About Oliver Burkeman
Oliver Burkeman is an award-winning British journalist who wrote a long-running weekly column for The Guardian, entitled “This Column Will Change Your Life.” Burkeman has won the Foreign Press Association’s Young Journalist of the Year award, FPA’s Science Story of the Year 2015 and has been shortlisted for the Orwell Prize in 2006. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Psychologies, and New Philosopher. He lives in New York City.
He is the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking focuses on his theory of negativity and Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done (2011). He also has his own blog, on which he features a wide range of articles covering topics such as business management and various interviews with noteworthy individuals including Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter His new book, Four Thousand Weeks – time management for mere mortals , is about making the most of our radically finite lives in a world of impossible demands, relentless distraction and political insanity (and ‘productivity techniques’ that mainly just make everyone feel busier).
Lesson 1: Seek enlargement rather than happiness 06:47
Lesson 2: Everyone is totally just winging it 11:01
Lesson 3: You’re always procrastinating on something 18:23
Lesson 4: Nobody else really cares what you do with your life 23:34
Lesson 5: The ability to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower 26:33
Lesson 6: What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured 30:49
Lesson 7: Let things take the time they take 33:06
Lesson 8: You wouldn’t want the control you think you need 35:15
Lesson 9: Don’t fight time; it always wins in the end 40:42
Lesson 10: You don’t need to justify your existence 43:59
Oliver Burkeman – Everyone is totally just winging it
[00:00:08] Duff Watkins: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn where we dispense wisdom for career and life. That’s wisdom for your career, your life. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. Our guest today is Oliver Berkman, an award-winning British journalist who for many years wrote a column for The Guardian.
[00:00:27] The column was called “this column can change your life”. And it did Oliver. Welcome to the show.
[00:00:34] Oliver Burkeman: Thank you very much. Thanks.
[00:00:36] Duff Watkins: This whole trip began for me. I read your book, The Antidote, happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking.
[00:00:44] I thought if a book was ever engineered for somebody who’s engineered for me, and by the way, I just checked the re I just checked the Amazon ratings, various rating sites, that book for listers and viewers is ranked 4.5 stars on Amazon, Amazon, Brazil, and other ones as well. So, it’s quite a popular book, but you’ve got a new book out called 4,000 weeks.
[00:01:08] And there’s a story behind that title,
[00:01:11] Oliver Burkeman: right? Yeah. The, the title, the book is 4,000 weeks. The subtitle is time management for mortals and 4,000 weeks is very approximately. The life that you can expect to live on average, you know, today in the west, if you live to be 80, you’ve had a few more than 4,000 actually to get precise about it.
[00:01:28] And if you’re lucky, you might have 5,000 and certain record-breaking figures in history have gone above 6,000, but it’s all still pretty, pretty low figures when you put it in weeks, I think. and so, you know, I just wanted to use that as a sort of way into the book theme, which is how we, what changes about how we understand time and time management and living a meaningful life.
[00:01:51] When you sort of face up to the, the big limitation here, the, the finitude that we’re all dealing with.
[00:01:58] Duff Watkins: Well, in fact, one of the reviewers said it was described the book as, time management equals confronting finitude. And I actually did a bit of math myself is that if you look at your working life, the time when you earn money, the time where you contribute, where you produce, where you are working, it’s closer to 1,800 weeks.
[00:02:18] So you don’t right. You don’t, we don’t have that much time to contribute in, in a, in a conventional working sense.
[00:02:27] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, I think there’s as well, I’m sure we’ll talk about, as we talk about other stuff, I mean, I always want to sort of push back even against my own title in a way and say that, I don’t think that the message of the book or of the stuff I write about on this topic.
[00:02:41] I don’t think it would be right to take the message as being like. Oh, my goodness. There’s so little time. So, I better really panic about seizing every day and, you know, immediately leave my job to go and set up a base-jumping company in the mountains of New Zealand. But, you know, doing these astonishing things, these unusual things that is the path that some people, choose to take.
[00:03:03] But it’s almost that the reason I want to bring up this point about how our limited our time is, is because I think that most of the ways that we go about thinking about time and certainly a lot of advice that you see on time management and productivity, it, it actually is premised on this idea. We might somehow be able to do everything and be so efficient and perfect at this stuff that we could never have to make any tough decisions or let anything go.
[00:03:29] And so, in a way it’s a relief, I think, to see like, no, no, that is an impossible quest. And once you sort of see that it’s impossible, it frees you up to do something really great and meaningful, but, but possible with your life. So, I think that’s it. I hope it’s sort of a liberation rather than entirely a cause for, panic attacks, you know?
[00:03:51] Duff Watkins: Well, would you say that this obsession with productivity, which we have in the Western world, certainly in the corporate world, would you say it’s a defence against anxiety?
[00:04:00] Oliver Burkeman: I think that’s how it gets used. I mean, there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to be productive or even wanting to be more efficient.
[00:04:07] I still look for ways to get rid of pointless expenditures of time in the course of my workflow, whatever. But I think by and large, certainly in my personal experience, it gets used as a form of emotional avoidance. Right. Because you can’t do everything. You can’t make yourself, hyper efficient to the point where there’s no limit to what you can deal with or what you can execute or implement. But as long as you are following some doctrine of productivity, that makes it seem like soon, you will reach that position.
[00:04:39] The fantasy can stay alive, right? And you can keep chasing this moment, which is never. Now it’s always, maybe next month or next year, once I’ve got this whole system fully worked out and that’s, you know, blah, blah, blah, then you know, your life will be in perfect working order. You, you tell yourself, and as long as you’re doing that, you don’t have to feel the discomfort of our real situation, which is, you know, the reality has certain limitations built in with our limited amount of time, the limited degree to which we can control how it unfolds.
[00:05:09] The fact that like other people are always annoyingly getting in the way of your own plans already know.
[00:05:15] Duff Watkins: I noticed that too. Yes. But one of the subtexts, if I read it correctly of your book is choose what to neglect.
[00:05:24] Oliver Burkeman: Right. And this is, I think this is an important point because it’s very much to do with becoming conscious of something that we’re already doing. So, I think it’s important to say that, like, you know, as finite humans, we are always choosing, there are always trade-offs involved. Anything you decide to do with an hour of your life, you are by definition, deciding not to do countless other things.
