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The Dark Side of Being Obsessed With Productivity

Author Oliver Burkeman joins to discuss people’s relationship to happiness and time

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“Productivity is a trap. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved work-life balance. The real problem isn’t our limited time. The real problem—or so I hope to convince you—is that we’ve unwittingly inherited, and feel pressured to live by, a troublesome set of ideas about how to use our limited time, all of which are pretty much guaranteed to make things worse.”

That’s how Oliver Burkeman, the author of Four Thousand Weeks, explains our relationship to happiness and time. In this episode, he and Derek talk about his philosophy, the downside of constantly living for some future achievement, goals versus habits, and making peace with our finitude.

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In the following excerpt, Derek and Oliver Burkeman discuss how our perception of time influences our happiness or lack thereof.

Derek Thompson: I really loved this book. I thought it was absolutely sensational at combining two of my real interests: the way that we work, on the one hand, and our relationship with time, on the other. And I don’t know how deep we’re going to get into the science of time. It might not even be that important to grasp some of the basics from your book, but I’ve just always been fascinated by this idea that our relationship to happiness is so often a relationship to time, that you think about some of the things that bring the least amount of happiness. It can be regret, it can be anxiety. I see those as very time-based.

Regret is about the past, anxiety is about the future. And both of them require or entail our mind time-traveling to a place that we are not because we can never be physically in the past or in the future. We have to be plunged experientially into the present, at least our bodies. But our minds are constantly trying to time-travel on us. And I think that so many concepts of lack of satisfaction or anxiety or unhappiness come from this interplay of happiness and time. At a big-picture level before we dive in, do you see things in a similar way? That a lot of our relationship to happiness and unhappiness is fundamentally about a relationship to time?

Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I absolutely think it is. I mean, one of the things I wanted to do in writing a book that was purportedly about time management was really make the case that nothing isn’t time management if you think about it expansively enough. What I’m about to say is not something that nobody said before, but it’s like we’re in this as humans. We’re in this situation where we are completely limited materially to the moment in which we find ourselves. Anything we’re going to ever do in our lives that is worth doing is going to be right now. And yet we have this conscious capacity to think temporally about our past, where we’ve come from, where we’re going. I don’t know if we are really going to need to get too much into Heidegger here particularly, but we find ourselves in this state of sort of—

Thompson: Wow, Heidegger name drop at what, four minutes, 45 seconds into the podcast? Good Lord. And half the audience has left.

Burkeman: Maybe that should be the only reference to him in the whole thing.

Thompson: That’s OK.

Burkeman: We find ourselves in the situation of knowing on some level that our time is limited, that it’s going to run out, not knowing when it’s going to run out, having the capacity to relate to time as if it were some resource that we had and could make the most of and could save or use well or waste. And yet at the same time, that’s not really the nature of our situation with respect to time, because you can’t actually do anything other than be in this one moment. So I think a lot of our—you talk about regret, and that’s a really good example. I think a lot about anxiety, maybe because that’s been my particular screw-up in life. It’s the desire in some ways to get a kind of reassurance from the future or about the future of your life that you can never, ever actually have because you’re just here and we’re always just here. And bridging that gulf or squaring that circle or whatever is—I think you can see that as what a whole of multiple spiritual traditions are trying to do and all kinds of self-help approaches as well.

Thompson: For those who were lost briefly, Martin Heidegger is a 20th-century philosopher who wrote a lot about the nature of being and the nature of time. He briefly became a Nazi, which is why he is not only famous but infamous. And he may make a return later in this show, but I am making no promises. I want to—

Burkeman: I got to say, to me, it doesn’t really matter whether you become a Nazi briefly or long term, he was still a Nazi. He’s an incredibly impenetrable writer—I’m sure many people would say it’s beautiful writing—and also was a member of the Nazi party. So there’s just so many good reasons not to focus on his wisdom when it comes to time. And yet he said various things that don’t seem to have really been said in the Western tradition by anyone else.

Thompson: Heidegger is fascinating and maybe I’ll have you back on for some weekend podcast that I don’t need a lot of people to listen to, where we just discuss the entire history of Martin Heidegger. You said something, though, that just randomly made me think of the concept of earworms. Like in music, the concept of earworms, that you get a song stuck in your head and you keep replaying it, replaying it, replaying it. And there’s a science to earworms that says a good way to get the earworm out of your head is to finish the song.

And I don’t know. I’ve never made this connection before, but the way that you described anxiety seems so similar, that it’s our dissatisfaction in being able to answer questions about our future that makes anxiety so sticky. So you end up replaying that anxiety as if on a loop because the song by definition of our anxiety cannot be finished. There is no satisfaction in worrying about the future because the future will never actually arrive and answer the questions that we have about it in the moment. “Will I get into this college?” Well, you don’t know at that moment. “Will this person marry me? Will I make enough money next year?” Those questions will only be answered in the future to come. And so you earworm about it in the present because of your dissatisfaction.

Burkeman: I really love that analogy. Yeah. And of course, those things, there will be a later version of the present when you do know the answer to those things, but then they’ll just be the next moment to worry about. So it’s actually—it’s a demand that you reach some kind of closure or completion about precisely a time that you never will. And so it’s just this sort of constant, constant looping in the hope that this time you’ll get your arms around it and you never will.

Host: Derek Thompson
Guest: Oliver Burkeman
Producer: Devon Manze

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