1 Big Idea to Think About

  • The only moment you have control over is this moment right now. So instead of trying to shove in as much as you can, simply stop and ask what is most important right now and what can wait for another day.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Practice fixed volume productivity
    • Begin by asking yourself how much time you are realistically able and willing to dedicate to a certain kind of focused work in the course of a day or a week.
    • Decide which tasks are most important to fit into that predetermined volume of time.

1 Question to Ask

  • Is the path that I’m on in life enlarging me or diminishing me?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • You can’t fit everything in one life (3:46)
  • A time management technique for mortals (5:06)
  • Alleviating the weight of having to do everything (9:19)
  • Ought implies can (11:10)
  • You can only control of this moment in your life (12:20)
  • The sailor cannot see the north but, the needle can (15:06)
  • Is this the enlarging path? (16:24)
  • Using our sense within to understand what is true (18:43)
  • “The greatest burden that a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.” (22:29)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Connect with Oliver Burkeman 

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Greg McKeown:

Welcome. I’m your host, Greg McKeown, and we are here for part two of my conversation with Oliver Burkeman. He wrote a great, big successful column for The Guardian for years and, more recently, has attained some notoriety for the book called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. By the end of today’s episode, you will have rewired a certain part of your brain that keeps you caught  and stressed all the time and have permission to make a different choice. Let’s get to it.

Thank you to everyone who has subscribed to this podcast, and if you are not one of those people, subscribe right now. Pause, subscribe, and then make it easy on yourself to get new episodes every Tuesday and Thursday.

In my book Effortless, I literally start in chapter one with an image of those rocks and with an image of too many big rocks, literally because the presumption that if you put the most important things first, you will therefore fit everything in is wrong. That is wrong. Even while the metaphor is still helpful and basically right, put the most important things in first, but it’s what do you do next when you discover, well, actually, you don’t have enough time to do everything, even the essential things. 

Oliver Burkeman:

Well, that’s the weird thing to me is I think we must have been writing these things basically during the same period of time. When did Effortless come out?

Greg McKeown:

Two years ago.

Oliver Burkeman:

And so did Four Thousand Weeks.

Greg McKeown:

Yeah, so our brains were in a similar place. The lockdowns were happening.

So help listeners get to something actionable with this as the framework, with this as the reality in throwing out the idea that you have limitless time with throwing out the idea that efficiency is the answer. What do you do instead?

Oliver Burkeman:

I think it’s important to begin and answer that by saying that I do think the perspective shift is the thing that matters the most.

Greg McKeown:

The mindset shift is the most important part. Go ahead.

Oliver Burkeman:

I think anyone listening to this is going to be smart enough once they have a taste of that mindset shift to see which specific ways in which they run their day, schedule their tasks are consistent with it, and which of them are sort of pushing against it in an unhelpful fashion. But broadly speaking, I’ve found the kinds of techniques and approaches that are most consistent with this when it comes to my own work, which is a relatively solitary kind of work, and I’m only talking about work here but is anything that involves conscious limitations on work, in progress, any form of workflow system that brings the number of things I’m actually trying to complete at the moment down to a smaller number. So this is the kind of stuff that Jim Benson has written about in his book, Personal Kanban. It’s the kind of stuff that it’s in the background, I think, of a lot of Cal Newport’s work

One approach to this that I find very useful is what I refer to in the book as fixed volume productivity, which is only a small tweak, as I acknowledge on Cal’s fixed schedule productivity. But the idea of beginning first with the amount by asking yourself how much time you are realistically able and willing to dedicate either to work or to a certain kind of focused work in the course of a day or a week. 

And then as the second step deciding what is most important to fit into that predetermined volume of time as opposed to what we do instinctively otherwise, which is wake up in the morning and make a list of all the things that we feel need to be done by the end of the day, regardless of whether that’s realistic or not. So that’s just a very simple trick.

Something that I’m always trying to do as a writer is find and fine-tune the specific sort of size of packet of work that I can of writing work that I can really ask of myself on a daily basis. And it’s almost always a lot smaller than part of me feels I ought to be able to fit in. But the point is that if I can keep myself to that and show up for it day after day, the work accumulates much faster. So it’s another example of really trying to just put very clear limits around what I’m claiming I’m going to be able to do with my time and then following through on it. I mean, this is not going to strike you as a revolutionary insight they all have in common for me, is just that they put finitude first, right? They put this sort of easy-to-ignore but actually non-negotiable fact front and center and then say, given this context that you are completely powerless to alter, what would be the best way to use the power that you do have, which is the power to assign some of that time to certain things rather than others.

