Taking Time: Hey Oliver, lovely to meet you. You’ve got a new book out called ‘Four Thousand Weeks - Time Management for Mortals’, which sounds right up our street! What’s the premise and what led you to writing it?
Oliver Burkeman: I admire people who write books in a way other than this, but it seems to me that all I can actually do when it comes to book writing is see the connecting theme and what I've been getting really obsessed by in my journalistic writing for the preceding few years, and then write a book. It’s basically a philosophy of life as of now, which sounds ridiculously pompous, but I always feel like it's the only thing I can do!
So this is the thing that seems most important to me, that connects all the writing that I've done, but also the other writers who I've been fascinated to read and people I've met. So that means that this book is about time, but I'm sure you've run into this while doing this site, because at a certain level, nothing isn't about time. So it becomes a little bit of an excuse for writing about a whole lot of hopefully interesting things.
I think the genuine coherent connecting thread is this idea that we're very finite, both with respect to the quantity of time that we get, and the degree to which we can exert control over it or, or know how it's going to unfold. A very large number of our pathologies and problems of time in daily life today, result, or are made a lot worse, by trying to pretend that this isn't the case and trying to make ourselves feel less finite than we are. So I make the case that distraction, and in particular a kind of modern business, are the reason that I'm getting really efficient and productive in your work doesn't actually lead to a more meaningful or even necessarily more productive life. The reason that a lot of the ways we think about our time, have the effect of sort of socially isolating us from each other. The common thread is that in each case, instead of trying to make the most of a small gift of time, we're trying to achieve a sense of limitlessness with respect to time and deny our mortality, which is not in any way an original idea, but you have to discover it for yourself in order to find that out.
So that's the big abstract idea, and then if I can bring anything to the party, I think it's in showing how these big abstract ideas relate in modern life, exploring them in the context of feeling like you have too much email and those very granular aspects of day to day life.
There's a risk of this being misinterpreted by people who understandably want to say, ‘Are you suggesting that all the problems that we experience with time in the modern world are in, in our heads?... And that if we faced reality, instead we'd be we'd have peace of mind?... And isn't it the case that ridiculous social and economic pressures and other cultural pressures are the real source of why people feel so overwhelmed?’ And I've got an answer to that. And it's yes, both are true.
TT: That's a really interesting point, because I touched upon that, in a conversation with Richard Fisher, who works with BBC Future in terms of the modern luxury for many of us to be able to think about the time that we have and how we use it, and to be able to afford that. The vast majority of people in the world, and maybe even in the countries that we live in, might actually not have the luxury of spending time thinking about time, they need to earn a living and put food on the table for their families. However, I think the sense of considering time is extremely valuable, because it's those sorts of ideas that filter through society in order for people to appreciate how they, how they can prioritise things and not feel like they're just being taken along down the flume of life for a ride that they might feel like they have no control over.
OB: I think that's really true, you're totally right. Of course, reflecting on this stuff is on some level, a luxury, I think the thing I really tried to bring out with one or two points in this book is that the problem is understood on an individual level as trying to do something and beating yourself up for failing to do that, which it is, in fact, not possible for a finite human to do.
So if I'm talking in a kind of middle class way, I could be talking about how there are all these countries you want to visit and all these ambitions you might have for your career, and there are more of them than you're capable of generating and investing in, more than you will be capable of doing. So this demands a confrontation with finitude and saying, ‘Okay, I'm going to get to a fraction of the things I care about, which one do I choose?’ And then someone can say, ‘Well, but what if the impossible situation is that you have to work three jobs to pay the rent, or decide whether to spend any time at all with your children, versus trying to generate an income?’ And so the response to that, I think, is that this is a much more acute experience of the finitude of time. But it's the same impossibility. If you're actually being asked to do things that are literally impossible, then they are literally impossible.
Whether the consequence is that you don't get to be as fulfilled as you thought you might, or whether it's that you're evicted, it's the same impossibility. So there's almost a sort of solidarity. I feel like there is potential for solidarity among people who are being asked to do absurd, impossible things just to stay afloat in late capitalism. Some people who get amazing well paid jobs and live in astonishing homes then find the same meritocratic treadmill kicking in over the horizon. As well as all the differences, there is some kind of affinity there.
