You're Never Going to Get It All Done | Brunswick
Brunswick Review The Leadership Issue

You're Never Going to Get It All Done

And that’s excellent news, says Oliver Burkeman, author of what’s been called “the most important book ever written about time management.”

The title of Oliver Burkeman’s latest book, Four Thousand Weeks, stems from a sobering calculus: It’s roughly the amount of time we get if we live to be 80 years old.

The book considers how to approach those 4,000 weeks—what Burkeman calls an “absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short” amount of time—so that we actually get around to doing the things that matter most to us. Adam Grant called Four Thousand Weeks “the most important book ever written about time management.”

As you might expect from an author whose earlier works include The Antidote: Happiness for People who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Burkeman doesn’t offer glib solutions nor mnemonic systems. He prefers humor—the book invokes everything from Richard Scarry’s Busytown to Rod Stewart’s train collection—and bluntness: “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control,” he writes in Four Thousand Weeks, “when the flood of emails has been contained; when your to-do lists have stopped getting longer; when you’re meeting all your obligations at work and in your home life … when the fully optimized person you’ve become can turn, at long last, to the things life is really supposed to be about. But you know what? That’s excellent news.”  

It’s excellent, according to Burkeman, because we’re letting go of these self-imposed—and very often burdensome—fantasies and instead dealing with how things are, right now. This is a recipe not only for sanity but also efficiency. When we cling to the belief that it’s possible to find time for everything, we’re less likely to ask whether a task is the best use of our time (since we assume we’re going to get everything done eventually).

A meaningful, accomplished life, Burkeman repeatedly argues, starts by embracing—rather than denying—that the time we have, and the attention we can give, are both limited. “Once you stop believing that it might somehow be possible to avoid hard choices about time,” he writes, “it gets easier to make better ones.”

Burkeman was a longtime columnist for The Guardian, where he wrote about time management, productivity, and self-improvement. Today, he continues to publish regularly on similar topics through his newsletter, The Imperfectionist, mixing philosophy and practicality as he explores how we might have better relationships with our jobs, thoughts, emails, phones, and schedules. Amid a global mental health crisis and a “Great Resignation,” Burkeman’s advice, which he shared recently with the Brunswick Review, feels not only timely but also, very often, soothing.

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Such an important message in your book is accepting, almost relaxing, into our own limitations. Yet many great achievements—the sub-4-minute mile, the iPhone—were famously declared impossible. How can we comfortably accept our limits if they so often seem of our own creation?
There are two different responses here. One might be a bit of a cop out, but I think there’s something to be said for letting go of the anxiety that comes from constantly struggling to do something impossible. There are all sorts of valuable ways of living that are not characterized by that sort of incessant striving. I try to make the case for that a bit.

But to confront what you’re saying a bit more directly, when people talk about achieving incredible things by refusing to believe that something is impossible, or by setting out to prove people wrong who said that something was impossible—if they achieve it, then it wasn’t impossible in the non-negotiable sense. It wasn’t a built-in human limitation in the way that time is. I don’t think there’s anything in the book that contradicts the idea of pushing against limiting beliefs.

I suppose what torments people is knowing where that line is.
Above all, what I focus on in the book is the finitude of our time. It’s limited; we can’t do anything about it. Even if developments in biotechnology give us another hundred years, we would still have those limits on our time, on the attention we can give at any single moment. Being in denial of those kinds of limitations undermines our effort to accomplish things.

Because denial gets you caught up in all kinds of emotional avoidance mechanisms that aren’t helpful—whether that’s procrastinating, or trying to clear the decks before you begin something important. Those behaviors are essentially ways to avoid the discomfort, manage the anxiety, that comes from confronting your limitations.

You could argue that acknowledging your built-in limitations is actually a precondition for breaking through limiting beliefs. If you think about someone who’s obsessively dedicated to transforming their field, they’re very likely the kind of person who has reconciled themselves to the fact that they can’t do everything—whether that means neglecting email, extracurricular activities, or even their families to some extent.

Sisyphus’s Inbox: An Excerpt from Four Thousand Weeks:

… the number of emails that you could, in principle, receive, is essentially infinite. But … the number of messages you’ll have time to read properly, reply to, or just make a considered decision to delete is strictly finite. So getting better at processing your email is like getting faster and faster at climbing up an infinitely tall ladder: you’ll feel more rushed, but no matter how quickly you go, you’ll never reach the top. In ancient Greek myth, the gods punish King Sisyphus for his arrogance by sentencing him to push an enormous boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back down again, an action he is condemned to repeat for all eternity. In the contemporary version, Sisyphus would empty his inbox, lean back and take a deep breath, before hearing a familiar ping: “You have new messages…”

It gets worse though because … every time you reply to an email, there’s a good chance of provoking a reply to that email, which itself may require another reply, and so on and so on, until the heat death of the universe. At the same time, you’ll become known as someone who responds promptly to email, so more people will consider it worth their while to message you to begin with …

So it’s not simply you never get through your email, it’s that the process of ‘getting through your email’ actually generates more email.

