Rethinking Our Relationship To Time

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Marketing Podcast with Oliver Burkeman

Oliver-burkemanIn this episode of the Duct Tape Marketing Podcast, I interview Oliver Burkeman. Oliver is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking. For many years, he wrote a popular column on psychology for the Guardian newspaper. He also has a new book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

Key Takeaway:

The average human lifespan is brief. Nobody needs telling there isn’t enough time. We’re obsessed with our lengthening to-do lists, our overfilled inboxes, work-life balance, and the ceaseless battle against distraction; and we’re deluged with advice on becoming more productive and efficient, and “life hacks” to optimize our days. But often, such techniques often end up making things worse.

In this episode, I talk with Oliver Burkeman about concepts from his book: Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. We discuss the unhelpful ways we’ve come to think about time, and how to think and do things differently so that we can show up better in the present moment.

Questions I ask Oliver Burkeman:

  • [1:15] Did you study psychology at all or were you just practicing with your readers?
  • [1:58] When I was reading the book, a big point that I heard is that we need to give up the fight when it comes to using time. And I was thinking, where are the hacks — but that’s obviously the point of the book, right?
  • [7:25] In the book, you mention David Allen, the Inbox Zero Guys, the Pomodoro method — can you talk about those methods and your perception of how/if they work?
  • [11:01] You spent a lot of time really setting a philosophical point of view in the book — you mentioned farmers and how they didn’t have watches in the past. They didn’t pay attention to time. They didn’t have incremental wages based on how many hours they worked. And now, it’s almost like that’s all we have to sell now is our incremental inventory, right?
  • [12:46] What is time from a philosophical perspective?
  • [14:42] Can you talk about the stuff thieves, like email?
  • [16:28] Chapter four was my favorite chapter — can you talk more about it?
  • [20:31] How much is the way we work that you’ve described contributing to this growing sense of loneliness and depression in the world?
  • [23:19] Is there anywhere else that you’d like to invite people to connect with you?

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John Jantsch (00:00): This episode of the duct tape marketing podcast is brought to you by the MarTech podcast, hosted by my friend, Ben Shapiro brought to you by the HubSpot podcast network with episodes you can listen to in under 30 minutes, the MarTech podcast shares stories from world class marketers who use technology to generate growth and achieve of business and career success. Recent episode, one of my favorite extending the lifetime value of your customer. You know, I love to talk about that. Listen to the MarTech podcast, wherever you get your podcast.

John Jantsch (00:45): Welcome to another episode of the duct tape marketing podcast. This is John Jan. My guest today is Oliver Burman. He's the author of the anecdote, happiness for people who can't stand positive. Thinking for many years, he wrote a popular column on psych for the guardian newspaper. And he's got a new book out that we're gonna talk about today called 4,000 weeks time management for mortals. So Oliver, welcome to the show.

Oliver Burkeman (01:12): Thanks Very much for inviting me. I,

John Jantsch (01:14): I, I have to ask this. Do you, did you study psychology at all or were you just practicing on your readers?

Oliver Burkeman (01:21): uh, when I was studying things, I wasn't doing mu I did a little bit of psychology. I mainly studied political science when I studied things. No. And then I was practicing on myself and on my readers. Yeah. Trying to be upfront about that. I wasn't claiming to have certifications, but yeah. Yeah. It was sort of a, a constant work

John Jantsch (01:38): In progress. Well, I know it was very popular column. I went back and looked at a few and we're able to work a little humor in which I think is probably always good in, uh, psychology study. First off, I'm gonna tell you, I love this book, but when I got into it, I found it a little depressing because unfortunately you tell us that, or at least all I hear is that pretty much, we've gotta give up the fight and I'm thinking, where are the hacks? And that's obvious, that's the point of the book, isn't

