Member Perspective: Writer Oliver Burkeman Talks About Productivity, Fulfillment, and the Concept of Time
British-born writer Oliver Burkeman has been a member of Brooklyn Creative League since 2013. For over a decade, Burkeman wrote a weekly column called “This Column Will Change Your Life,” which explored the intersection of social psychology and the news, which was published in The Guardian (UK). Burkeman is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking and the forthcoming 4,000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, which will be published in America this August by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
After 14 years, Burkeman gave up his column earlier this year to focus on other writing projects. We sat down recently to chat about careers, covid, and the challenges of finding what makes us happy and fulfilled. You can follow Burkeman on Twitter, @OliverBurkeman, or visit his website to sign up for his terrific free newsletter, “The Imperfectionist.”
You recently left your position as a longtime columnist at The Guardian, one of the UK’s leading newspapers. Tell us the story behind this major career move.
Oliver: I had written that column for something insane—like, thirteen or fourteen years—and I just realized that it was time to try something else. I had a bunch of other things that I wanted to try—things I’m just now getting started with—and I realized that I wasn’t going to do any of them unless I took the plunge.
So I gave up my column, which looks like more of a dramatic break than it actually is. I’m still doing other stuff for The Guardian, but I have a lot more time for other projects now that I’m not doing the weekly column. Don’t get me wrong; it was great while it lasted. Doing a weekly column for years, with very few breaks, was a really useful discipline. I’m so glad of the opportunity, all the feedback I’ve received, the contacts I’ve made, the topics I’ve explored—but I’m quite happy not to be on that specific timetable anymore because it…gets very deep into your soul.
And what are you working on right now? You’re finishing up a book, right?
Yes–I finished the manuscript of this book I’m writing called 4000 Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. It’s about trying to move past what I view as superficial productivity techniques, which in fact just make people busier, and to think instead about how to manage our time in the context of how little of it we get—human mortality and all that stuff.
It’s slated for publication in August, a few good months away. I’m also working on a few freelance things, and I’ve just got this email newsletter up and running, which is also a fair amount of work, even on a twice-monthly basis.
Based on the content of your work, it seems that you’re realizing there’s a struggle to reconcile your personal and professional ambitions with a sneaking suspicion that our lives are laughably brief, insignificant, and impermanent. There’s a lot more to it, of course, but is that a fairly accurate summary?
The point I’m really trying to get at in this book is not just that we are limited, so we’d better get used to it, but rather that this is a really empowering realization.
Sort of, yes! I think the emerging theme has to do with the broad topic of limitation and how many of the influences in our lives push us into a denial of our limitations. Limitation of time, limitation of energy, limitation of talents—these things structure each of our lives, regardless of how brilliant or efficient or famous a person might be. And so much of productivity literature serves to enable our denial of these facts, promoting this idea that if you’ve got the right system, and put in enough effort, you can fit everything in, and achieve anything and everything.
The point I’m really trying to get at in this book is not just that we are limited, so we’d better get used to it, but rather that this is a really empowering realization. Even with my previous book about positive thinking, there’s a misinterpretation I occasionally run into, which is that what I’m saying is that you just have to resign yourself to how crap life is. And the thing I’m always actually trying to say is: no, it’s not resignation. It’s that the way to accomplish the most things, and to have the most meaningful, interesting life is to ground it in reality. If you see reality for what it is—bounded, limited, brief—then you can build on that reality, instead of getting distracted by this false sense of limitlessness.
Of course, it might have something to do with heading through one’s 40s and getting towards the second half of life. I’m sure all of this is therapy for me, to a certain extent. It always is.
I’m reminded of something you wrote—that we shouldn’t seek out things that make us “happy” but rather things that push us, challenge us.
My guess is you’re talking about something I was quoting from James Hollis, who is a Jungian psychotherapist. The point he was making was about seeking personal enlargement instead of happiness.
[Hollis] has this idea–which, if you do a web search now, I seem to be the leading popularizer of it, but it wasn’t from me. Hollis says that one way to think about this, if you’re facing some significant life choice, is not to ask, “Will this choice make me happier?” but to ask, “Will this choice enlarge me or diminish me?”
It’s an interesting semantic modification because a) we’re very bad at predicting what will make us happy, but also b) because growth requires some discomfort, and so by seeking the comfort of happiness, we’re often depriving ourselves of that opportunity to learn and grow.
In other words: step outside your comfort zone. The oldest self-help cliché in the book.
What does the next year hold for you as we hopefully come out of COVID and your book gets published? Are you planning a book tour? What are the writing projects you have in the works?
We’re just beginning to talk about a book tour–but what will be happening online versus physically at this point. My plan or hope for the year is that I’ll develop and grow this email list, get the book out, and hopefully get some notice for it; I’ll also be doing lots of writing around that, partly in an attempt to get notice for it.
After that, the part of this plan that is still the vaguest, is thinking about what the next step is with this audience that I’m developing through the email list.
So far, I’m just feeling my way. But I think that’s one of the great things about working online, in a digital medium, on smaller more frequent projects, and not focusing all of one’s writing on large, long-term undertakings like books. Online, each individual move has very low downside. You can put something out, and see if people respond; if they don’t, you don’t need to follow up on that particular thing, but if they do, you can develop it further. And that actually feels very productive because it’s as if everything you do is also market research for everything you do. You can’t predict in advance how it’s going to work out, but you also don’t need to.
We look forward to bringing you more member news and project updates. Want to share projects, accomplishments, and advice with our community? Reach out to Neil or Erin!