How to manage your time in 2024, according to guru Oliver Burkeman

Author of ‘Four Thousand Weeks’ says the first step is to realize you can’t do everything

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Suffering from endless to-do lists? If so, one solution, found widely in LinkedIn posts and motivational podcasts, is to become more efficient.

You can wake up at 5 a.m. You can divide your schedule into 15-minute blocks and answer emails in rapid-fire batches. You can learn Mandarin while training for an Ironman Triathlon. With discipline, you will squeeze in more meetings, more networking coffees and still be there for all the important family moments.

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Not everyone is convinced. “You can’t win a battle with time in this way,” said the writer Oliver Burkeman.

He starts from a place of bad news: you do not have long to live. Neither does he. Nor do any of us. Western life expectancy is about 4,000 weeks. You might get lucky: Henry Kissinger got 5,244. Then again, 52 weeks just flew by. And you know from experience that, whatever optimistic targets you set for 2024, they are likely to be crowded out by competing demands. “The classic approach to New Year’s resolutions is doomed,” he said.

The classic approach to New Year’s resolutions is doomed

Oliver Burkeman

If this sounds depressing, Burkeman’s contention is the opposite: that if you acknowledge time is finite, you can find sanity — and a sense of meaning. You can stop asking how to accomplish all your required tasks for one day, because in reality “the answer might just be: you can’t.”

Instead you can focus on accepting the need for tough choices. You don’t just have to say no to things you don’t want to do; you also have to say no to things you do want to do. You can prioritize some pursuits that grow you as a person, and deliberately neglect others. “I will spend less time at the gym” may be a good New Year’s resolution.

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Burkeman, a former journalist at The Guardian, published the bestselling book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals in 2021. Now he is doing online video courses for the BBC’s Maestro streaming service for people affected by the “cult of busyness.”

He caters to those who have “a feeling of being perpetually on the back foot”: whether they feel overwhelmed by tasks, consumed by impostor syndrome, or daunted by the anxiety-inducing state of the world. Some people say his work has helped them to quit their jobs, but a more common response is that, by recognizing the pressures of modern life, he has given them “permission” to make changes.

In conversation, from his home in the North York Moors, Burkeman is a very English guru: uncertain and doubtful, in the positive sense of those words. He borrows ideas widely, including from Buddhism and Daoism. He is frequently bracketed with other critics of productivity, such as Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, and Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing. He cites both admiringly, but says he is less sure than Newport that we can control our schedules (doing so may backfire and make life less enjoyable) and more optimistic than Odell that there are some paths to greater productivity.

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“It isn’t the technique, it’s what you’re using the technique for. If you think the Pomodoro technique (a time management method that splits work into short intervals), or any other, is going to save your soul and make you feel you’re justifying your existence on the planet at last, then it’s going to fail you.”

But techniques, including the Pomodoro, can be useful “to give shape to your day.” Among those he recommends are setting a fixed number of hours for work — a number that may be much lower than you are used to, not least because our brains have limits for creative tasks.

If you think the Pomodoro technique … is going to save your soul and make you feel you’re justifying your existence on the planet at last, then it’s going to fail you

Oliver Burkeman

“We normally get up in the morning and make an incredibly long list that’s got no relationship to the time available. … If you just say, I don’t work past 6 p.m., and I can’t get down to work before, say, 9 a.m., the question becomes: which are the (things) that matter the most? It forces you to see that most of the meaningful things you could ever do with your time are not going to get done on any one day. That this isn’t because you’re a failure, or because you haven’t found the right system, it’s just the reality of life.”

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Healthy time management is particularly difficult for workers, such as corporate lawyers, who have come to see their time as a salable asset that is wasted if not billed to a client.

Burkeman endorses Jessica Abel’s concept of “paying yourself first”: if there is something you really want to do, don’t wait until you have finished all your other tasks before turning to it. His other suggestions include keeping two to-do lists: one with everything you need to do, and the other with a maximum of 10 that you are focused on now.

When setting New Year’s resolutions, Burkeman advises against aiming to do something every day without fail. Such resolutions can become “so rigid” they fall apart the first day life gets in the way. Instead he recommends the approach of meditation writer Dan Harris: do something “daily-ish,” maybe four or five times a week, thereby putting only a “middling level of pressure on yourself.”

On a daily-ish basis, Burkeman writes three sides of A5 paper with whatever is in head. He plays the piano, badly, for leisure not achievement. He is more patient than he used to be, and better at not feeling tyrannized by tasks. He thanks his seven-year-old son: “Fatherhood throws into relief the obvious truth: if you’re going to wait till all your work is handled before you spend time with your child, you’re just never going to be spending time with your children.” Yet time management remains a work in progress: Burkeman’s newsletter is called The Imperfectionist.

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He borrows a mindset from Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis — when faced with choice, ask yourself, “Does this path enlarge or diminish me?” So is he skeptical of people who seek growth in marathons and other athletic challenges? “It’s completely personality-specific. Lots of people are asking what they should spend time on. I can’t tell you that.”

He advises people to focus on “something that is actually difficult for you… If you’re the kind of person who is always completing Ironmen, that is not one of those things.” For plenty of people, self-punishment “is their most comfortable way of existing. The interesting challenge for those people would be cutting themselves some slack.”

When setting New Year's resolutions, Burkeman advises against aiming to do something every day without fail.
When setting New Year’s resolutions, Burkeman advises against aiming to do something every day without fail. Photo by Getty Images/iStockphoto

Choosing a more purposeful life has its own pitfalls and stresses, he notes, if people have unreasonable expectations of what they can achieve. Better to reserve some time for things they actually enjoy.

Skeptics might say Burkeman’s ideas are more applicable to freelance writers than to office workers with limited control of their schedule. He pushes back: “A lot of people find they have more wriggle room than they thought. There can be a certain convenience to telling yourself you don’t have choices.”

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Those who do not have flexibility can still benefit from realizing the trade-offs they are making: “Even if you’re not going to make a single change to your life, and you’re going to continue to placate unreasonable people, there’s a greater degree of psychological freedom.”

How should organizations adjust to the realization that time is finite? Burkeman wants “cultures that set ‘posteriorities’ as well as priorities. If you’re going to ask your team to focus on one key goal over the next months, is it part of the culture that they can also ask: ‘So what are we going to put on the back burner?’” Too often, he argues, goals are set in a way that suggests to upper management that everything can get done.

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He recommends organizations have periods of the day when meetings are not held, and don’t allow workers to put meetings in their colleagues’ calendars with little option to say no.

After applying Burkeman’s approach for a few days, I felt a weight from my shoulders, but I wondered if the flip side was simply achieving less. “We’re not lowering our ambitions by facing the truth: that everyone involved here has finite time, finite stamina and finite control over how a day is going to unfold. By acknowledging that, you’re harnessing the energy and power of your people more effectively because you’re in touch with reality.”

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.

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