Monday, September 25, 2023
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#265 – Time, productivity, and purpose: insights from Four Thousand Weeks | Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The New York Times best-seller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In this episode, Oliver delves into the pervasive idea that time can be mastered, exploring whether maximizing productivity is an attainable goal or a perpetual trap. He discusses the allure of attempting to control time—and, therefore, the future—and shares his personal journey of experimenting with diverse time management techniques that failed to deliver the emotional satisfaction he sought. Ultimately, they explore the mismatch between being a finite human and existing in a world of infinite possibilities and how all of these concepts intertwine with finding a sense of purpose and meaning. Additionally, Oliver shares insights from his book on productivity, using our time wisely, and embracing our finitude to live a more fulfilling life.


We discuss:

  • Oliver’s experience that led him to write the book Four Thousand Weeks [3:15];
  • Human’s relationship with time and the struggle with the finite nature of time [7:15];
  • How productivity can be a trap [11:00];
  • The fallacy that being more efficient will open up more time and bring a feeling of control [16:45];
  • The paradoxical nature of trying too hard to be present in the current moment [22:45];
  • The value of relationships in meaningful experiences and fulfillment, and how time gets its value from being shared [26:45];
  • The importance of time synchronicity [36:00];
  • Identifying your biggest priorities and the paradox of wanting to do more than you have time for [41:00];
  • Oliver’s moment of clarity in 2014 [47:15];
  • The role of a sense of purpose in fulfillment [50:15];
  • Reconciling the finite nature of time and letting go of trying to master your time [59:00];
  • Why we tend to have a future-focused attitude and how to combat that with atelic activities [1:05:45];
  • The power of shifting your perspective about time and your experiences [1:12:45];
  • How to operationalize the three principles for the dilemma of finite time [1:20:15];
  • Harnessing the power of patience in the face of a problem or experience [1:28:00];
  • The value of incrementalism for being productive [1:34:15];
  • Embracing your finitude with curiosity [1:38:00];
  • Acting on an idea in the moment rather than letting the idea be the obstacle [1:41:15]; and
  • More.


Oliver’s experience that led him to write the book Four Thousand Weeks [3:15]

  • When Peter read Four Thousand Weeks, there was a lot he could relate to because he’s definitely a productivity geek
    • He’s always kept lists
    • He loves pens and journals
    • He loves to organize
  • Even at a young age (growing up), it was clear that there is almost pathological consequences to this because if things were not done, there would be emotional consequences

Tell me a little bit about your experience in this arena 

  • This sounds alarmingly similar to Oliver as a young adult
    • Feeling very motivated
    • Not realizing at the time obviously that it wasn’t just the normal way to try to get your homework done and get your college assignments in on time
    • This real sense that there must be a way of getting on top of his time and structuring his time that would enable him to deal with everything that was thrown at him
    • To not have to make difficult decisions and fail to placate certain people who are making demands 
    • To not have to make any choices about which direction he was going in because he would be so efficient that he would do it all
  • Oliver adds, “You get to this place where you often feel very nearly like you are there, right? You feel like it might only be a month or two of really disciplined work before you’re going to be at… effortless productivity, but instead you end up sort of making fresh starts, introducing a new system, downloading a new app, buying a new notebook every month or two.
  • He got into a position professionally where he could write about a lot of this stuff and continue to go deep into it
  • This book is what came from exhausting that
    • Realizing that he’d tried a hundred different productivity systems and they hadn’t given him the emotional thing he was seeking

Maybe there was a problem with the question I was asking rather than that I just hadn’t found the right solution.”‒ Oliver Burkeman 

  • Peter recalls a line in the book, something to the effect of “We teach what we most need to learn.
  • That message is from Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull  
    • This book had a whole bunch of advice that Oliver needed to hear (and stills needs to hear)
  • Oliver find it a little bit funny/awkward when people assume the book describes the daily state of serenity in which he lives his live, because he doesn’t
    • He still struggles with all of this stuff, but that’s what makes it interesting

This question of how you orient yourself inside time in a finite life is endlessly fascinating and Oliver doesn’t feel like he’s resolved it all 


Human’s relationship with time and the struggle with the finite nature of time [7:15]

  • Peter returns to something Oliver said a moment ago, “All this productivity, all of these hacks didn’t give you what you were looking for emotionally” 
    • For someone who didn’t read the book, this is a bit counterintuitive because the purpose of productivity is to get stuff done, to be more efficient
    • But for those who have read it, it makes a lot of sense

{end of show notes preview}

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