Greg McKeown:

Well, you are talking about forcing functions that are consistent with the great reality. It’s distributing that one big reality into our daily rituals and schedule so that you stop trying to solve the problem by just shoving more into every little bit you accept it. I can’t do it all.

Oliver Burkeman:

Right. I was going to say, and sort of scaffolding this insight that we’re talking about into daily life such that you don’t actually need to wake up in the morning necessarily on a given Wednesday morning with a deep feeling of one’s finitude because you have put these structures in place that will act as guide rails and keep you honest. Sometimes I’m in this mindset, and sometimes I’m slipping back into the kind of anxious, nervous attempt to do it all. But if I have some structure in my workflow that says each day I’m trying to do this, it keeps me practicing the message of the mindset whether or not I’m sort of deeply in it. In that moment.

Greg McKeown:

Anna and I, my wife, and I went to a keynote event that I was speaking at, and we had some relatively luxurious time just to talk, just to be. It was a good environment too. So we were absent stresses and burdens of normal life, and one of the discoveries that came to me that stayed with me for quite a while afterward was this alleviation of many goals and aspirations that I suddenly felt I didn’t have to do. I don’t have to, maybe it’s not even realistic to try and achieve those things. There’s this more modest perspective on life that is real and more tangible and a contribution I actually can make, and that would be meaningful for me, and it was really marvelous to suddenly just feel all of that stress dissipating. 

It seems to me that when we have these two thoughts in our head, I have to, and at the same time, I can’t, all that’s produced, all the heat that’s produced is just stress, and that seems to be exactly the burden of the modern efficiency movement is, well, you have to do a thousand times more than you are doing, but you absolutely can’t.

So just try to all it is just anxiety, stress, and it pushes us towards distraction, in fact, because we just want to run away from that impossible game. Yes. It seems to me that we often are in an impossible game, and it’s such a relief to shift our perspective to the point that the game becomes winnable again. Your reaction.

Oliver Burkeman:

I think you just express it beautifully. It makes me think of, there’s a very famous principle in ethical philosophy. I think it comes from Immanuel Kant, which is summarized as ought implies can, right? That you can’t meaningfully have a moral obligation if you can’t fulfill that moral obligation. If you are trapped in a burning building, and I’m walking by, then maybe I have a moral obligation to rescue you, but if I’m trapped in another room of that building, it makes no sense to talk about me having an obligation to rescue you. I can’t do the thing that is at issue. And in the same way, obviously, this kind of intellectual realization is not sufficient to solve everything, but it just makes no sense, as you say, to feel like you have to do more than you can.

This is a sort of logically, yeah, it’s a logically bankrupt thought, I must do more than I can do. It doesn’t get off the ground, and so that doesn’t mean that it can’t have a lot of psychological hold on us because we were raised to be sort of, in that great phrase, insecure overachievers we’re raised to think that we’ve got to keep fighting this fight, but you can’t get there.

Another way of getting at something very similar, I think, putting it in a sort of temporal future and past context, is to say that you never have to take responsibility for or figure out what to do about anything other than the very next moment of your life. You do not really look out over a vista of the rest of your life, and you’ve got to be really careful that you are packing things into it. 

It doesn’t mean sometimes the right thing to do with the next moment is planning, forecasting, or strategizing for the future. Of course, it might be, but actually, all you ever have to deal with is this moment and this moment, and there’s one thing basically effectively that you can do with each of those moments. And yeah, it’s just this enormous weight off one’s shoulders that traditionally has been, we’ve been unburdened off by various sort of religious doctrines that don’t have so much purchase for so many people these days. And if I can, I just want to mention one way of phrasing this that always sort of gets me in my gut, which comes from a British-born Zen teacher called Jiyu Kennet, Peggy Kennet, who said that her method of teaching was not to lighten the burden of the student but to make it so heavy that he or she would put it down and I sort of get shivers up my spine. It won’t work for everyone, but I get shivers up my spine when I think about that because it’s this notion that it’s when you see that the thing you were trying to do was absurdly impossible, that it becomes easy and go and do the things that are possible. It’s not by sort of making the burden lighter is becoming more efficient, it’s trying to strategize ways to make the terrible bind that you’re in feel a little bit less painful, making it so heavy that you put it down is seeing that the whole thing is a ridiculous way to think about time, and it’s very hard to keep beating yourself up for something that you don’t really think anyone could do in the first place.