[00:05:46] This is all a given. You don’t get to choose to opt out of that situation. But what you do get to choose is to be more conscious about this fact, not to seek ways to deny it or not feel the discomfort of it, but to face it. And, once you see that you have to be procrastinating on most things at any given moment, once you see that you have to neglect, you know, most things at any given moment, it’s a lot, it’s a lot easier.
[00:06:10] I think it’s a, it’s a, it’s a difficult path in a certain way, but it’s a possible path. Whereas the one about I’m never going to have to neglect anything. I’m going to please, everybody. I’m not going to let anybody down. And I’m going to fulfill every single ambition that I can come up with or whatever it might be.
[00:06:26] You know, that is a torment because that can’t ever come to pass.
[00:06:33] Duff Watkins: Well, and I think as you put it in your book, your inbox is never empty. you know.
[00:06:39] Oliver Burkeman: Right. And in fact, the process of trying to clear it generates more emails. So, it’s like struggling in quicksand, you know?
[00:06:47] Lesson 1: Seek enlargement rather than happiness
[00:06:47] Duff Watkins: All right, well, let’s get to your 10 lessons then 10 lessons. It took you 50 years to learn. Number one, seek enlargement, not happiness. What? This is not pro-obesity. Is it Oliver? I mean that that’s not going to work in this day and age.
[00:07:02] Oliver Burkeman: I I’m. Well, there’s be there be no I’m.
[00:07:07] No. This is growth, no fat shaming here. What I want to say is this is a, this is a line which I want to fully attribute to an extremely wise Jungian psychoanalyst whose work I really admire and who I’ve since had the privilege of getting to know a bit James Hollis, all of whose books I would hardly recommend, but, but who makes this argument that, you know, if you’re facing a fork in the road in your life, or a difficult choice, or deciding what to do a much better question than will this make me happy?
[00:07:37] Is will this choice enlarge me or diminish me? Partly. It’s just well-known at this point, right? That we are terrible at predicting what will make us happy. this is like a famous finding of, of social psychology at this point. Also, I think happiness and asking the question about happiness leads you off in the direction of.
[00:07:54] comfort and avoidance and, and sort of not having to feel certain things that you might not want to feel, whereas enlargement, most people know the answer to this question, right? If you, if you’re facing a dilemma, most people do know, when they ask themselves and look inside, maybe they need to give it a few weeks, but like whether the thing they’re considering embarking upon is going to sort of enlarge their soul in a way to use that kind of metaphorical language.
[00:08:19] So a good example of this and, you know, we’ve all, experienced sort of difficulties in relationships, right? Dissatisfaction or conflict, or am ambivalence. And it’s very hard to know whether, you know, sticking with a relationship is going to make you in the short or medium term, happier than if you didn’t it might, it might well be that, you know, happiest would be on your own sitting at home, watching Netflix, doing nothing else.
[00:08:43] But when you ask this question about enlargement, it gets very clear because I think you can really understand, there are the kinds of difficulties that you come across in a relationship where you think like, okay, this isn’t fun, what we’re going through, but it’s important. And we are both becoming bigger people as a result of this.
[00:08:59] And this applies to professional relationships, I think as well as romantic ones. You just intuitively know that it’s the kind of, it’s the kind of difficulty that is ultimately, edifying and good to go through. Versus the kind where you might be, you know, in a relationship with someone with a really severe personality disorder, or you might be in an abusive relationship, or it might be a, a professional relationship where you are just being taken for a ride and exploited, and then, you know, as well, I think mostly in your heart, in your gut, oh, this is not that kind of this is not that kind of difficulty.
[00:09:33] This is the kind of difficulty it is actually right. To get myself away from and to protect myself from. And you can only get there by asking these questions about enlargement. I think instead of these questions about happiness, which will lead you astray, all the time.
[00:09:49] Duff Watkins: So, this enlargement, this personal growth is not to be confused with pleasure. That is to say it’s not always fun, not always pleasurable to experience, but ultimately it is the payoff. That’s the process to maturation.
[00:10:03] Oliver Burkeman: Right. It’s a way of, it’s a way of filtering between two different kinds of problem. I think that we can experience in life. One is like the stuff that growth and life and meaning is made of, and then the other is the kind of problem that absolutely people should like, you know, do what they can to minimize and stay away from toxic people and, and all the rest of it.
[00:10:23] I’ve found that very useful in my own life on multiple occasions to ask that kind of question, because pretty soon the answer does sort of bubble up in a way that it doesn’t when happiness is the question.
[00:10:37] Duff Watkins: Yeah. Sometimes the quest for happiness sort of pollutes the, the, the question.
[00:10:43] Oliver Burkeman: Right.
[00:10:43] And is it comfort you’re seeking, and which might actually be bad in this particular case? And all sorts of other factors, happiness is a happiness comes along for the ride, one hopes, but I think that’s how you have to think about, happiness not as a not as the goal you are going to strive for directly.
[00:10:56] Duff Watkins: It’s been described as a by-product.
[00:10:58] Yeah. A by-product rather than a destination.
[00:11:01] Lesson 2: Everyone is totally just winging it
[00:11:01] Duff Watkins: All right. Lesson, number two, everyone is just winging it. I knew it. Oliver. I knew there’s no master plan behind all of this just confirms everything I’ve suspected for decades.
[00:11:13] Oliver Burkeman: I wrote a, I wrote a piece with roughly that headline, what I think it was getting on for a, well, I must be eight years ago now, something more.
[00:11:21] And since then, I feel like it was about, it was about some sort of minor misstep that, President Obama had made, and everyone was responding. Like how could the white house possibly have made this mistake? And you’re just like, well, because everyone is just winging it all the time. And like the idea that just because someone is the president, they’ve discovered the secret to, to knowing what the heck is going on in the world is not true.
[00:11:44] That feels a little dated now because I feel like everything that’s happened to politics since then is like, now it’s incredibly clear over and over again, pretty much, no matter what your political stance that like that our leaders are. Absolutely no more perfect at, under, at having things sorted out than anyone else.
