Oliver Burkeman: The Delusion of Time Management

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Four Thousand Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What does Oliver Burkeman have to say on time management? Do you believe that you can fully have control over how you spend your time?

According to Oliver Burkeman, time management is an illusion in a sense. In his book Four Thousand Weeks, he contends that humans live with the mistaken belief that if you try hard enough and find the right time management solutions, you should be able to gain total control over your time. Contrary to the promises of self-help gurus and time management tools, you’ll never be able to wield total control over your time.

Let’s discuss the three reasons why it’s impossible to have full control over your time.

#1: The More Time You Free Up, the More Tasks Appear to Occupy It

According to Burkeman, the more tasks you complete, the more tasks will appear to occupy your newly freed-up time. This is because humans feel they must spend their free time productively. When you have free time, you may decide that a task you might otherwise not deem important is important, because completing it feels like a productive use of your free time. In this way, you fill up your free time with unnecessary tasks.

For instance, if you finish your work for the day and could technically leave the office, you might decide instead that you need to follow up on an email, even though you hadn’t deemed it important before and it doesn’t technically require follow-up. 

(Shortform note: Though Eat That Frog! is an example of the type of time management book Burkeman feels to be misguided, its author, Brian Tracy, nonetheless offers a solution to the problem of new tasks popping up to occupy your free time. He recommends figuring out what the three most important tasks are at work and in your personal life and either postponing, delegating, or cutting all other tasks. If you do this diligently, you might be able to keep yourself from taking on new tasks that pop up.)

#2: The Faster You Work Now, The Faster You’ll Have to Work in the Future

Similarly, if you accelerate your pace of work in an effort to complete all your tasks, you’ll feel forced to increase that acceleration in the future, writes Burkeman. This happens first because others—co-workers, family members, and so on—will raise their expectations of how quickly you can work and will demand quicker output from you. Second, as discussed in Part 1, if you can complete a task more quickly, you’ll develop the expectation that everything should move more quickly. This means you’ll seek out more tasks and continue to have an incoming stream of to-do items that appear at an accelerated rate. 

Here’s an example: If you implement new software to accelerate part of your work, your colleagues will adjust to your increased pace and will send you new work faster, eliminating any time your new software might have initially freed up. Additionally, having completed your work in less time, you’ll develop the expectation that all your work should take less time, thus freeing up time to complete more tasks.

(Shortform note: The pressure to continuously accelerate your pace of work, as Burkeman describes, can be exacerbated if you’re a high achiever by nature. High achievers strive for external validation, which they can attain by completing tasks faster and faster and gaining the respect and awe of those around them. Additionally, high achievers are often perfectionistic, which can lead them to increase their acceleration to maintain a perfect accomplishment track record. For example, someone might try to respond to a hundred emails in a day to maintain their perfect response record. Ironically, high achievers often produce poorer quality work because they’re trying so hard to work fast.)

#3: You Gladly Distract Yourself From Important Tasks

You also lack control over your time because you allow yourself to be distracted from important tasks that matter to you by minor tasks that don’t, writes Burkeman. This is because when tackling a task you want to execute well (like being a good parent or writing a novel), you risk falling short (by taking your anger out unfairly on your child or writing a bad novel, for instance). When you fall short of achieving your ideal, you’re forced to confront the unpleasant possibility that you may not be good at the task and that you might never master it in your lifetime, claims Burkeman. By distracting yourself with minor tasks, you can avoid facing these disturbing thoughts—but you lose control over how you spend your time.

Distraction and the Ego

Burkeman believes that you distract yourself from important tasks because you fear that doing them might reveal a personal weakness. Burkeman doesn’t elaborate much further on this idea, but Eckhart Tolle goes into greater detail on why and how humans engage in behaviors like self-distraction in his exploration of the ego in A New Earth

Tolle claims your ego fears the threat of being rendered insignificant, so it compels you to prove your ego is significant and valued. Your ego does this by forcing you to acquire material possessions, ideologies and opinions, and a set of feelings. It then seeks validation of those feelings, possessions, ideologies, and opinions in the external world, which can lead to negative behaviors. 

We can now see how self-distraction helps validate an opinion about yourself: For example, if you believe you’re an exceptional soccer player, you risk having that belief invalidated if you attempt to play soccer and fail. You might therefore distract yourself from trying to play so you never have to risk having an opinion invalidated and your ego threatened. 