Greg McKeown:

Yeah. Sometimes I think about this in the sense that if you can’t try any harder if you absolutely can’t push yourself anymore or be any more efficient, it’s time to look for a new path.

And I do think there’s some benefit in the sort of extremity of our times that more and more people are faced with that this, I can’t move any faster, I can’t write any more emails. I can’t optimize further than I am, and I can’t work any harder. So now, and there is, I love that idea. It’s so heavy. You have to put it down and look, there is a different way to do life. 

Speaking of that different way, in the end of the paperback version of this book, you have an interview with James Hollis. There are a lot of marvelous takeaways from that, but one thing that he quotes is Emily Dickinson, who says, “The sailor cannot see the north but knows the needle can.” Can you talk more about why you interviewed him and what that means to you now?

Oliver Burkeman:

Yeah. I think one of the things that people sometimes sort of want from a book like this or from anyone who’s sort of standing up and talking about building a meaningful life is kind of some way of figuring out what things do constitute a meaningful life and what things don’t. And the Jung perspective on all this, which is the tradition that James Hollis is writing in, is really powerful to me because of the way in which it engages with the question of, like, well, this is an intuitive matter, not in some sort of wooly sense of asking the universe and seeing what comes back, but this notion that on some level you do know the right direction for yourself, and it’s a matter of reconnecting with that level. Now, whether this is sort of true in some kind of neuroscientific way, I’m not sure it even really matters, right?

It’s a practice, and one of the ways in which James Hollis talks about connecting with that sort of internal navigation system that Emily Dickinson is writing about there is with questions like this one that I got from him that I think is so powerful, which is asking whether a choice that you are considering or a path that you’re on in life, whether it enlarges you or diminishes you, and again, won’t work for everybody, but this is a form of language that for me bypasses that very unhelpful question of, will this make me happy or not? Firstly, because we’re terrible at predicting what will make us happy. Secondly, because happiness may not quite express the thing that we’re going for here when it comes to living a full and present life, and yet in all sorts of contexts since I first encountered that, I have found this question, is this the enlarging path to be really helpful because it sort of encourages you to keep going through a certain kind of difficulty, and it distinguishes that from a different kind of difficulty.

So I think relationships provide a very obvious example of this. There are the kind of difficulties that you have in a relationship or marriage that tell you like, this is a toxic relationship, and I have to get out, and then there are the kind of difficulties that are part of growing and maturing and living with a whole other person who’s got their own whole other consciousness, and you wouldn’t want to be a person who just walked away at the first sign of difficulty. You also wouldn’t want to be a person that forced yourself to go against your intuitions when a difficulty was actually a red flag. And I think this applies to work choices and all other sorts of things. 

The point is in some deep place, and even whether that’s really true or not, it’s just a very useful heuristic for taking that kind of decision, and I think it has to do with the feeling that you are growing, that you are encountering reality, and that the suffering that is encountered along the way is the suffering of stepping more and more fully into this actual situation in which we find ourselves as opposed to the suffering of avoiding it and fleeing it and trying not to think about it, which is a different thing and feels in some very subtle way does feel different.

Greg McKeown:

There’s a psychological term that I think speaks to what you are describing here. It’s referencing, and it’s the ability that if I say to you, well, you just seem really frustrated today, and you go internally, you go, am I? No, that’s not true. And you can say, that’s not how I’m feeling right now. I might be feeling I’ve got too many things going on today, but I don’t feel what you’re saying or vice versa as we’ve had moments of this conversation. Yes, that’s right. That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I feel about that internal ability seems to be close to universal, and so the fact that we even have that we can reference internally whether something seems true or not. 

There’s this marvelous story I came across where a mother has her two children. They’ve got into a fight, and she’s asking them what’s been going on.