Oliver Burkeman (02:04): It? Yeah. And I think I'll accept depressing as a sort of initial assessment until you've let this viewpoint permeate you. I do very passionately believe that where this leads is not depressing. And I think it's crucial. There's a distinction here, right? Isn't there because it's, you should give up the it's about giving up the fight when it comes to using time, but it about giving up the fight to do something that is not possible. Yeah. Which is to do everything, to become perfectly productive and optimized. Yeah. The reason you give up that fight, I think, or should give up that fight is in order to have the time, energy and attention and focus to do some incredibly cool things with your short time on earth. It's you can tell it's a question that gets me going, cuz I, I, I don't want this to be a council of despair. Right. It's kinda coming back down to earth. Yeah. In a way that lets you get roll up your sleeves and get down to

John Jantsch (02:52): Business. But I'm guessing there are some people out there that are challeng you challenging you a little bit because you've blown up what we've been conditioned to believe. and that sometimes that's hard, even if we've come to the realization.

Oliver Burkeman (03:03): It's true. I think I have spent a long time as a sort of a productivity geek, right? Trying to implement the latest cool system for doing ever more and becoming perfectly optimized and all the rest of it. And what happens is because of that, because the goal is impossible because we live in a world of infinite inputs, demands, ambitions, obligations, they're all effectively infinite become perfectly optimized so that you can do them all. Yeah. You just become in the words of, uh, Jim Benson, the consultant, I quote in the book that you become a reservoir for other people's expectations, you become what happens is, you know, never decide what you're saying. Yes and no, to, and as a result, you say yes to everything that other people want need to do, whether it's right for you or not. Yeah.

John Jantsch (03:46): And there's plenty of people out there that would rather have you say yes. So another, maybe big dialup of good news is you put a number of 4,000, which is not a very big number, necessarily very defin of what a typical lifespan is. And I must admit I'm sure some people, that number was like, wait a minute. That's all there is right.

Oliver Burkeman (04:08): 4,000 weeks is not quite 80 years, but I'm using 4,000. Cause it's a nice round number. Yeah. And in fact, given that I'm talking to a marketing expert, maybe terrifying people out of their pants will prove not to have been why his strategy G for selling a book. But I, I really wanted at the front and at the beginning, get down to the truth of this, which is like, life is finite. It is alarmingly finite when you express it in terms of weeks, but this is reality. And if you can actually confront reality instead of actually I think so many of our kind of supposed productivity techniques and supposed happiness tricks are all basically about helping us avoid yeah. Reality. They're enabling a problem instead of solving it. And I really think that the more that we can gently push ourselves towards staring reality in the face, it is actually liberating and it's motivating and not in a kind of terrifying way. It's okay. This is the situation in which I find myself. Yeah. Now what's the most extraordinary thing I could do with it.

John Jantsch (05:07): Yeah. And I, I was half kidding about, uh, being depressing, but I do think that we do spend a lot of time shielding ourself from reality and, and pretending that we are in control of, of what's going on sometimes. And I think that sets the wrong expectation, which then just sets is up for, for fail.

Oliver Burkeman (05:23): Right. And especially, it means that I, I think I'm sure some listeners will know what I'm talking about. Cause I think it's very widespread feeling. It's not that you are, it's not that you fail to get on top of everything and get your life in control. It's that it always feels like it's gonna be next week or next month that you're going to finally get your life in control. And so you've end up living for the future, right? You're putting the whole value of your life at a, at a time other than now. And if you just do that until the end of your life, then you've

John Jantsch (05:53): Never lived. I've owned my own business for 30 years and I certainly came to the realization there's always more to do. You'll never get it all done. And that's not, I'm not saying that in a depressing way. There's always more, I want to do. And so I think that they, I think that a lot of what I believe you're suggesting to people is we get to choose. We just