[00:12:04] Seems like that has, we’re reminded of that over the last few years on a, on both sides of the Atlantic ocean on a daily basis. And I just think it’s a really interesting. It’s a good way of dealing with firstly, I think it’s true. I think in the sense that we assume someone somewhere knows what’s going on, actually no one does know what’s going on.
[00:12:24] I don’t mean that, you know, people don’t have expertise that they are, that they put to good use in their work, but there’s this strong sense. It’s a bit like a child with a parent, right? Except now we’re the grownups. You want to know, you want to know that somebody somewhere, in your company, in your life, in your state nation, really knows, what’s going on and isn’t sort of improvising from moment to moment. And actually, that’s why that’s a theory behind a lot of, an explanation behind a bunch of, conspiracy theories, is that people actually find it more people find it more calming to believe that an evil cabal is manipulating the world than that it is really as chaotic and random and unpredictable as it, as it really is.
[00:13:09] They would rather believe in, in some evil puppet masters.
[00:13:12] Duff Watkins: And that’s just another defence against anxiety, the personal anxiety. Right. Right. Because I’m dealing with this entropy, which is real and is out there. And so, it’s much better for me to think that, you know, the Jews are behind it or, or, you know, the Catholic society, whatever it is, you know?
[00:13:31] Oliver Burkeman: Right. It’s yeah, exactly. Yes. It’s, it’s a comfort. It’s, it’s a comfort device and, and people are willing to sort of falsify the facts completely to feel that comfort. but in daily life, those of us who are not conspiracy theorists, I think what this is really useful for is just that it is a. It serves as a big relief and as a motivation, I think to people who may be afflicted by some degree of imposter syndrome, you know, thinking that they’re not quite ready to make their contribution, that they need to know more before they, before they make their voices heard.
[00:14:03] That can be true sometimes that, you know, people it’s good that people go through long medical training before they operate on me, you know, but, but I think it acts primarily in life to sort of hold people back because they’re under a misimpression about the competence and confidence of the people around them.
[00:14:23] The reason you only hear your own monologue of internal self-doubt is not because no one else has them. It’s because you only hear your own internal monologue. So, I’m always saying, you know, some people want to respond to, people want to say about imposter syndrome, like. No, no, no, you’re great. You know what you’re doing?
[00:14:43] You can go out there, you can join them. You’re just as you’re just as good. And I want to say, well, you are just as good, but only because nobody knows what they’re doing. So, in a way, We’re all impostors in a, in a crucial way, I think. And I think it’s, it’s just useful to.
[00:14:58] Duff Watkins: Well, when I read that lesson, it reminded me in my previous podcast, I used to interview a lot of us, politicians, senators, governors, us ambassadors.
[00:15:07] And what I came away with was that they’re all guys, they’re just guys. We really, you know I mean, really, you know, so many senior executives, I mean, senior executives that I, I, I wouldn’t personally feed, you know, if it was up to me, but they’re, I mean, they’re smart, they’re intelligent. They have their pluses and their skills of obtaining that position and maintaining that position.
[00:15:28] But, but many a time I walked away thinking my God, those are people are awesomely average and that’s okay because that’s pretty much the way the rest of us are too. And not to be underestimated, so, okay, so we’re wing it. What does that mean for the. a person listening to this podcast or the person who’s going to pick up your book 4,000 weeks.
[00:15:53] Oliver Burkeman: I, I think what it means above all, is that the sense that I think a lot of people have and that I certainly have of always kind of improvising your responses to things never quite being absolutely certain, never quite sort of just following some steps in your, in, in some particular workplace, it’s always having to sort of create everything afresh always feeling that you’re not quite yet in this kind of serene position of command and control over your life, that this isn’t a problem, that this is not something to sort of feel bad about because it means you’re not, you’re not there yet.
[00:16:30] And I fall into this myself every time, you know, I write an email newsletter every couple of weeks, and I’m always struck by how it feels like. I’m always sort of starting from scratch and trying to figure out what an email newsletter should be. And wondering if I’ve got a really good point to make and it, it, you never get to the stage where you’re just like, okay, it’s all in working order.
[00:16:51] I just need to like plug and play or whatever the right metaphor is. You never get there. And actually, you know, I think in writing, it’s sort of important that one never gets there. Cause it keeps you fresh and creative, but, but it’s really useful to remember that this is the nature of being human, right.
[00:17:06] One way of thinking about it is in terms of time. And that’s the one I explore in, in the book, especially, right. We’re all sort of on the leading edge of the present moment, moving into the future. The president of the United States, the chief executive of the world bank. They are, they have as little certainty about what happens in the next hour as you or I, or the loneliest person one could imagine.
[00:17:33] And that’s really useful to remember. I think like it’s scary because what you really want is somebody saying like, it’s all right, I’ve looked ahead. I’ve, I’ve gone ahead a century and I can tell you like this climate change stuff is scary, but we figure it out. Maybe we don’t, you know? And I think we have to accept that in order, precisely to start making our own meaningful contributions.
[00:17:53] Duff Watkins: Well, facing reality unflinchingly is something that takes a lot of practice. I’ve been working on it for a long while now and
[00:18:01] Oliver Burkeman: right. Yeah. I don’t think you ever get there. I think it’s absolutely the point.
[00:18:05] Duff Watkins: Yeah. And one of the things that you do up facing is we are, we are finite creatures. We have finite out amounts of emotional, physical, psychological energy.
[00:18:16] So you have to deploy it wisely because it runs out it’s renewable, it’s replenishable, but it runs out. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:18:23] Lesson 3: You’re always procrastinating on something
[00:18:23] Duff Watkins: All right. Then lesson number three, you’re always procrastinating about something.
[00:18:29] Oliver Burkeman: Yes. I mean, this is the truth that I think we touched on a little bit at the beginning that you know, because time is finite because every decision to do something is a decision not to do something else It’s better to think about procrastination as something to become better at, rather than something to try to eradicate from your life. Of all the projects, I mean, different for different people, but of how many, how many projects you wish you were working on or want to be working on there’s no option, but to neglect most of them at any one time. So, the, so the important question is not, how do I not neglect anything that I have on my plate?