She brings her daughter in, who’s really upset. She’s crying, she’s mad, and why are you so mad? Well, my brother said I was dumb, and so she said, “Okay, I want you to close your eyes for a moment. I want you to breathe for a moment, and I want you to listen to me.” 

So she closed her eyes, she did this, she said, “You are dumb.” And then she opens her eyes. 

Of course, she’s not expecting that, and she said, “Is what I just said true?” 

She said, “No, it’s not true.: and she goes, runs away happily. 

Now I’m pulling that from memory. It might be the phrase was a little different, but the idea that she could sense within that this thing that was happening externally was not true for her was not right, helped her to then say, well, I’m not bothered that my brother called me that. It was the belief at first that what he’s saying is true that made me so frustrated, and so I just sort of offer this back to you as a thought and a reaction. The very fact we’re able to do this means perhaps we can have a sort of conversation with ourselves, and that I think is the premise of this Q and A that you were having, that we’re discussing your reactions.

Oliver Burkeman:

Yeah, no, absolutely. I think it’s a conversation. It’s the sort of idea of multiple parts of our psyches, and some of them are not so easy to articulate until somebody leads you through a question like James Hollis’s or the mothers in your anecdote there, but it’s just very strange when you stop and reflect that this notion of navigating intuitively, perhaps even to the extent of abandoning certain kinds of scheduling and just sort of doing what seems to be the right thing to do in every moment. It’s quite strange on reflection to think that has become seen as kind of woo-woo, right? Because it’s simply, at least in one version, it’s simply consulting the full range of

Greg McKeown:

Human capacity

Oliver Burkeman:

Right. And all the aspects of one’s cognition and thinking that are beyond most immediately accessible and articulable working memory. There’s a lot more going on than that. If that was all that was going on with us, we would not be capable of the things we are. Yeah, I’m on a long slow journey, but I think I am generally certainly in my working life becoming much more towards that sort of navigating via intuition stance, which takes some kind of guts or something if you are totally used to achieving your feelings of security through planning and list making and things like this. But it is ultimately, I think more it does involve entering more fully into the way things actually are.

Greg McKeown:

There’s one more thing I wanted to get to here. We’ve been talking about Jung sort of parenthetically, but he’s quoted in this conversation here as saying, “The greatest burden that a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.”

Oliver Burkeman:


Greg McKeown:

That hit me hard. Can you share more about that?

Oliver Burkeman:

I think what Jung means by that is it’s pretty much there on its face. This is the idea that in all sorts of ways, the sort of attempt to live out the life that a parent was unable to live or too scared to live or not in a position to live is something that children then take on to themselves in their quest to feel loved and adequate and worthy. And so, of course, this is just one way of describing this very famous phenomenon you see all the time where people are sort of living out the expectations of parents. I suppose the extreme versions are always in kind of sporting stars or stage child actors. There’s always that cliché that actually it’s what the parents wanted for themselves. 

I think anything like this kind of parenting advice as a parent strikes me as my first reaction is it freaks me out and makes me think like, oh my goodness, am I doing things wrong? In some respects, I have to change, but I think it’s actually a really liberating thought, right? It says that there isn’t a sort of baked-in conflict between being the best parent you can be and pursuing your interests and passions. It says that one of the best things that you can do for your children is to stay true to some of the things that matter the most to you instead of putting them all on hold for your children instead of maybe going off in your career and directions that don’t speak to you because you think you need to reach a certain kind of financial security for your children. 

I think it’s quite a powerful message to think about in the context of often is brought up this phrase in the context of women working versus staying at home with their kids. Obviously applies to everybody, but it comes up obviously in the context of women. Maybe one of the very best things you can do to be a mother to a daughter is to show her just what cool things are achievable in the world of work. And so it’s a really interesting example of something that I keep coming up against, keep coming to a different context, which is like there isn’t necessarily some built-in contradiction at the core of life. This does all sort of fit together. Doing the things that are the most meaningful to you, the things that are the best for the people around you. They can be the same things. It’s not necessarily a choice that we have to make.

Greg McKeown:

Oliver, it’s been a great privilege to have you on the podcast. Thank you.

Oliver Burkeman:

Thank you so much.

Greg McKeown:

What is one thing that stood out to you today? What is one thing you can do differently immediately to put this mindset into practice? And who is someone you can share this episode with so that they can benefit and be part of the conversation as well? 

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