Oliver Burkeman (06:10): Need to choose. And in fact that you always already are choosing. And if you decide to work on your business for and seven in the morning, till midnight, then there's something you could be doing with your life outside of those that you're not doing. So I think once you, this is why I really do find it quite a relaxing perspective shift because it's not like the advice is to suddenly start making tough choices it's to suddenly see that you already were yeah. Making tough choices and then you can make them consciously. And I think in a world of when it comes to work, because everything is so endless, if you're in a job where you're getting demands from the boss, those demands are endless, but if you're self employed and you've got a million ambitions, those ambitions are endless. It's the same endlessness. Even though they have a sort of different quality. I, I think what you have to do really is say, okay, I'm going to AO amount of time in the day to work and give them that boundary. What makes the most sense to, to do. And then you really get down to business of weighing one task against another task and seeing what you care about the

John Jantsch (07:10): Most it's scientifically proven. We will use whatever we will fill, whatever space we have with. And so I think you're absolutely right. So now I have to tell you, I have, because I've own my own business for 30 years, I've been trying to run faster. I've been trying to do more, be more efficient. So everybody you mentioned in the book, David Allen, the inbox zero guys, the Pomodoro method I've done. 'em all dude. Yeah. And I think that you, you really do come to the conclusion that it's, it's just like turning up the feed on the treadmill. You run faster, but you are more exhausted

Oliver Burkeman (07:42): And because it's a treadmill, you're never gonna get to the end of this thing. Cause it goes right. You're right. Yeah. I think one thing that's worth saying, I, I have huge respect for David Allen's work and I've actually found the podo technique recently returning to it again, to have something going for it. I think that it, it's almost more a quest of the spirit in which you come to these methods than the methods themselves. And if you are adopting a new technique or a new way of organizing your tasks with this agenda in the back of your mind one day, this is gonna enable you to never have to make tough choices again, to be able to do every single thing you'd ever of and never disappoint anybody or make anybody mad with you or say no to anybody. That's a recipe for disaster. But if you, if you don't think that if you move through that, to this feeling of, okay, I'm finite, I'm gonna be able to do a few things and not most of the others, once you're in that mindset, I think getting things done or the podo technique can be totally great ways to, to implement that.

John Jantsch (08:41): Yeah. I actually, I don't find that I can't use the por method in my, uh, day to day work because there's just too many distractions and interruptions. It seems like. And for those that aren't familiar, it basically you break your day up into 30 minute chunks. You work for 25, you take five off, maybe you put a couple chunks together, then you take a longer break. That's essentially it. I will say that in writing my books, that I, I found it very useful for that because I would, I would say to myself, I'm gonna write for six days. There's no six hours. There's no, no interruptions. There's not checking email. And so then having that sort of rhythm, uh, really did work for me

Oliver Burkeman (09:16): Also. It, it re I, I totally know what you're saying. And I, I think it really reminds you that suddenly it becomes much less intimidating, right. Because it's like, all I have to do is 25 minutes. Right. And then another 25 minutes and then another 25 minutes. Yeah. But that's all life ever is you all you're ever doing is spending 25 minutes on something. So I think there's a really lovely, I think in that kind of time boxing idea, I would count PO as one form of time boxing, although it can be used in this sort of futile quest to become the productivity God or whatever. I, I think that there's something really lovely there, which is just, okay, it's it really turns you to the idea of like, I don't know, tilling the soil or, or it's like, you feel a bit more like a farmer somehow. You're just doing the stuff for a little while and you'll do the same tomorrow and gradually incrementally, like that's how great things come

John Jantsch (10:08): To be.

John Jantsch (10:09): And now let's hear from a sponsor. Do you wish you could get more traffic from Google? Duh. I mean, but half the battle is understanding what to focus on, what you need to fix on your site. Ahref's webmaster tools will give you a professional website audit for free HFS will discover optimization opportunities for your website and help you get more organic traffic. You'll see which keywords your pages are ranking for understand how good Google sees your content and discover what changes you need to improve your visibility. Imagine the benefits to your business. Visit WT to sign up for this free tool and connect it to your website. And you're all set. That's And you can also find this in our show notes. So you spent a lot of time. I, I believe in this book really setting up sort of a philosophical point of view. You just mentioned the farmers. I think that section is in early on is, is pretty brilliant that they didn't have watches. They didn't pay attention to time. They didn't have incremental wages based on how many hours they work and that's all gone away. It's almost like we that's. All we have to sell now is our, our incremental right inventory.

