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Oliver Burkeman is the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2021), a book about human productivity, decision making, and the nature of time. His work as a journalist takes a firsthand approach to a variety of psychological, philosophical, and self-help strategies for modern living. In a conversation with NJ Smith, Burkeman discusses how Four Thousand Weeks explores humanity’s engagement with time as a historical and personal phenomenon. Time, he argues, is abstract, yet foundational, material, and all-encompassing.
NJ Smith [NS]: This book is a little sly. It presents itself as about productivity and “time management for mortals,” yet it’s really a discussion about the human condition. Reviewers have said you are guiding us to a healthier relationship with time and productivity. And while that makes sense, what you point out is that time isn’t really something we can have a relationship with—it’s not something that’s separate from us. It’s fundamental to our experience, and happening within us.
Oliver Burkeman [OB]: As a writer, you’re always trying to make something timeless, do something universal, but through a particular lens. And definitely, “productivity geeks” was my lens. The way to flatter myself is to say that this argument is a helix, or something. First of all, I’m questioning how we use our time, and then I’m questioning whether we even use time at all, and then I’m questioning whether we even have time, so that we could use it. The less flattering way would be to say time is just a contradiction. I think that both ideas have a role: could we use time differently and does it really make sense to think of using time at all?
I find that, in my life, they’re both useful lenses for thinking about time.
NS: On that note, since some of these philosophical ideas present themselves in everyday life, can we pause to acknowledge our conditions and contexts? One of the interesting things about this book is that it reached the public amid a new lockdown lifestyle, when we were self-isolating, dealing with new kinds of boredom, and when many people were reevaluating their life choices.
Can you speak to this book’s relation to lockdowns and the pandemic?
OB: So first, that was total chance. I didn’t write in response to the pandemic because I was working on the book before it started. Then I finished it in lockdown. But the book has coincided with a moment when a lot of people are in the market for a reevaluation of how they’re spending their time, and obviously, in the midst of COVID, there has been a heightened awareness of the fragility and shortness of life. There was this sense of, “Well, if I’m going to do something that matters to me with my life, maybe now is the time.” Maybe you can’t depend on the future in the way that you thought.
Then, there were certain kinds of enforced changes to experience, weren’t there? Like, if you were working in an office in January 2020, and then two months later, you were just inside your house. There were things you couldn’t do anymore, and you realize that you miss doing them: for example, spending time with your friends. But there were also things like commuting, that many people found they were happy to not have to do anymore. Suddenly all you could do was, I don’t know, grow some plants in your backyard or make bread. There was a two-week period, where people were all making bread and there was a huge shortage of yeast.
I think there’s a bad emphasis in a lot of conventional self-help books about how everything’s your responsibility, or how social and political disparities of power and inequality just don’t count. Or that you can just “think” your way out of them. That’s really wrong, and I often argue against that. But at the same time, I think it’s simultaneously true that people tend to underestimate the agency that they do have in any given situation. There’s a tendency to say, “Well, it’s just got to be the way it is, and I can’t do anything about it.”
I think one of the things that lockdown brought was a realization that we actually can all just decide. Like, every knowledge worker, I suppose, in America, can decide to stay home tomorrow, if that’s what they decide. If that is possible, what isn’t possible?
NS: It seems like our attempts to get out of our problems often compound our problems. I appreciate the attention in your work to certain seemingly paradoxical strategies and the way that things backfire on us. I enjoyed your restatement in this book, of the phrase “be here now” as “you are here.” It shifts from being a command into an acknowledgement of something factual.
Why do you think such realizations so often seem counterintuitive?
OB: One of the ways of thinking I always seem to come back to is that you have to give up the quest for a certain kind of control in order to step into a certain kind of agency. In the case of this book, it’s something like: the more that you can let go of the quest to be the total master of your time and dictate how time goes, the more you can step into the actual influence and the agency that you do have. That agency is the ability to craft a meaningful life.
So, the obvious example of that is this: if you stop trying to get absolutely everything done, because that’s just intrinsically impossible, then that’s precisely when you have the focus, the time and the ability to not just let that go, but also spend tomorrow morning working on something that really matters. So that’s one way of talking about this: not doing everything is the precondition for actually doing things. It’s not a great accomplishment to spend your life frenetically trying to do everything, because you definitely won’t be able to do everything.
NS: It’s like a repositioning.
