Skip to main content

As a weekly newspaper columnist on productivity, Oliver Burkeman felt like an alcoholic conveniently employed as a wine expert. He got to sample the latest tools and try the latest ideas, but only ended up tipsy. He never found the promised era of calm, undistracted productivity; he just got more stressed and unhappy.

“Productivity is a trap. Nobody in the history of humanity has ever achieved ‘work-life balance,’ whatever that might be, and you certainly won’t get there by doing the ‘six things successful people do before 7 a.m.,’ he writes in his new book, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. “The day will never arrive when you finally have everything under control.”

If you’re smart, he says, you’ll admit defeat – which can be liberating. He urges you to step back from the immediate and consider the big picture: If you live to 80, you will have 4,000 weeks – and they are steadily running out. But the world is bursting with wonder, and he says it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate purpose of all our efforts may be to experience more of that wonder. To do that, tough choices are inevitable and you won’t have time for everything you have dreamed of doing.

The more you try to squeeze in, the more commitments you take on, the less you are likely to question whether each commitment is truly worth the amount of your time it’s claiming. That leads to the paradox of limitation, which he says you must confront: “The more you try to manage your time with a goal of achieving a feeling of total control and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets. But the more you confront the [facts of life’s limitations] instead – and work with them, rather than against them – the more productive, meaningful and joyful life becomes.”

Mr. Burkeman is a time management writer, so he does have tips. The first principle is to pay yourself first when it comes to time. If you keep your most valued activities for last – the time left after you grapple with other things – you’ll likely never get to them. “If a certain activity really matters to you … the only way to be sure it will happen is to do some of it today, no matter how little,” he says.

The second principle is to limit your work in progress. Many of us have a tendency to initiate a lot of projects at once; it seems like we are making progress on a lot of fronts until we realize that we aren’t really getting that far on anything. Instead, set a hard limit on the number of things you will allow yourself to work on at one time. Only when one item is completed can you add another

His third principle is to resist the allure of middling priorities. That follows the advice of Warren Buffett, who told someone to make a list of the 25 things he wanted from life and then organize his time only around the top five. Mr. Buffet also warned the other 20 were dangerous because they were sufficiently important to the individual that they could prevent achieving the most important ambitions.

Mr. Burkeman also recommends rediscovering rest. “Spending at least some of your time leisure time ‘wastefully,’ focused solely on the pleasure of the experience, is the only way not to waste it – to be truly at leisure, rather than covertly engaged in future-focused self-improvement,” he writes.

There are 4,000 weeks. Use them wisely.

Quick hits

  • Consultant Avivah Wittenberg-Cox suggests dividing your life into chapters defined by seven-year phases. Take stock of where you are today, ponder the priorities and lessons from each phase as well as the key people and influences, and use those reflections to plan the next phase.
  • Productivity consultant Chris Bailey says a good productivity strategy is to step into the shoes of your future self – by thinking about the path you want to create, you’re more likely to follow it. When fast forwarding, he likes to ask himself: What do I want to be proud of?
  • To avoid being overpowered by strong emotions aroused by negative comments in performance reviews, Bozoma Saint John, Netflix’s chief marketing office, asks herself: “What can I learn that will make me better?”
  • Yale psychologist Laurie Santos, who teaches a course on social science and pursuing happiness says that we often neglect the importance of free time to our happiness. A big predictor of happiness is how much time you spend with other people and how much time you spend with the people you care about.
  • Author Danny Rubin advises you to introduce yourself immediately when calling somebody and reaching their assistant. That saves the hassle of being asked who you are, so the assistant can judge how to handle the situation, and signals your confidence.

Stay ahead in your career. We have a weekly Careers newsletter to give you guidance and tips on career management, leadership, business education and more. Sign up today.