Oliver Burkeman (11:26): Yeah. Tell, yeah. Tell me how sort of Spacey and philosophical you want to get. But I do think there is this very basic shift that we made as a result of industrialization and all sorts of other things from just being time is something that you're in. It's like the medium that life unfolds in through to time being like a resource. It's not the same, you're separate from it and you've got to use it properly and you might be wasting it. And that's when you, yeah. And it's something you can sell in the same way that you could sell a physical possession that you had. And I'm not suggesting we should all go back to the lifestyles of medieval farmers cuz they died of horrible diseases.

John Jantsch (12:05): I've gone through my entire life without hearing about St. James fire, if you wanted

Oliver Burkeman (12:08): yes, there are some gross diseases, but I do think this, there is something to some wisdom to take from that time and, and unfold into our own very different lives, which is just that it there's something a little bit, it's useful to treat time as a resource to think about calendars and yard sticks and timelines, but it's a tool to maybe pick up and use and then maybe you can put down at the end of the day and when you go onto your deck or walk down the street or go on a stroll in the Hills, you can actually just be instead of trying to maximize every minute of, of that time.

John Jantsch (12:46): So I should have just started with Oliver. What is time

Oliver Burkeman (12:51): Yeah. Is still talking about

John Jantsch (12:55): It. Right. So my grandmother used to say, and she probably didn't make this up, but if you want to get something done, give it to a busy person. And I used to believe that she used to say that about me because she, I would do things for her. And I used to wear those as a badge of honor. Now I realize it's actually a curse, isn't it?

Oliver Burkeman (13:10): Yeah. I think you're talking there about an example of what I call in the book, the efficiency trap, this idea that if you get real, if you only focus on getting really efficient at doing your work in the absence of any sort of bigger sort of value that you are using to determine what you work on, all that's gonna happen is you get more work, right? Especially you imagine it's in a sort of corporate setting. If you are the guy in the office who gets ripped for doing projects twice as fast as anyone else, of course, you're gonna get given more projects to do. What do you expect the reward for? Good time management, as they say is more work. It's actually, it's a fascinating, it's getting us off topic maybe, but it's a fascinating pattern that occurs in all sorts of areas of life.

Oliver Burkeman (13:51): Like when they widen freeways, they put an extra lane on freeway to ease the can. Yeah. And more cars start using that route. So the congestion goes back to how it was and it's the same thing, right? If you, all you do to a system is make it more efficient. It'll just get blocked up with more inputs. So what you have to do, there's nothing wrong. I don't think with being a bit more EF about how you do things, but you have to marry that efficiency to like some fairly clear sense of which things you're gonna be saying yes to, and which things you're gonna be saying no to. And sure. The person being pestered by the boss may not be in a position to refuse. But to some extent, I think we all have some freedoms to some room for maneuver to say, I'm not just going to focus on getting better at doing more stuff. Like why what's the point of having done more stuff. There's got to be some point. Yeah. Let's talk

John Jantsch (14:41): About a couple of the, of the stuff. Thieves , um, email. That's the bane of most of our existence today. And I actually, there's another book in the category called make time. I think it's called make time or make yeah, great book. And I think they share a similar philosophy. It's not about getting more done. It's it's actually about them just being focused on what you should do. And one of the bits of advice, because that book is a little more about hacks , but one of the bits of advice is, is to just get in the habit of being really slow, to respond to email as you train people that you aren't going to respond immediately, so they don't expect