[00:19:05] The important question is how do I make the wisest choices about what to neglect? And I think once you see that it becomes a lot easier to make those choices. You, you can let go. If you’re going to beat yourself up about not making progress on something that is important, you’re always going to be beating yourself up because that is the nature of especially the world in which we live in, right.
[00:19:26] Where there are so many effectively sort of infinite demands on our time, but also infinite opportunities and possibilities. We, we need a way of thinking about this that doesn’t maybe once it was possible to sort of feel like you were taking care of every single thing in your life that needed taken care of, but, but that’s sort of systematically impossible now.
[00:19:46] And so we would do much better to try and make these decisions carefully. I think
[00:19:52] Duff Watkins: Nicholas Taleb says in his book, he’s very much pro procrastination. He says, basically, it’s just your brain telling you, get on with it, go on to something else. This is, this is not stimulating. It’s not interesting. It’s not worthwhile.
[00:20:04] It’s not, you can return to it later, but get on to something that. Engages you more. And he said has made his whole career by doing that reading only what he wants to read when he wants to read it. and there is a great deal of truth and power in this. I, there is even a method which says you work in small batches of time, 20, 25 minutes, something like that.
[00:20:24] Yep. And it’s a, I believe it works because it’s a way of feeding you a constant, sustainable set of stimulation without trying to force yourself to, to co concentrate or focus on this unduly. Does that ring a bell with you in terms of your, your thoughts about procrastination?
[00:20:44] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah. I think there’s all sorts of benefits to it.
[00:20:45] And I love the, the whole like Nassim Taleb approach of just like jump from thing to thing that, that stimulates you. I think there’s an issue there for a lot of us, which might not be maybe not for him. He’s a pretty, pretty one off.
[00:21:00] Duff Watkins: He’s a different dude. Yes. Let’s agree. He’s kind of dude.
[00:21:03] Oliver Burkeman: Which is, you know, that if you if you just completely let yourself bounce from thing to thing, a lot of us, I think, are going to bounce away from things as soon as they get difficult.
[00:21:13] So we’re going to neglect the truth, that like a lot of meaningful stuff is going to feel difficult. So, I think it’s more a question of understanding that you’ll be neglecting a bunch of stuff, understanding that things that matter often feel uncomfortable to do. And that one of the great appeals of distraction is that we get to not feel that discomfort because we are just scrolling through social media or something instead.
[00:21:40] And then you could sort of let go of once you that’s, what enables you, I think, to sort of focus on one thing at a time, it’s the willingness to tolerate the mild anxiety that comes from knowing about all the other things you are not focusing on. So, I guess my slight pushback against just go where your interest lies from moment to moment is yes.
[00:22:00] But be sure that that interest isn’t really code for comfort. Cause I’m always struck with myself, for example, like I’m not talking about people suggesting people should like, fight their way through work that they hate if they can avoid that, they should avoid it. I can be writing something that I care about that I’m enjoying the amount of difficulty that I have to encounter in order to go and check Twitter instead is tiny.
[00:22:22] You know, it has to be the mild irritation of not being able to get a sentence right. The first time. And, and I’m like, oh, forget it. And then like an hour later, I realize I’ve just wasted my time. Some just because I didn’t want to stick around for that small feeling of. Like unpleasantness.
[00:22:44] Duff Watkins: Well, I personally, I, I mean, I have similar problems, but when I start resisting in the procrastinating, I’m, I’m a discipline guy, you know? So, when it, when it happens with me, I, I think, well, what is the resistance all about? And so, I’ll ask myself self, what is the resistance all about? You know, just go ahead and tell me, and, and we’ll save a bit of time here.
[00:23:03] And sometimes I get an answer sometimes I don’t, but it’s kind of, I now collaborate with procrastination rather than call myself names or, or, you know, the self-punitive things that people go on about.
[00:23:16] Oliver Burkeman: Right. Yeah. It’s not about taking this discomfort and like eradicating it, like punching it in the face.
[00:23:21] It’s about taking it and seeing like, okay, the discomfort is going to be here too. All right. Hello. Sit down, take a seat. And meanwhile, meanwhile, I’m going to do stuff that I want to do.
[00:23:30] Duff Watkins: We’ll work through it together. You and I discomfort.
[00:23:33] Oliver Burkeman: Exactly.
[00:23:34] Lesson 4: Nobody else really cares what you do with your life
[00:23:34] Duff Watkins: All right. Well, lesson’s a number four is a truly existential lesson.
[00:23:38] Nobody else really cares what you do with your life.
[00:23:44] Oliver Burkeman: some people object to this one, but I’m happy to talk about it. I’m sort of quoting here a psychotherapist and writer and yoga person called Steven Cope who wrote a book called the great work of your life. And I think what this really gets at is how easily we can be sent off in a certain direction in our lives, especially our work lives on the basis of the idea that we need to fulfill a certain agenda.
[00:24:12] Often a parental agenda, even long after people’s parents have died. You sometimes find that people are following these agendas. Maybe a societal, one about the kind of, you know, fame or certain kind of wealth that our society so strongly rewards. And like, it’s really liberating to suddenly be like, oh, you don’t have to, no, nobody cares about this.
[00:24:36] I don’t mean that nobody cares about you. Hopefully we all have a few people in our lives who care that whatever it is we are doing makes us happy. And we probably have a few people in our lives who care that whatever we’re doing brings in enough money to the household to support, to help support them as well as us.
[00:24:52] So it’s not like it’s not a sort of nihilistic sort of forget about it doesn’t matter, but it’s just like, if your friends, your spouse and hopefully your parents, although that can be difficult if they really Respect you and love you. They’ll be just, they’ll be happy to, for you to do whatever you’re doing, that speaks to you.
[00:25:10] And I think it’s, that’s a very important kind of message that some people need to hear, because it’s very easy to sort of find yourself 10 years into a career as a, as a lawyer or all sorts of other things. And I don’t know why I bring that example up and be like, hold on, like, I I’m doing this because I thought my teachers at school thought I’d be good at it.
[00:25:32] And so I’m trying to please them, but like not only should their word not carry the day, but like if you went back and asked them, they’d be like, oh goodness, no, no, do whatever. Do whatever makes you feel motivated and, and meaningful? Right?
