise way. I’m, I’m always, um, I always like that bit of, uh, one thing that when Cal Newport talks about, uh, planning and weekly planning, uh, as I say, I’m not, I find it difficult to do the sort of really precise time boxing that, that, uh, that he talks and writes about.

But that idea where you just give a sort of, you make a weekly plan that’s just like a paragraph that you’re writing where you’re just sort of giving a, a sort of indicative, maybe that’s the word I’m looking for. I think there’s something to be said for both in planning and maybe in recording how you use your time.

Like that would be interesting. What if, what if you set your iPhone three or four times a day to get you to just like write a couple of sentences about how you’d use the last couple of hours? I think that would be very helpful. For me and maybe more helpful than something that involved filling in boxes on a, on a grid, but, uh, I don’t know.

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Yeah. No, I think there’s lots of different ways to implement it for sure. And. I mean, I time track in all kinds of ways for different reasons at various times. But, um, that kind of time tracking I think is really, it’s helpful when you just are like, what the hell happened to my day? Like, where, where did it go?

Like, what’s going on? And, um, yeah.

Question 4: neuro divergency and productivity hacks

Jessica Abel: Um, alright. One last question is from Liz, which is, I’m seeing a lot of interest in chat and neuro divergent circles about productivity hacks as coping mechanisms for ADHD and the like. Can you comment on that versus the optimizers?

Oliver Burkeman: Um, I’m trying to think that through because I’m not, I’m certainly no expert and the only, the only sort of conversations that and, and exchanges that I’ve had, People who talk about this stuff in the context of ADHD has been the, I mean, it’s slightly self-selecting, but these are people who are responding to things that I’ve written in the book about, about, um, letting go of certain kinds of, of productivity technique.

So, I dunno, I guess I, I, I dunno if this format allows for asking for, um, uh, sort of elaboration of the, of the question, but, uh, but if it does get typing, then I’ll, uh,

Jessica Abel: Yeah. Liz, if you’re still

Oliver Burkeman: something there. Yeah. Um, just, just that, I mean, I, I, the thing that springs my mind is really repeating something that I said just before, which is that I don’t think these are kind of, again, I think it is the spirit that you use, um, any productivity technique in that really matters if you’re doing it to try to become superhuman because you feel that on some level you need to be superhuman.

Otherwise you are not okay, or you’re not enough. That’s a problem. Nothing to be ashamed of, but something to work on if you’re using them as a way to bring a certain amount of order and clarity to your day. That seems eminently great. And don’t take anything, I’m saying as, uh, as the idea that you should abandon those kind of tried and tested systems and if, and if that is what we’re talking about here, if that’s a sort of, if it’s helpful, if it’s helpful in the context of ADHD or something to use that kind of technique to bring some sort of order and clarity, then that’s an example of using a productivity technique in the right spirit, I’d have thought.

Uh, rather

Jessica Abel: Yeah, she says she, it’s, she added

Oliver Burkeman: to your salvation or something. Yeah.

Jessica Abel: exactly. Some people feel it’s very helpful to make lists and time boxing, et cetera, so, so as to present themselves from getting distracted and wandering off. So people with ADHD trouble focusing. So if you create more. Firm containers perhaps that will help you stay on task for longer.

Um, but I do see people, there are a lot of, you know, people who are neuro diversion, who I’ve worked with. And I do see in those cases too what exactly what you’re saying, that it’s the spirit in which you’re doing that. Because if you do that with a sense of like, and if I don’t do that, I’m broken and something’s wrong, then that’s gonna be, um, a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop.

Whereas if you do it in a, like, well, you know, let’s try this. Let’s see if this helps me stay on, on, on task a little longer and do what I want. I actually wanna be doing, oh, well, you know, I went off task. Okay, , you know, you

Oliver Burkeman: Well, I mean, I think a good, one question that occurs to me to ask in these contexts is like, you know, if you are a good question, that would’ve really put me on the spot if I’d known to ask it earlier on in my life, would’ve been, is a given time management technique or productivity technique that you’re using.

Um, Deep down, do you know that it’s helping you now or is it part of some project where you are convinced that it’s about to become, uh, it’s, it’s getting you to a place you’re almost at where you are then gonna be Okay. Right. I mean, and that, that sort of, I spent years pursuing product productivity techniques that weren’t making my day, uh, better in, by any definition of that, of that word, but except that they were perpetuating this fantasy that in a couple of months or something, I’d, I’d get it all sorted out and I’d be on top of it all.

Um, and that was, should have been a warning sign. I think. On the other hand, if there’s a technique you use, and I have some and have talked about a couple that just very clearly right now in the context of your actual life brings order and rhythm and accomplishment to it, then like, goodness me, please don’t let me, uh, please don’t let this conversation tonight cause you to give that up.

That would be a, that would be a very bad, uh, outcome.

Jessica Abel: That is a perfect place to stop this. You just again, described my life and I feel very called out, but we are ready to, you know, I can accept that. Um, thank

Oliver Burkeman: And I’m calling myself out as well. Right. It’s

just, it’s all of

Jessica Abel: I know, I know. I’m

Oliver Burkeman: we can just struggle together. We can stumble together towards a slightly better, uh,

way of

Jessica Abel: All of us here together can try to do the things that work for us right now and not try to do the things that we think might eventually work for us at some undefined point in the future. Let’s all just agree to that. Let’s all agree to that together. All right. Um, well, thank you for being here today.

Um, can you share some, where should people find out about you? Where can they, um, follow your newsletter? Uh,

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, this stuff is all at Oliver Burkeman B u r k e m a n.com. Uh, the signup, uh, for the newsletter to more information about the book, which is also available wherever you, uh, get books. So yeah, those two places ready.

Jessica Abel: Awesome, It’s, it’s been, uh, it’s just an amazing pleasure to talk with you. I hope we get to do it again.

Oliver Burkeman: Me too. And thank you everyone for being here tonight. I’ve really enjoyed it.

Outro

Jessica Abel: Thank you so much for joining us today for the Autonomous Creative.

Our show is produced by Matt Madden, our production coordinator is Lousine Boyakhandjyan, and our production assistant is Rhiannon Sunday. Music is by Matt Madden, and I’m your host, Jessica Abel.

You can find all our takeaways as well as any links and extras we mentioned today plus transcripts, in the show notes. Find everything you need at acpod.show.

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