TT: In a broader sense, I think what you're trying to allude to is that regardless of where you are in the class system or your political leanings, we're all yearning for something and the perception is that an abundance of time will afford you that something.
The construct of time might actually be significantly hindering our sense of how we make the most of it. Obviously we need to measure time in order to arrange to meet at a certain time with other people, to congregate. We each have certain rhythms that we have in our lives, but in a broader sense, thinking there's a clock ticking down is, is that of a benefit to us? Does it make us go out and do things? Or actually does it just scare us, and faze us into inactivity?
OB: This is great to talk about and relates to the book on the more philosophical end of it more than the productivity advice. I do go out on a limb and speculate with a bit of evidence early on in the book, that for all the many reasons that you don't want to have been an early medieval English peasant, you probably wouldn't have experienced time problems! For large numbers of pre-industrial people, and maybe some non-industrialised people today, the idea of time as a thing, didn't exist.
The idea of time being an abstract entity, separate from you. This is an old idea, right? It's in Lewis Mumford, and in that great, great paper by EP Thompson, called ‘Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism’, this idea that there is a way of relating to time, sometimes called task orientation, where the rhythms of life just sort of emerge from the tasks as they are done. They're not mentally compared to an abstract yardstick. In the book, I talk about how absurd it would have been, if you'd come along to a medieval English peasant, and said ‘Why don't you do all the milking of the cows for the month, today and tomorrow to get it out of the way?’ It's obviously insane, a meaningless concept, because life is too much embedded in the rhythms.
I think this comes back to this idea that it somehow makes more sense to think of oneself as being time, as being a portion of time rather than as having a portion of time. Time is so completely defining of everything we do that we are already in it, that you can't stand aside from it, that every decision to do anything with it, is the decision to do an infinite number of things and to not do an infinite number of other things.
I think that something is lost when we're alienated from it in that way, when it's all about imagining the yardstick we couldn't do anything, we couldn't have had the Industrial Revolution without the yardstick. As you say, we had to meet, we wouldn't be having this conversation with the yardstick of time. Certainly computers and zoom wouldn't have been developed. So it’s not that we should fall back to the mindset of medieval peasants, but there might be a third stage of transcendence of that understanding of time, where it's put into its proper context
TT: In terms of ownership of temporal freedom?
OB: Yeah, this is what you're doing when you measure your life by a mental yardstick, you imagine that time is some thing that is not you. You're trying to fit things into it. It’s a construct. It might be useful, it might be unavoidable for modern people to fall into. But there's something good about seeing it for what it is.
TT: I'm really interested in your starting point, that your sense of time is finite. Is there something within your life experience that has led you to that point to consider that life is finite? Or is it more of a reflection on wanting to engage with a sense of the time that you have, and the people that you're sharing it with?
OB: Maybe about six or seven years ago, I had this moment. I was, as someone who had been writing a column for ages in The Guardian about productivity techniques, and being a bit sarcastic, but at the same time really kind of invested in it, struck a fresh in a new way by the realization of how far I had been living my life. I had the expectation that at some point, soon, I was going to get it into working order, be in control of my time and be meeting all my obligations, which is really just a secular and self helpy way of talking about being immortal.
I think when you get into it, it's like being infinite with respect to time. That sudden understanding that it was never going to work, that I was never going to dominate my time, get on top of things to the point that I could then get on with the things that I hadn't done, and that were really meaningful, or would be meaningful to do. That was a very interesting moment for me, that was the nature of my midlife-ish crisis, I guess!
Suddenly all these things come into focus, you start thinking there's a really small number of Christmases that our son is going to be a good age for, that he’ll find it magical. Next door’s kid turns 18 and goes off to college, and you're like, ‘Oh, that's ages away that’, but it's not not very far away, it’s 15 years and the 15 years before our son was born felt like they sort of vanished.
TT: Yeah, I'm fully there. I have one who’s nearly three and the other is six months old. I feel like you can almost see them growing sometimes and I really perceive lengths of time differently now that I’m a parent.