[00:25:46] Duff Watkins: well, I encounter this in writing you’re a writer I write and a, a one, a writer who writes novels and screenplay.
[00:25:55] He put it like this. And we were talking about procrastinating earlier and he said, nobody cares if you write, nobody cares if you don’t write and that’s it, you know, so it’s, it’s an, to me, it is a very important lesson to learn that really nobody cares. And, and I mean, although that can’t be scary and intimidating, the point is, you know, it really is up to you.
[00:26:18] It’s your life, it’s your, you’re the, you have some autonomy over it and that could be very fearful for people.
[00:26:26] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, that, I mean, I guess it’s also a scary thing as well as a liberating thing, right. This idea that you sort of might be up to you. Yeah.
[00:26:33] Lesson 5: The ability to tolerate minor discomfort is a superpower
[00:26:33] Duff Watkins: All right. That lesson number, Lesson, number five.
[00:26:36] Oh, this is the jewel. This is a jewel. Your ability to tolerate minor discomfort is your superpower.
[00:26:45] Oliver Burkeman: Well, this relates, I mean, I’ve already touched on this as it turns out. Haven’t I in one of the other ones, but I mean, I think this is so. This is a lesson that I really have feel like I’ve learned in a very personal way that I guess it’s a key insight of a lot of psychotherapy in a way, this idea that we sort of structure our lives to a very great extent about around sort of not wanting to feel certain emotions that we think implicitly we seem to think would sort of destroy us if we were to have to feel them.
[00:27:12] And I think there’s a good, you can do a whole sort of argument about why people bring these ideas from their early childhoods. But again, and again, you find out that actually in most contexts in life, if you sort of do the thing that is going to let you, that is going to cause you to feel these feelings, it’s minor discomfort that you feel it isn’t it isn’t pain and agony So, I think it’s very important in that as a, as an idea, I use it as a reminder that like, when I feel the first feelings of anxiety about something that I’m doing, or a conversation that I’m having or something it’s a useful reminder that like, that might be about as bad as it’s ever going to get in most cases that level of discomfort.
[00:27:55] I always In my mind. I always think of the analogy of like, if, if you’ve ever had dental work done under local anaesthetic, like it’s really effective. It works. You do not feel excruciating pain, but when they’re sort of grappling around inside your mouth, you have the feeling that any moment , it’s horrible, you’re brace because you’re convinced that any moment there’s going to be excruciating pain, but actually at least for the procedures I’ve had done, there never is excruciating pain because the local anaesthetic works.
[00:28:22] And it’s a little bit similar to that, right? You sort of, you sit down at your computer to finally try and write some difficult thing, or you decide it’s probably time to have an awkward but important conversation with somebody and you feel like, but that feeling of that, that is that’s about as bad as it’s going to get.
[00:28:39] So it’s actually perfectly tolerable. And, and, and yeah, I mean, I don’t know every. Emotional state that I’ve ever actually experienced thus far in life, I have been able to tolerate, and it hasn’t destroyed me. Hence, you know, here I am. But the feeling is always, I can’t go there because if I went there that that emotional experience would be intolerable.
[00:29:02] Duff Watkins: Well, your lesson reminds me of the work of the esteemed Australian psychiatrist, Dr. Ainslie Meares, the late Dr. Meares. He wrote very similar things back in the seventies and eighties. And he actually urged people to practice meditation and a, in a, and a position of minor physical discomfort so that you could relax mentally, not physically physical relaxation is easy so that you could relax mentally and by doing so, your defences would melt, and your mind would present
[00:29:31] truth or fact to you about yourself and you would be unguarded. He called it a reverting to a primitive defenceless, childlike state, and you would be able to accept it and hear it from yourself and it would be okay. And you would learn the truth about yourself, and you would be able to tolerate it.
[00:29:51] And you mentioned dental. He would, he had wisdom teeth taken out without any anaesthetic. Wow. I mean, yes, exactly. He would put himself in self-hypnosis in this deep state of relaxation and you know, he was not a young guy, but geez, he was a tough bird that’s for sure. Yes. Yeah. Right. Very. And he said, all you need to do is practice it a few minutes a day.
[00:30:16] And a few, you know, he would talk five minutes, maybe 10 or more. And I have been practicing, I practiced this on and off diligent diligently over the years. And it certainly is effective in the sense that you become aware of realities about yourself and for once you’re not threatened or made anxious by it, you’re just able to see it.
[00:30:38] And mm-hmm, the revelations occur. So, so you commented just well is certainly verified by Dr. Meares and me.
[00:30:47] Oliver Burkeman: Oh, I’m glad to hear it.
[00:30:49] Lesson 6: “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured”
[00:30:49] Duff Watkins: Lesson number six, this is a good one. What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.
[00:30:57] Oliver Burkeman: This is a quote from Charlotte Joko Beck, the American Zen, late American Zen teacher.
[00:31:04] And she’s just talking about the human condition in general. I think in this quote, and this is I think, a sort of a guiding principle that I’ve really happened upon. And upon that, that recurs again and again, in all sorts of contexts, this idea that certain kinds of problem that we encounter in life are really only such a huge problem, because we think that we ought to have solved them and we haven’t yet solved them and life itself.
[00:31:30] I think some people sort of see as a kind of a problem to be solved and that they haven’t yet solved. It is a, a cause of torment or agony for them. And, and what, what she’s saying here, I think is, you know, life has sadness in it. Life has lost life has. Difficult decisions that are imperfect, where you don’t get the best results.
[00:31:47] And it, it has times when you fail or people ridicule, you, it has all these things. They’re not pleasant. You make them a heck of a lot worse. If you also demand that there should not be problems in life. And if you object not only to what is happening, but to like the fact that it is happening as if that were itself and injustice.
[00:32:12] So it’s not about being okay with, it’s not about being just like calmly sailing through the bad stuff that happens in life, but about remembering when it happens that like it isn’t a problem that these things are happening. They are problems. But it isn’t sort of a sign that you are doing life wrong.