NS: Following that—as a writer, you’re pretty clear about often being in the same position as your audience and learning these lessons yourself. When the answers to some of these dilemmas involve simply reframing our perspectives, why does it seem so easy for us to backslide?
OB: There’s one kind of response that I get to this book: that the person really enjoyed reading it, and they went through that perspective shift that I’m exploring, but now they don’t know how to sort of implement it in a permanent way. I always want to reply like, “Yep, me too.” But something in the whole spirit of this is violated if you honestly think you’re going to be able to change perfectly and forever.
That’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about limited and flawed human beings finding ways to muddle through. And I just think it’s the force of inertia and the force of emotional avoidance. It’s all the different ways in which everyone is sort of mildly screwed up, or in some cases, more than mildly screwed up, by their upbringing. That’s just huge.
There’s something very radical about being willing to pursue a path of growth that isn’t based on radical transformation. It’s easy to think, “Okay, from tomorrow on, I’m going to be perfect.” And then by the end of the next day, it’s gone wrong. It’s properly challenging to think, “I’m going to do one thing differently from now, and in a few months, I’ll add one other thing to that list. And I’m going to have the patience that it takes.”
NS: An interesting thing in the book is your treatment of the history of how humans have engaged and worked with time, and how time has been commodified and turned into a resource. And then later, you discuss time becoming a kind of public “good.” What is the future of how we handle time?
OB: I do have the sense, on the level of experiencing daily work and busyness and distraction, that there is some threshold that’s being crossed. People are complaining about burnout, apparently about half the population, across generations. There is a sense that there are too many demands being made: that we can get busier and busier, and that we can try all sorts of productivity systems to stay on top of it all.
But at a certain point, it’s just obvious that this is ridiculous. And the old ways—where you installed an app to exclude social media for six hours of your day or something—those things are clearly not enough anymore. I think the signs that we are reaching a kind of a threshold can also partly be seen in politics. There are four-day workweek policies in various countries in Europe, and there is an anti-work movement. All these different things suggest that we can’t just continue as we were. But also, there are changes in people’s personal decisions, for example, expectations of response time on email have shifted. People are just saying, “You know what? It’s not realistic to do all this, so forget it.”
I situate this whole phenomenon within a wider cultural obsession with transcending limitations and not being bound by our condition. There are these confrontations with limitations going on all over the place: in the environment, and in the supply chain crisis. We think we can live in these worlds of endless virtual space, but ultimately, we’re dependent on trucks bringing things. There are bottlenecks of physicality that work against the virtual world.
And then you think, when you see people exploring ways to just leave the planet and go somewhere else, that it feels like an attempt to avoid the truth of the matter.
NS: Finally, I reread some of the last entries in your long-running column in the Guardian, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” Not surprisingly, I found some of the sentiments as you were closing that column to be mirrored in this new book. Did working on finitude and finality help you find closure, or help you reach the decision to bring such a long-running and widely read column to an end?
OB: Well, there are two ways that bringing the column to a close connect to these ideas for me—one is just this idea of cycles and seasons and wanting to respond honestly to the sense that the column was coming towards the end of its natural life. Columns end all the time, and obviously many times, it’s not up to the writer. But the sense that you’ve got to keep doing something forever, and going on to greater and greater heights, or otherwise everything that’s gone before is somehow deemed a failure—it makes no sense at all. I had the idea that it was right to do that column for a decade, and then it was also right to stop. That idea challenges some very sort of linear and absolutist part of my personality. And it’s good to challenge such things.
And then the other part of it, I guess, was that there were various things I wanted to do in terms of focusing on completion of the book: getting the book into the world, getting more involved in my newsletter, lots of things I wanted to do. And the natural desire in any one of those transition points is always to get the next thing fully lined up before you jump from the thing that you’re on, so that you get to feel secure the whole way through.
But it had become obvious to me, by that stage, that this was never going to happen. At times, you need to shut a door in order to have another door open. The desire to keep your options open is, again, a big part of wanting to feel in control of time. You do have to first make the decision to move in the new direction in order to actually move successfully in that direction. And if you’re always telling yourself you’ll make the leap as soon as all your ducks are in a row, then they never will be.
So that’s a way in which my own life echoed what I was writing about in the book.
Oliver Burkeman is a writer based in Yorkshire.
NJ Smith is an MA candidate in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism at The New School.