Oliver Burkeman (15:15): It. And again, obviously it's gonna be different people, different contexts. There are some emails you can't ignore. But one thing that I have found, I think a lot of people have found in many contexts is firstly, fewer people are going to demand that you solve their problems. If you are a little bit less responsive on email. And secondly, like lots of the things they're worried about, if you just give it a few days. Yeah. Waited turns out that crisis was never a crisis. Turns out that events went a different way and they, and they, we didn't need to have that discussion in the first place. And there's partly, this is a little bit of a humorous point about trying to be strategically a progressed, but there's something else in that about, I think about just the tempo at which we work, that there can be something counterproductive about working at a really fast tempo. And if you give enough time to see how things go to get feedback, to have time to think about things, you can actually get further faster if you're

John Jantsch (16:11): Willing to of, uh, one of the original books probably on this, at least that I encountered was Stephen Covey's seven habits. And he talks about the urgent, but not important. And, and how much of our life is sucked up by

Oliver Burkeman (16:21): That. Yes, absolutely. That's the Eisenhower matrix. Yeah, absolutely.

John Jantsch (16:25): Chapter four that you just alluded to is probably my favorite chapter. And that's about, uh, procrastination. And I think that in a lot of ways, what you're S you, as you said, procrastination, cuz everybody's, oh, I can, I can do that. What's that chapter about? But in a sense, it's really about getting good at what not to do, isn't it? I think when

Oliver Burkeman (16:42): You live in the world that we live in and you, someone who wants to accomplish things, you've got to understand that the key principle time management is figuring out what to neglect when yeah. Rather than figuring out how to fit everything in that's the treadmill direction that we were talking about. And although of course, on some level I say that I will honor Stephen Covey for having done some path breaking original work here. I'm also a bit rude about in the book because of this very famous, um, thing about the big rocks where you're supposed to sort of idea that if you make time for your big rocks first you'll fit everything in. But if you don't make time for your big rocks first, and there's a whole story about putting rocks in the jam jar that I'm sure people will be familiar with. Yeah.

Oliver Burkeman (17:30): And what I wanna say is that today, anyway, the problem is there are just too many rocks, right? It isn't that we haven't prioritized things in the right way. It's that too many things feel like they matter and on some level do matter. Yeah. Um, so tough choices are required, but I also think that is quite liberating because once you know that you're not going to find a way to cram everything in you, that's a big weight off your shoulders. You can just say, okay, well what's actually the most meaningful, exciting, lucrative, whatever it might be for you of the things that that I could do. And that is what I mean by being a better procrastinator. It's like, you're gonna be procrastinating on a lot of things at any moment anyway. So just try to make sure that they're the right ones. I

John Jantsch (18:11): Wanna talk about two topics that probably do take us back into the philosophical realm. Again, the first one is mindfulness. I feel like so much of what you're talking about is we're constantly chasing the future, even if it's just mentally chasing the future. And how much joy does that Rob from

Oliver Burkeman (18:27): The, I think that's really well put, I, I don't use maybe use the word mindfulness very much because I also don't want to turn. I was quite deliberately, didn't want to make this book where the main advice was just like, you've gotta meditate because

John Jantsch (18:40): Hang it. That's what I wanted to hear.

Oliver Burkeman (18:42): people who can meditate and have a good meditation practice. That's great. I've always been a bit patchy at it and I wasn't going to preach to other people that they should be doing something I find so hard. But, um, yeah, I think a certain amount of instrumentalizing time, certain amount of thinking about what you're doing now, because of where it's leading is totally inevitable and necessary. And you can't live in, you're never doing that, but we've got to a stage, I think more generally by the economic system that we live in, where that's really everything. Yeah. And you get to the point where it feels like an hour, can't be well spent if, unless it's storing, unless it's working towards some big future accomplishment, even in the field of leisure. And I, by talking the book about how, like we all have we, of people who are always training for 10 K, but never just going for a run.

