#265 – Time, productivity, and purpose: insights from Four Thousand Weeks | Oliver Burkeman

Part of living a meaningful life is to be conscious of that fact that we don't get all the time we would wish to have.” —Oliver Burkeman

Read Time 55 minutes

Oliver Burkeman is the author of The New York Times best-seller Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals. In this episode, Oliver delves into the pervasive idea that time can be mastered, exploring whether maximizing productivity is an attainable goal or a perpetual trap. He discusses the allure of attempting to control time—and, therefore, the future—and shares his personal journey of experimenting with diverse time management techniques that failed to deliver the emotional satisfaction he sought. Ultimately, they explore the mismatch between being a finite human and existing in a world of infinite possibilities and how all of these concepts intertwine with finding a sense of purpose and meaning. Additionally, Oliver shares insights from his book on productivity, using our time wisely, and embracing our finitude to live a more fulfilling life.


We discuss:

  • Oliver’s experience that led him to write the book Four Thousand Weeks [3:15];
  • Human’s relationship with time and the struggle with the finite nature of time [7:15];
  • How productivity can be a trap [11:00];
  • The fallacy that being more efficient will open up more time and bring a feeling of control [16:45];
  • The paradoxical nature of trying too hard to be present in the current moment [22:45];
  • The value of relationships in meaningful experiences and fulfillment, and how time gets its value from being shared [26:45];
  • The importance of time synchronicity [36:00];
  • Identifying your biggest priorities and the paradox of wanting to do more than you have time for [41:00];
  • Oliver’s moment of clarity in 2014 [47:15];
  • The role of a sense of purpose in fulfillment [50:15];
  • Reconciling the finite nature of time and letting go of trying to master your time [59:00];
  • Why we tend to have a future-focused attitude and how to combat that with atelic activities [1:05:45];
  • The power of shifting your perspective about time and your experiences [1:12:45];
  • How to operationalize the three principles for the dilemma of finite time [1:20:15];
  • Harnessing the power of patience in the face of a problem or experience [1:28:00];
  • The value of incrementalism for being productive [1:34:15];
  • Embracing your finitude with curiosity [1:38:00];
  • Acting on an idea in the moment rather than letting the idea be the obstacle [1:41:15]; and
  • More.


Oliver’s experience that led him to write the book Four Thousand Weeks [3:15]

  • When Peter read Four Thousand Weeks, there was a lot he could relate to because he’s definitely a productivity geek
    • He’s always kept lists
    • He loves pens and journals
    • He loves to organize
  • Even at a young age (growing up), it was clear that there is almost pathological consequences to this because if things were not done, there would be emotional consequences

Tell me a little bit about your experience in this arena 

  • This sounds alarmingly similar to Oliver as a young adult
    • Feeling very motivated
    • Not realizing at the time obviously that it wasn’t just the normal way to try to get your homework done and get your college assignments in on time
    • This real sense that there must be a way of getting on top of his time and structuring his time that would enable him to deal with everything that was thrown at him
    • To not have to make difficult decisions and fail to placate certain people who are making demands 
    • To not have to make any choices about which direction he was going in because he would be so efficient that he would do it all
  • Oliver adds, “You get to this place where you often feel very nearly like you are there, right? You feel like it might only be a month or two of really disciplined work before you’re going to be at… effortless productivity, but instead you end up sort of making fresh starts, introducing a new system, downloading a new app, buying a new notebook every month or two.
  • He got into a position professionally where he could write about a lot of this stuff and continue to go deep into it
  • This book is what came from exhausting that
    • Realizing that he’d tried a hundred different productivity systems and they hadn’t given him the emotional thing he was seeking

Maybe there was a problem with the question I was asking rather than that I just hadn’t found the right solution.”‒ Oliver Burkeman 

  • Peter recalls a line in the book, something to the effect of “We teach what we most need to learn.
  • That message is from Richard Bach, who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull  
    • This book had a whole bunch of advice that Oliver needed to hear (and stills needs to hear)
  • Oliver find it a little bit funny/awkward when people assume the book describes the daily state of serenity in which he lives his live, because he doesn’t
    • He still struggles with all of this stuff, but that’s what makes it interesting

This question of how you orient yourself inside time in a finite life is endlessly fascinating and Oliver doesn’t feel like he’s resolved it all 


Human’s relationship with time and the struggle with the finite nature of time [7:15]

  • Peter returns to something Oliver said a moment ago, “All this productivity, all of these hacks didn’t give you what you were looking for emotionally” 
    • For someone who didn’t read the book, this is a bit counterintuitive because the purpose of productivity is to get stuff done, to be more efficient
    • But for those who have read it, it makes a lot of sense

{end of show notes preview}

Would you like access to extensive show notes and references for this podcast (and more)?

Check out this post to see an example of what the substantial show notes look like. Become a member today to get access.

Become a Member

Oliver Burkeman

Oliver Burkeman is a British journalist and author. He wrote the highly popular former weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life, for The Guardian. His books include HELP!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, and most recently, Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (now available in paperback). He was awarded the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year Award and was short-listed for the Orwell Prize. [Oliver Burkeman

Website: Oliver Burkeman

Twitter: @oliverburkeman

Disclaimer: This blog is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information on this blog or materials linked from this blog is at the user's own risk. The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.
  1. Fascinating discussion! One item I would take issue with is the improbability of our existence. “In the book Oliver refers to someone who had done the math on how improbable each of our existences is.” (from Notes) Evidently they did the math wrong, since the probability of anyone’s existence, who exists, is 100%. This the same lack of logic and misapplied math that creationists use to disprove evolution. It doesn’t work. However, the point about wasting time you don’t have is certainly valid!

  2. Episode #265
    Great episode – really hit home.

    About 30 min into the show I had to laugh as I realized I was listening at 1.5x speed on order maximize the time I had to listen so I could get to my other “must listen” shows on time management and efficiency.

  3. Dr. Attia,
    There are a few people that I listen to religiously–Jordan Peterson, Andrew Klavan, any interview with Dr. James Lindsay, and likely, now you as well. I am sipping your book Outlive and really enjoying it.

    The interview with Oliver has been provocative. I am highly creative, which means there’s an infinite number of things I think of to do. When I consider the large number, I give up doing anything and watch a movie.

    If I understand Oliver right, this is actually a recognition of our mortality, normally a somber prospect, but in some ways a relief.

    You talked about a unified theory of purpose. As you must know, wise people have been chewing on our reason for being for at least 4000 years, and my assumption is that their best understanding is better than mine.

    In my opinion, a unified theory already exists in the Book of Ecclesiastes (and elsewhere in the Bible and the Western Canon). It helps us properly see life’s purpose, and once seen, a burden is lifted.

    Other useful references come from that august work, “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.” They are the total perspective vortex and the point of view gun. In both ways, they both showed the victim his or her proper place in the universe–to his or her detriment.

    Thanks for an enlightening interview.

  4. Sorry… this question is off topic.
    Do you have an episode on the spine in the works? The upper and lower extremities episodes with Drs. Barron and Cohen were superb. I’d love to see a spine episode since it connects the other two, and it is the most common locus of pain for nearly everyone at some point in their lives, and is exceptionally problematic to treat. Pls include a deep dive into your personal experience with your debilitating back pain in med school and the botched surgery to fix it.

    OBTW… this was another excellent episode. Yes. I’ve listened to every single one.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Instagram icon Pinterest icon Google+ icon YouTube icon LinkedIn icon Contact icon