OB: When you're with a very young child whose rhythms dictate your life though you are off clock time, you are in that task orientation mindset because you've got no option and it feels very otherworldly. I feel like not only because everyone's so sleep deprived, but actually because they're sort of doing something that can't be scheduled, though there are of course, many, many parenting books who would say that within the first year you should try to control time in that sense, which I think is particularly absurd!
TT: Particularly with my toddler, my thinking regarding time has changed. Certain things can lead to a sense of confrontation and somebody having a tantrum (I won’t say who!). But often the answer is just patience, it's giving more time to the scenario that we're in, and allowing space, then through gentle suggestion and encouragement, we can try to transition from one place to another, in order to complete the tasks that we need to do to get through the day. Sometimes that time isn't there and we need to go now, but actually, if you can have the foresight to think, okay, let's give this an extra 10 minutes next time we try and do it so that when this scenario arises, we can slowly find a way back to with a sense we're not in hurry. I suppose as a parent it’s about adjusting your sense of time into her sense of time, rather than trying to dictate time to someone who is computing everything at a different pace.
OB: Yeah, brilliant. That's so well said. Sometimes I still feel governed by those ideas of clock time, but in totally irrational circumstances. Say you're in solo charge of a kid for five hours, and your plan was to go to the playground, and then go and sit in a cafe and then come home. It doesn't matter if you actually spend the first hour and a half leaving the house if everyone's happy and it's an enjoyable, absorbing situation, right? It's only this outside notion that says, you've got to meet people's cycles and conform to the clock. We get trapped into thinking we have to get this job completed. But sometimes you realize, why do we have to get it completed? There's no outside schedule that we're trying to meet!
TT: Is that because we're socialized in that way? We go through the scenarios of having to go to school and lessons at certain times, and the same for the world of work. I suppose there's a level of functionality in life that benefits from that, but actually, is it going to be a positive thing to socialize our children with a slightly broader sense of time that isn't quite as constructed? Or is that just going to mean that when they're teenagers, they’ll never show up to anything?
OB: I think probably as teenagers, you never show up to anything to be sort of rebelling against the strictures as much as anything! I think about this all the time, because, relatively speaking, we're very sort of loose and free parents. There are plenty of people with kids our son's age filling up all their time. And yet, I don't think we're free and easy at all, because we live in a system and it's so impossible to be free of it. Children just throw your own personality back in your face, our son went through a phase a few months ago of wanting to know what we were doing next, and what we're doing after that, and what we'll be doing after that. I was thinking, just don't be anxious, just let life happen!. And then at the same time, I'm thinking, yeah, that's me. That's exactly how I go through life. So hopefully, something positive comes from this confrontation and I actually genuinely relax and he takes that cue!
Should your main concern as a parent be the kind of future person you're producing? And what's missing from that? Back when I was obsessing about baby sleep patterns, and sleep training and reading all these claims that it was a bad habit to let your baby get accustomed to falling asleep on you, which we diligently followed to make sure that didn't happen. Now, he does it anyway, and it's lovely. Maybe there's a reason not to do it, I don't want to say that it’s right or wrong, but it's really striking in that example, how it just completely fails to give any value whatsoever to the fact that it might be pleasurable for both parties in the moment. It's all an instrumental case about a future child and future person. It’s the complete subjugation of actual life to imagine future life, which is a very interesting pathology of time, which I do you write about in another context, not just in the parenting setting, in the book. It’s very deep in me personally, although this is just an encounter with my own hangups!
TT: Yeah, That sort of technique is setting up a means of at least a perceived control of time, which is a means of controlling the future person.
In the broader sense of time management, it does feel like we are socialised to try and have control of the time that we're given. I saw someone joking on twitter the other day about the fact that we used to have hobbies but now we're just distracted all the time. Having control of your time in order to go and do a pleasurable pastime, but we’re in this age of distraction in which we think we're controlling our time, but we're literally being pulled from here to there and not engaging enough to enjoy the time we have. Even beyond our phones, our jobs and careers and dating and relationships, whatever it is, the sense that we're controlling our time teels very loose to me.