So, how do you overcome negative ego-driven behaviors? Tolle recommends practicing mindfulness, the ability to be present and in touch with your inner self. When you can be present enough to recognize that you’re engaging in an ego-driven behavior, you can stop it. 

The Result of the Delusion: 4 Forms of Suffering

According to Oliver Burkeman, time management is a grand delusion that causes four forms of suffering:

Form of Suffering #1: You Feel Guilty About Not Being More Productive

According to Burkeman, one form of suffering is that you feel perpetually guilty for not “getting everything done” and not “using your time well,” even though doing so is impossible. This guilt causes you to try even harder to complete all your work by doing more, faster—which, as we discussed in the last section, only begets more work. 

(Shortform note: Burkeman describes how failing to meet unrealistic expectations of your ability to manage your time can lead to guilt. The implicit idea is that you must lower your expectations of your productivity (which we’ll discuss how to do in the next section) to reduce guilt. However, others would argue that you should try to generally reduce the dominance of all guilt in your life by changing your entire mindset. In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama advises you to cultivate a happiness mindset by countering unproductive, negative emotions, like guilt, with positive ones, like self-compassion. This makes you generally resilient to unproductive feelings, such as guilt, no matter what happens in your life.)

Form of Suffering #2: You Isolate Yourself to Gain Control Over Your Time

The harder you work to increase your control over your day, the less tolerance you have for interruptions and the more you isolate yourself as a way to maintain control, asserts Gilbert. This has negative consequences for your mental health and causes you to suffer. For instance, imagine that to gain control over your day, you get to the office at 5 a.m., before any colleagues who might bother you have arrived, and work with your door closed to avoid interruptions. This lets you get more done, but it also makes you extremely lonely. 

(Shortform note: Gilbert claims that your desire to be productive causes you to isolate yourself, which negatively affects your mental health. To make matters worse, the more isolated you are, the more you continue to isolate yourself. This is because the body processes loneliness and isolation as a threat, which triggers a “fight or flight” response. This response, in turn, makes you more wary of other social threats, like rejection from your peers. Thus, you steer clear of the people who could lift you out of your isolation.)

Form of Suffering #3: You Don’t Get to the Most Important Tasks

Additionally, you suffer because the harder you try to fit everything into your schedule, the less likely it is you’ll get to the most important tasks, Gilbert feels. This is because when you believe you can get everything done, you don’t prioritize the critical over the non-critical. 

(Shortform note: Burkeman describes how the belief that you can accomplish all your to-dos prevents you from prioritizing critical tasks. According to David Allen, you can make it even harder to prioritize critical tasks by not writing down all your tasks on paper. In Getting Things Done, Allen contends that when you don’t write tasks down, you think about the unimportant ones as much as the important ones. You might thus expend all your mental energy on a minor task and have none left over for a major one.)

Form of Suffering #4: You Obsess About the Future at the Expense of the Present

Finally, Burkeman believes that the delusion that you can get everything done makes you suffer because it causes you to spend all your present time working toward an unattainable future goal. Rather than dedicating your present to enjoyable pursuits that add richness to your life, you dedicate it to the less-rewarding act of catching up on work, because you believe if you try hard enough, you can one day get on top of it all. 

(Shortform note: In Who Will Cry When You Die?, Robin Sharma explains that letting enjoyable present moments slip by because you dedicate all your time to work and concerns about the future not only causes you to suffer but also leaves you with regret on your deathbed. In fact, he believes most people prioritize the wrong things—future-oriented concerns about career and status, for example—when they should be prioritizing things like cherishing moments of present beauty.)

Burkeman adds that capitalism causes you to think in this future-oriented way because it’s designed to utilize present resources to make future profits. As a member of a capitalist society, you’re compelled to think about the present in terms of how it can improve the future. 

(Shortform note: Capitalism has spawned many other widely accepted beliefs beyond the notion that you should use the present to improve the future. According to Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens, capitalism is predicated upon the idea that economic growth is inherently good because it helps promote freedom and justice. A capitalist might argue that when a country is wealthy, it spreads wealth to less developed countries, thereby improving their economic and governmental situations. Like the belief that you should dedicate the present toward the improvement of the future, the idea that economic growth is inherently good is up for debate.)

Oliver Burkeman: The Delusion of Time Management

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  • Why humans will never have perfect control over how they spend their time
  • Why you shouldn't feel guilty when you can't get everything done
  • How to best use the finite amount of time you have on Earth

Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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