[00:32:33] Or necessarily a sign that other people are treating you badly, although in any given case they might be that you are having problems and that if you’re sort of running constantly to this far off idea, that one day you’re going to get to a point in life where you don’t have any problems at all, then you’re sort of just deliberately setting yourself up for permanent dissatisfaction.
[00:32:55] That’s the idea.
[00:32:55] Duff Watkins: The word is vicissitude just the normal trials and tribulations that occur in life. yeah, no, no. Getting away from them.
[00:33:04] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, exactly.
[00:33:06] Lesson 7: Let things take the time they take
[00:33:06] Duff Watkins: Lesson number seven. Let things take the time that they take.
[00:33:10] Oliver Burkeman: So, I guess this is about discomfort as well in a different way. It’s about patience. I think. Certainly, when I’ve struggled with, I think, and I, I sort of unpacked this a bit in the book.
[00:33:21] One of the things that I think we try to do. We sort of assume and we’re, and we’re aided in this assumption by the state of technology is that you know, life moves faster. We have all sorts of extra control over how fast things can go. We can microwave food in two minutes, instead of waiting two hours for the oven, we can fly somewhere in a few hours instead of having to get on an ocean liner for two, three weeks.
[00:33:48] It makes it actually worse, to be forced to remember that we can’t actually make the whole world go at the right pace that we want it to go. And that there’s all sorts of aspects of. Life that that just do require they have their own rhythm and tempo, and you need to let them have that.
[00:34:07] Otherwise it’s a recipe for sort of endless frustration. I think one really good example. I always come back to is reading. People often complain today that they don’t have time to read. And I think usually they don’t mean that they can’t find half an hour in a 24-hour period when they could sit down with a book.
[00:34:22] What they mean is that when they do that, their mind is sort of conditioned to not slowing down to the pace of reading a good novel reading, a good nonfiction book, and the flywheel is running too fast. And we experience a kind of tension between how quickly we’d like to be able to sort of download the information from that book or experience the story in that book, as opposed to just accepting that.
[00:34:50] A book takes a certain amount of time. Reading takes a certain amount of time by and large; we don’t claim otherwise about movies or concertos. You know, they, they, they take the time they take, but there’s all sorts of experiences where we kind of assume that they ought to be instantaneous if we want them to be.
[00:35:09] And I think that that sort of, again, it’s a sort of refusal to work with reality.
[00:35:15] Lesson 8: You wouldn’t want the control you think you need
[00:35:15] Duff Watkins: Lesson number eight. You don’t really want the control that you think you need.
[00:35:21] Oliver Burkeman: I feel like this is another theme that I keep encountering and that I encounter in myself and that you, that you experience one experiences in life all the time, which is that right. We, we want.
[00:35:35] A lot of us, we want a certain kind of feeling of being in control of things. Some people wanted a sense of being in control of other people on control of our time in control of what we let into a day. And yet there’s something wrong with this picture because when you get close to it, that in any particular domain, you find that it kind of sucks the life out of the experience and that, you know, if you sort of are the kind of person who draws up very strict schedules for your day mostly, or experience will be that life gets in the way, but occasionally it might be that everything goes exactly as planned and there’s something missing there.
[00:36:13] There’s some, there’s something that, that is, is missing from, from the quality of life. I, I talk in the book about control sort of individual versus communal time, the sense that, you know, in the culture at the moment, we very much. Certainly, in America and the UK, we very much sort of, champion individual time sovereignty, right?
[00:36:37] The goal is that the dream job is to be like a digital nomad. You get to take your laptop anywhere you like. You run the day you stop when you want. And actually, lots of digital nomads will tell you that they, it gets lonely sometimes. And because they’re not sort of coordinated with the patterns of other people, and then even just like someone like me, not a digital nomad have friends and family here in, in New York, but so many of us are kind of Lance this or that, or self-employed this or that.
[00:37:07] We have a lot of freedom over our time. But the result of all that freedom is that we are persistently sort of unsynchronized from each other. And it’s actually incredibly difficult to find a night when three friends can all meet for a beer or something like that. Because, because our schedules are all sort of out of whack.
[00:37:26] And when you look at countries, I look at some studies from Scandinavia where there’s a certain amount of socially imposed regularity about when people go on vacation and how long people work in the day. And there’s a certain loss of freedom of individual freedom that do appear to be quite big benefits in terms of people’s happiness and sense of meaning in life.
[00:37:46] I mean, I think you can go too far in that as well. Some sort of freedom is obviously important, but it’s an interesting thing to bear in mind.
[00:37:53] Duff Watkins: So, what if people, we okay for me Being a reform control freak. I mean, basically you, you learn over time, how little control you have. So, I mean, what a waste of time. Right? Right. I mean, you have the ability to influence events, maybe nudge, maybe inspire, maybe, maybe persuade or I, I don’t know, but control four fist and bugger all is what I reckon.
[00:38:16] But so what, and that might be a little high, you know? Yes. So, what what’s driving people to want to obtain this control? So, what if they got the control that they desired?
[00:38:29] Oliver Burkeman: What would happen?
[00:38:30] Duff Watkins: Yeah. What do you reckon?
[00:38:31] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, I mean, I think at an extreme point control and relationship are sort of antithetical to each other, right. That they’re perfectly. In control person is not really in relationship with anybody else because he’s sort of perfectly in control and yet all the good things in life, ultimately, whether it’s, intimate relationships or it’s like work projects that you are, that you are launching, they all require relationship.
[00:39:00] It might be that you’re working in a team to produce something, or it might be that you’re working on your own to produce like a book or an article. But even then, you’ve got to let it go into relationship with other people and see what they make of it and not try to maintain total control. I mean, a really grim and awful parallel to illustrate this is in with sort of like very, very controlling kind of abusive relationships and, and the psychology there.
[00:39:27] Where sometimes you know, very, very violent men commit horrible, horrible crimes because, and you see it in sort of cult psychology as well. It it’s because they crave and impose a certain kind of control and then achieving it is sort of repulsive to them, and triggers this kind of blind rage because they actually feed on the sense of trying to impose the control, rather than on the achievement of the control.