Oliver Burkeman (19:34): Yeah. And I've been that person in other domains as well. And there's a real, there's something really sort of ultimately insane. I think even though it's a societal insanity about living that way, because like you, you just is life, right. You just, if you do that until you, the day you die, then you've never had the, you never actually had that moment. So I think it's a subtle thing because I'm not suggesting that people don't achieve like work on ambitious projects, but it's something more about trying if possible to relish them in the moment. Yeah. You're doing them. Yeah. Rather than just storing up the, the benefits for a later point, because that is a really no way to live. All

John Jantsch (20:20): Right. I'm, I'm gonna finish up on another heavy one. how much is the way we work that you've described contributing to, uh, this growing sense of loneliness and depression and all

Oliver Burkeman (20:34): I think, and that's another sort of angle that I yeah. Get into is I think another of the mistakes we make in terms of what we want out of our time, as well as being hyper productive is this sense of individual sovereignty over your time. Right? So like the, the ideal goal seems to be the perfect life would be that I, I got to decide exactly what I did with any moment of my time. And in this idea of the digital nomad, the, the person who runs their business from a beach, from a top of a mountain, you find this, I, the sort of ultimate expression of this idea, they're just completely free agents, but lots of them will tell you that it's a really lonely life because you you're checked out of the rhythms and the routines that we have commonly that, that make us feel that make life so meaningful.

Oliver Burkeman (21:24): And I think even those of us who are not digital nomads, there's a lot of this going on in the modern world. If you are a self-employed person, I guess we both are, and you've run your own ship in one way, you have a lot of freedom in another sense, you're not in a rhythm with other people. And there's no particular reason why some friend of yours who you might wanna see is gonna be on the same rhythm. And so everything gets out of sync. And so I think there's something to be said for that sort of traditional approach where everyone used to do the same thing on a Sunday, or maybe you even just, if you join an organization, if you join a sports amateur sports team or a choir or band or something, you don't, you can't run that schedule. Cause everyone has to agree. So I it's useful to make a few commitments like that in life

John Jantsch (22:11): As well. You, you referenced a, a very large number of studies and books and researched some of which is quite old. I'm curious as a fellow author, was that, is that, uh, fun for you to, to do that because I, you really came up with some, I would say pretty obscure references in some cases.

Oliver Burkeman (22:29): Yeah, no, I really enjoy, I, I enjoy punching into all that stuff and I enjoy finding and collecting that stuff. And I, and I also sort of, I personally enjoy writing the kind of book that quotes Higer, but also Danielle Steele, I find it fun and interesting to show how these ideas yeah. Pop up in these different places. So yeah, that part of it is really fun for me. The writing process. I wouldn't say I find that fun. Yeah. But it's satisfying to have done it. Yeah.

John Jantsch (23:00): Speaking with Oliver Berkman, we're talking about his book 4,000 weeks, which is available. If you're listening to this show, it's available, cuz it's out. You can invite it anywhere. They get books in Kindle in, in audio book has, as you can tell, he has a very soothing voice. You might wanna listen to seven or eight hours consuming it that way, but, uh, is anywhere else that you'd like to invite people

Oliver Burkeman (23:21): To connect with you? My website, Oliver, has the rest. I do a, an email every coup couple of times a month called the imperfection, which I'd love people to sign up for if they're interested.

John Jantsch (23:30): Awesome. Thanks for stopping by the duct tape marketing podcast. And I, I now have an entirely new appreciation for the fact that I can no longer manage time.

Oliver Burkeman (23:41): It's wonderful. Don't be depressed about it. thanks, John.

John Jantsch (23:45): All right. So that wraps up another episode. I wanna thank you so much for tuning in and you know, we love those reviews and comments and just generally tell me what you think also did you know that you could offer the duct tape marketing system, our system to your clients and build a complete marketing consulting coaching business, or maybe level up an agency with some additional services. That's right. Check out the duct tape marketing consultant network. You can find it at and just scroll down a little and find that offer our system to your client's tab.


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