Several years ago, the journalist and author Oliver Burkeman asked some of his friends to guess, off the top of their head, how many weeks make up a typical human lifetime. One threw out an estimate in the six figures, but as Burkeman notes in his new book, “a fairly modest six-figure number of weeks—310,000—is the approximate duration of all human civilization since the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
Someone who lives to age 80 gets far fewer—close to the number in the title of Burkeman’s book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” he writes. Given this limitation, it makes sense that the typical approach to time management is to seek ways to cram ever more into our finite number of days.
But Burkeman argues that this is the wrong way to manage time. Rather than looking outward to productivity strategies and hacks, Four Thousand Weeks encourages an inner shift in perspective. It confronts a series of comforting illusions that many of us hold onto instead of internalizing colder truths: that we will die not having done a tremendous number of things we care about; that every commitment we make to a person, place, or line of work rules out countless others that may fulfill us; that our lives are already ticking away. I recently spoke with Burkeman about how a philosophy of time management that accepts these daunting realities can help us do the things we care about most. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: Time management often gets framed as a matter of boosting your productivity with something like a new morning routine. Even when these strategies work, why do they usually fail to reduce our stress?
Oliver Burkeman: They work in the sense that you’ll process more incoming inputs, but we’re living in a world with effectively infinite inputs—emails you could receive, demands that could be made of you, or ambitions that you could have. Getting better at moving through them is not going to get you to the end of them, so the promise of reaching a point at which you feel on top of everything is flawed on a math basis from the beginning.
And the more efficient you get, the more inputs you attract. If you get really good at processing email, you’ll get more email because you get a reputation for being responsive on email. The same idea applies elsewhere: If your reputation in the office is that you’re good at getting through work fast, you’re given more things to do.
Pinsker: If we accept that there is always going to be too much to do, then what?
Burkeman: I think it’s about acknowledging that we are finite, limited creatures living in a world of constraints and stubborn reality. Once you’re no longer kidding yourself that one day you’re going to become capable of doing everything that’s thrown at you, you get to make better decisions about which things you are going to focus on and which you’re going to neglect. Because if you’re not facing that truth, every time you have a new idea for some project you’d like to start, you’re going to err on the side of adding it to the list, because you’re not [realizing] I’m going to have to be neglecting something else in order to do this.
What we’re encouraged to believe by productivity culture is that you don’t have to make those trade-offs. But that’s out of tune with how things really are.
Pinsker: If time management isn’t for doing more things, what is it for?
Burkeman: First, a little caveat. I don’t think that getting more efficient at things is wrong—if you can clean your kitchen or pay your bills more quickly, then great. But you can have efficiency in the absence of a deeper understanding of what it’s all for, which, ultimately, is to spend more of your limited time on things that matter deeply to you and less on things that don’t. A life spent chasing the mythical state of being able to do everything is less meaningful than a life of focusing on a few things that count.
Pinsker: And yet people frequently postpone their time-intensive passion projects, like, say, working on a novel, because they have this sense that they’ll get around to them eventually. Psychologically, what gets in the way of us doing big things that we care about?
Burkeman: We all feel overwhelmed by lots of little stuff we feel we have to do, and we have these big things that we’d like to do. But to do them, it feels like you need long stretches of focus when all the other little stuff is out of the way—it feels like it would be selling the project short to try beginning to write your novel in 20 minutes on a subway commute, for example. So instead, you decide to go through your email and deal with other outstanding things—but for the reasons we’ve discussed, the time never comes when you clear all that [out of the way].
The only way to get around to the important things is: Instead of trying to eradicate all the other stuff, [make progress] on the important stuff first. You just have to let the other chips fall where they will.
Pinsker: In the book, you walk through the familiar idea that social media is designed to distract us, which is a real concern. But you also make the argument that some part of us wants to get distracted once we actually sit down to do things we care about.
Burkeman: I certainly think that Silicon Valley has a lot to answer for when it comes to its role in pulling us away from what we want to focus on, but at the same time, we do sort of cooperate. If I’m working on a difficult article, it’s not like I’m really happy doing it but Twitter comes and takes me away from it. Instead, I run away to Twitter because the article is challenging me and causing me to experience uncomfortable emotions, and Twitter promises the opposite.
So I think the reason that we seek distraction is that working on stuff that we care about is often scary. It brings us into contact with all the ways in which we’re limited—our talents might not be up to what we’re trying to do, and we can’t control how things will unfold. If you’re writing a difficult article, you don’t get to know in advance that it’s going to come out well, which can make you feel constrained and imprisoned by reality. Meanwhile, the internet feels limitless, like you’re an all-powerful consciousness surfing the unlimited waves of the web and social media. It’s very relieving.
Pinsker: You write about how you used to be in the mindset of trying to get through everything, whether it was pursuing “inbox zero” or trying out different productivity systems. Now that you’ve written this book, have you renounced all that?
Burkeman: Oh, no, not at all. I don’t think I ever will.
First, I think these are ongoing, back-and-forth struggles—I’m always confronting those deep-seated urges to try to feel totally in control and be perfectly optimized. And second, even if I embrace the idea that my time is limited, it doesn’t necessarily mean that these techniques are worthless. Recently, I started experimenting again with the Pomodoro Technique. If you come at an idea like that—dividing your work into 25-minute periods—thinking that you can get on top of everything, that’s part of the problem. But now I actually find there’s something usefully productive about the Pomodoro Technique, because it makes me a bit more conscious about what I might try to fill each period with.
And I’m perpetually fighting an email backlog, but I’m more at peace about the inevitability of that than I once was. I try to allot a certain amount of time to going through email, and then at the end of that time, I say, Okay, I labored for an appropriate amount and then move on, instead of holding on to the thought that I might finally get to inbox zero.