[00:39:57] I don’t think one necessarily needs to go into that sort of deeply grim area. I do think sometimes that’s a very, very extreme version of what, like I’m trying to do with my schedule. Right. I’m trying to sort of, I’m trying to sort of wrangle it and feel like I know what I’m doing, but you know, A day where I have no social engagements and my family aren’t around and I’m just sitting there, and I can do exactly what I want.
[00:40:21] Like, I’m just like, oh, hang on. This, this isn’t how I like to live. This is, this is, this is too solitary. Or you know, writing articles and then never publishing them would be a similar thing. Right. It’s like, yeah, you get total control and you, as a result, get zero of what is good in, in relationship basically.
[00:40:42] Lesson 9: Don’t fight time; it always wins in the end
[00:40:42] Duff Watkins: lesson number nine. Don’t fight time. It always wins.
[00:40:49] Oliver Burkeman: I guess this is a little bit related I’m noticing now really only when I have this conversation that all these things stem from a similar place. But I think, yeah, I think implicit in an awful lot of time management advice and our, our approach to how we manage our time is that we are trying to sort of win something.
[00:41:08] It it’s an, it’s an enemy. Or as Francesco Cirillo who invented The Pomodoro Technique, says he’s, it’s a, it’s a predator. And we’re trying to sort of, do what we do with predators, which is protect ourselves and fight back and kill it and win. And obviously on a sort of grand level, trying to fight time on the, on the level of your life is foolish because you, you know, that you know, eventually time is going to, is going to win the, win the fight, but on a day to day level as well, I think it’s really useful to see that.
[00:41:37] If you try to fight time with the day, you are sort of geared to trying to cram more things into the time that you have to try to make yourself more efficient you’re to sort of keep upping the level of self-discipline and effort required. And then your standards for what you feel you ought to be able to fit in, keep rising.
[00:41:57] So it’s sort of guaranteed frustration because it constantly rises and you’re in this kind of fight. Time remains fixed. You have the hours that you have in a day. And so, there’s a sort of ever ratcheting tension, I guess. And good time management techniques of which The Pomodoro Technique can certainly be one depending on, I think.
[00:42:18] Duff Watkins: And what is that? I just realized I came across.
[00:42:20] Oliver Burkeman: Oh, sorry. Yeah. Yeah. That’s just this idea of, yeah, go ahead. I won’t go to the details there. Simple answer is, it’s just a question of like working in little 25-minute stretches, separated by
[00:42:29] Duff Watkins: that’s where I got it from an interview with you. Cause I’d never heard of The Pomodoro Technique and
[00:42:35] Oliver Burkeman: it’s almost a distraction that is an example of sort of time blocking or time boxing.
[00:42:40] The specifics might work for some people, but doesn’t really so much. If you do that in the right spirit, then it’s one of not like, okay, I’m going to win this battle with time today. It’s more one of saying, look, time has given me this number of hours today. I am in the position of with regard to time, I am in the sort of subservient position, right.
[00:42:58] I have these hours. So, the question is what would be the most sensible way to use them, to use my influence over how they get used. And sort of as again, Cirillo would say treat time as an ally to sort of say, well, look, I’ve got to, I’ve got to work with this limitation. It’s not that you can’t try and fit more into your day than you did yesterday or than someone else might.
[00:43:23] I don’t want to make people feel like they can’t sort of try to get smarter about how they work, but it’s just this sort of basic mindset that says I’m always going to be trying to cram more in. I’m always going to be trying to be more efficient. It it’s, it, that is a to be in that mindset all the time by default is to be sort of never satisfied by definition with your use of time.
[00:43:49] I think that’s what I mean really by that lesson.
[00:43:51] Duff Watkins: Yes, it’s very you won’t make a good Buddhist doing that. That’s for sure, because that’s for
[00:43:57] Oliver Burkeman: sure. Yeah.
[00:43:59] Lesson 10: You don’t need to justify your existence
[00:43:59] Duff Watkins: all right. Lesson number 10. And if I’m allowed a personal favourite, this is it. Lesson number 10, you don’t need to justify your existence.
[00:44:11] Oliver Burkeman: I mean, I think I’m still learning this lesson.
[00:44:13] Maybe that’s why I put it at the end. I wouldn’t want to suggest that I’m well, probably true of all of them, but especially this, I think so many people in different ways and people are very different personalities come out of their upbringing and the, and the society that we live in with this basic unexamined assumption that like, there’s something they have to do in order that it’s okay, that they’re taking up space and that they get to feel sort of minimally adequate about themselves.
[00:44:47] And I think the way this happens on a day-to-day basis is we start the day often in what I’ve called a sort of feeling of productivity debt. You sort of wake up in the morning and it’s like, it’s like you owe productivity. Now, obviously, if you’re paid a salary by a company, there is a sense in which you owe productivity, but this existential sense is much more dangerous because it’s this notion that like, if you don’t do enough in the day, you are, you are in the kind of you are in the red somehow.
[00:45:12] And so that’s why I suggest that a good little intervention there sometimes is to keep a done list, you know, keep a list of things you have done and look at it, building up through the day and be like, you know, I could have done nothing. I could have stayed in bed. And instead, I did all these, these things that sort of resets the balance.
[00:45:26] It it’s, it, it helps you to think that maybe you start the day, not in debt, but at but at a zero balance. And then everything you do is just extra credit to your account. I think it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with. Still do struggle with this, this sense that like, Not just that you’d rather spend a day doing certain meaningful things or that it would be good to meet the commitment that you made to someone to meet a deadline or that you’d, you know, it would be better to make sure you get your workout in.
[00:45:55] These are all true and it’s great to try to live life in better ways than, than other ways. But the idea that you have to do that just to get up to like a minimal baseline, I think, I don’t know if you know about this distinction between fixed mindset and growth mindset, that’s attributed to Carol Dweck.
[00:46:15] Yeah, I think I grew up I think my parents did a great job. I’d not blaming them particularly. I mean, unless accept to the extent that we all blame our parents, but like, I think I did grow up with really with a fixed mindset. In other words, if I got really good exam results, which I did the main takeaway from that was, oh, no.
[00:46:34] Now I have to meet that standard or exceed it next time. And you know, And you know I will just say this in a way that might maybe is going to sound like bragging about this book, but since it suddenly came to my mind, I’m going to say it, it ended up on a best seller list last week. And I was extremely cheered by this.