How can someone incorporate the lessons of Four Thousand Weeks into a workplace where the culture celebrates responding to emails promptly, working long hours, saying yes to more work—and punishes you when you don’t?
You’re talking about, broadly speaking, high-status, high-achieving, high-paying jobs that have this ethos of high pressure. The same sort of objection comes up at the other end of the socioeconomic ladder, when we’re talking about the person who’s forced to work two minimum wage jobs just to keep a roof over their head. In both cases, that pressure is incredibly hard to resist—and it doesn’t change just because you think life would be better at a slower pace, or with a more humane volume of work.

I don’t think there’s a simple answer; I wanted to write a book that was concretely useful, and I’m also receptive to the general critique of anything remotely self-help-y. I’m not sure how useful a book would be that just offered, “Well, we just need wide-scale societal reform.”

I do believe good things follow from making an internal shift to these kinds of demands, regardless of whether you’re in a position to change your external behavior and practices.

There’s nothing wrong with doing vast volumes of work and working with incredible intensity, by the way, if that aligns with your values and interests. But corporate cultures today promote a lot of problematic beliefs: You ought to be able to take on limitlessly more work; that with good organizational techniques and extra self-discipline and extra drive and time spent at work, you’ll be able cope with everything; nothing in your job description needs to be neglected in order to focus on something that’s more important; it’s your job to try to find a way to meet truly impossible demands. And on top of that, the sense that if you did all of it, you would be doing the right thing and living your best professional life. I think you can sort of internally secede from those false beliefs.

And they are false beliefs because if it’s truly impossible, you can’t do it. Denying that is going to keep you in this position of struggling to get somewhere you feel you should be, but which you can’t ever get to. There’s something to be said for realizing there isn’t a way to meet these standards you’re being pressured to meet. All sorts of conclusions can follow. In some cases, it might be the decision to walk away from a job—you’re seeing more reports of people with a financial cushion doing just that. It could simply be the added courage to say to a more senior person, “You’ve asked me to focus all my energy on these three things. Which would you prefer me to focus on and which would you like me to neglect?” Or it could be you discover you have such a huge passion for your work that you’re willing to have no social life the next five years. More important than the conclusion itself is that it flows from a position of seeing the way things really are.

"'Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?' It’s a powerful question to ask about the path we’re on or a decision we’re facing. Because asking if something makes you happy, or will make you happy, is disastrous."

Oliver Burkeman

The external metrics of success at work are, if not always fulfilling, at least obvious. What are some of the intangible metrics of success for someone looking to apply the core principles of Four Thousand Weeks? How would I know if I was “succeeding” in applying them?
On the most basic level, I think it is more intuitive than the idea of intangible metrics suggest. It is a basic knowing that you’re on the right path or not. A lot of what I’m trying to do in this book is not really give people metrics for measuring whether they’re doing the right thing, but help clear away a fog that gets in the way by our attempts to become efficient and optimized and able to cope with every demand thrown at us.

I do like asking this question from [Jungian psychoanalyst] James Hollis: “Does this choice diminish me, or enlarge me?” It’s a powerful question to ask about the path we’re on or a decision we’re facing. Because asking if something makes you happy, or will make you happy, is disastrous (Laughs). We’re terrible at predicting that. And there are lots of times where it’s not particularly pleasant or fun to embark on a path or stick with something. Asking if something is meaningful can be quite slippery. But I do think we have a sense of whether we are on a path of growth or not, whether difficulty is gradually making you into a better, more capacious person, or whether it’s killing you slowly from the inside.

It’s not a terribly clear answer, I realize. But I think it can’t be on some level. And I really didn’t want to provide any kind of laundry list. I think people know it about themselves once they clear away the stuff that gets in the way.

The perfectionists who read your book are liable to try and “perfect” their way to acceptance. How can they not do that?
I know that dynamic so well. (Laughs) The problem is it’s kind of an infinite regress; if I offer some sort of direction, then as you say, the temptation is to try and do that perfectly.

For me, the helpful thought to try to bear in mind, or to return to, is when I catch myself acting or behaving primarily with the goal of eradicating uncomfortable feelings, whether that be discomfort or vulnerability. That’s a sign that an interesting new way of looking at things has just been co-opted back into my old perfectionistic way of looking at things—I’m hoping that if I implement it perfectly, then all the anxiety will go away, and I will finally be serene and in control.

It starts by accepting from the very start that there is no perfect implementation of it. That embodying these ideas won’t insulate you from vulnerability or insecurity or discomfort or unpleasant emotions. And that actually the goal, if there is one, is to become a better container for those kinds of emotions, rather than trying to stamp them out.

It’s about becoming better at seeing those motivations, those tendencies, when they come up. Recognizing when you find yourself thinking that, because of this new approach, or new app, or system, you’re finally going to nail it all. You have to keep surrendering to the truth that that won’t happen.

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Edward Stephens is a Senior Editor at Brunswick, based in London.