OB: This is so dead on what I've written about in the book. We seek to get ourselves into a position of being on top of time or in control of it in the driving seat. Out front of our lives are all these metaphors that have the same kind of weird separation between us and time. I think then what ends up happening is that, in order to avoid the experience of how limited and finite we are in respect to time, we chase the feeling of control in unhelpful ways.
I just wrote a little bit about digital distraction for my email newsletter, I think that one of the reasons the internet is so incredibly appealing as a place to go when a work task seems hard is because there is that phenomenology of limitlessness, you can do anything, you can present as anybody, you can find out what's happening 5000 miles away, instantly.
It's kind of ironic, but I suppose the whole point is that pursuing that feeling is precisely the wrong way to get a few useful, meaningful things done with your actual day, it's the opposite of doing meaningful stuff. This tends to mean an attempt to require an encounter with limit, and with the sense that you, firstly, can't do everything in the time you have, and secondly, that you can't control the unfolding of time.
On some level, I think most of us are roughly at peace with something about the limited quantity of time that we have, but it's also about not being able to achieve this position of managing and directing the flow that we're in, of being the little boat on a river of time, or I suppose to be really official about it, of being the river itself. Anything could happen at any moment, and you can't do anything!Learning to exist in that relationship to time, which is not one that has no agency or influence, on the contrary, that's recognizing the reality is exactly what you need to do if you're going to exert agency and influence and do things.
The premise of so much time management advice, the whole idea is that you can control and direct the way things go and this will be vindicated by the end result. So that instrumental focus, as you point out very correctly, is often about outcomes. Hobbies are really unfashionable, it's embarrassing to talk about having a hobby. But you know what isn't? What's really cool, at least in many parts of the social social networks used by people younger than me, is having a side hustle, which is just a hobby, given instrumental profit making.
There was a story a few years ago about how Rod Stewart is an obsessive model railway maker. During the height of his journey, his prime, he would take this model out on tour and demand a second hotel room so that he could work on his model right away. So we see this leather trousered rocker, but he’s revealed as someone who just really loves painting the little flowers on the train station in his model railway. It makes you realise that he must just do it because he loves it, there can't be any other reason. That’s how he wants to use his time and be his true self!
TT: I think there's a lot to be said for that, doing something he loves. Right. A lot of us spend a lot of our time doing things that we think we should be doing, or trying to prove something to somebody, whether it's our parents, or peers, or the sort of perceived expectation that we should be using our time in a certain way. I think it's a really interesting dynamic in that if you are owning your time and are that river of time yourself, that you are using it and ‘being’ in a way that is gratifying to yourself, not as a means of solely qualifying yourself. There’s a lot to be said for feeling like you're adding value to your life with the time that you're ‘spending’, because you're doing the things you want to do.
I wondered if you landed on a secret to making the most of our time? Is there a perspective that means we can capitalise on the time we have?
OB: I think the closest I get would be to say that facing up to the way that reality is, is never ultimately a bad thing. It can be uncomfortable. That's why patience is difficult, because one of the ways reality is, is that it doesn't move at your preferred speed. That applies to all these different kinds of time related stress. I think the thing I really want to try to convey that I'm in most danger of not conveying, is that facing up to the truth is not a reason for despair, or for resignation. There's also no reason for that sort of white knuckle/got to make the most of my life/seize the day mentality. Am I seizing the day?
It's actually a relief to see that the thing you were trying to do (or that you were aspiring to) was impossible all along. So you don't need to worry about it or beat yourself up for not being able to do it. There's a quote at the beginning of the book from the Zen teacher, Charlotte Joko Beck, which I've used as one of the epigrams to this book, which is ‘What makes it unbearable, is your mistaken belief that it can be cured’. I feel like that's a whole life philosophy for me. It's like the problem of the human predicament is not a problem, once you understand that. I think, again, somewhat to do with my particular neuroses and my particular issues I'm sure, there’s a huge relief in seeing that the reason you weren't making life work in a particular way you thought you had to, is not because you lack the discipline or the right time management techniques, but because that was always already impossible to begin with.
TT: I think that's a great way to wrap this up. That's wonderful, thank you.
OB: These were great questions and a great conversation. Thank you!