[00:46:53] And the publisher was extremely happy and like, everyone was like being really lovely. And in the quiet, after that subsided, I definitely was aware of this old archaic childhood thought like, oh, it’ll be really bad if it’s not on that list next week. because like, now this is the standard that you have to meet.
[00:47:12] And it’s a terrible way to go through life to think that anything cool or good that happens to you just recalibrates the. Minimal definition of adequacy. Like, forget that if you possibly can, you know, just, just see the good things that you do as good things and, and, and not needing any further, you know, context.
[00:47:29] Duff Watkins: Well, let me quote, George Higgins, the writer who said that, you know, nobody cares if you’re right. Nobody cares. If you don’t write, he, he would say, he would tell you I’m channelling him to you Oliver he said, if you’re not writing to be read, you’re not a writer and you never will be. So of course, you want to be read, you know, I mean, that’s right.
[00:47:45] But, but your point is very good, and it let’s go back to the Buddhism. For example, Buddhism talks a lot about suffering and unfortunately that is translated poorly into well into suffering, but the best word would be an unsatisfaction. And like, somehow you got you’re on the best seller list, but somehow you would become unsatisfied if you’re not there the next month.
[00:48:09] Oliver Burkeman: Right.
[00:48:10] Because anything good that happens to you, it feels like you’re then scared of losing it. And it’s a, yeah, it’s a, I mean, I think I’ve made a lot of progress in not being this person, but I think it, you can still feel these patterns of like, yeah. Achievements just reset the minimum baseline for tomorrow, I actually, I feel a strange kind of compassion for myself.
[00:48:32] When I think about this, I’m like, oh my goodness, don’t go through life like that. You know?
[00:48:36] Duff Watkins: Well, God, I hope so. Because one thing I learned in psychiatry working on the psychiatric hospital is it all starts with self-acceptance. And that self-acceptance is you as is right now. I mean, there’s no, no self-improvement is necessary.
[00:48:49] Whatever, wherever you are, you know, that’s, that’s where, that’s what you accept wart and all. Yep. And that’s why it goes back to the significance of when I was quoting psychiatrist, Ainslie Meares, being able to experience it without distortion and without defence.
[00:49:04] That’s a, that’s a real, that’s a real skill and something. That’s a real market maturation, at least in my book. So
[00:49:11] Oliver Burkeman: yeah, yeah, yeah. Getting there slowly.
[00:49:14] Duff Watkins: Well, but you’re quite right. I mean, if you go around having to justify your existence to other people, including yourself, something’s profoundly wrong.
[00:49:22] Cause it’s one it’s just too damn hard to do.
[00:49:24] Oliver Burkeman: Right. So, I think, you know, and I’m thinking here about like the things that Albert Ellis the founder of rational emotive behavioural therapy. Yeah. You know, wonderfully sort of eccentric cognitive therapist who right. It’s like you can rate your actions.
[00:49:42] Absolutely. You can say I did a bad thing. I want to do more good things, but there’s no need for that to become a global rating of you as a, as a self. You know, you can feel that your right to exist is just because you do exist. And I think that’s true of all of every one of us. And then by all means, yeah, try to do more good things and bad things.
[00:50:04] Try to do more things than, than to fail to do things. But they don’t need to all be part of this cosmic math equation, I guess, that is going to eventually spit out a result that you either did. Okay. Or you didn’t. I mean, clearly a lot of religious traditions have quite a lot to answer for here when it comes to setting up these kinds of these kind of ideas.
[00:50:26] Duff Watkins: Well, I had a career, he was a British Episcopalian priest who gave me some excellent career advice when I was in grad school. And it was don’t take it all so seriously. so, they have some positive input as well.
[00:50:40] Oliver Burkeman: Oh, definitely. Yeah, absolutely.
[00:50:42] Duff Watkins: Oliver, let me finish with, let me throw you a curve ball.
[00:50:44] One last question. We’ve been talking about the things that you’ve learned. What is something that you have unlearned lately. And by that, I mean, something you just knew it was true a while ago, but now realize that’s not the case at all. What have you unlearned lately?
[00:51:03] Oliver Burkeman: Wow,
[00:51:04] that was a, that’s a fascinating question. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to come up with a pithy answer to it.
[00:51:11] Duff Watkins: Normally I prep people before we start, but I forgot to.
[00:51:14] Oliver Burkeman: Yeah, you’re already getting this. I mean, I don’t, I’m not, I suppose what I’ve, I suppose what I’ve been on a gradual process of unlearning is it’s kind of in a way, a point about.
[00:51:31] Politics and political tribalism. And, and I think it is a, a, an unlearning of the idea that that the world is sort of neatly separated into the goodies and the badies and that the people I think of as being on my side are right about everything. And the people on the other side can be endlessly condemned and mocked.
[00:51:54] I don’t think this is only a political question, but you know, I, I find myself constantly in these huge sort of cultural conflicts that rage on social media and people disagreeing about the right way to react to COVID and all this stuff. I do find myself sort of seeing at least the emotional logic of people who 10 years ago, I would’ve said were like, Just idiots and I don’t think it means you have to agree with what they with their policy proposals or, or anything like that.
[00:52:31] But I do find myself much more like, I, I’m much less clear about how to carve the world into the good people and the bad people. And I think that’s probably a positive development, but it’s but it’s certainly sort of unnerving because it definitely sort of destabilizes your sense of, what the world is that you, that you live in.
[00:52:52] Duff Watkins: Well, which means that you’re learning to live with ambiguity better. that’s what I’m
[00:52:57] Oliver Burkeman: hearing. Right. Hit hoping. Yep. Yep. Yep.
[00:53:01] Duff Watkins: All right. Well, let us close officially. And formally on that note, you’ve been listening to the podcast 10 lessons. It took me 50 years to learn. Our guest today has been British journalist and author Oliver Burkeman you’ve been listening to us. We’d like to hear from you listeners, you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org that’s podcast@ 1 0 lessonslearned.com. And while you’re there, go ahead and hit the subscribe button because this is the podcast that makes the world a wise place lesson by lesson.
[00:53:30] Thanks for listening.