Oliver Burkeman Says You’ll Never Master Time Management. Do This Instead.

After trying various techniques, the best-selling author explains that most are ineffective and offers simple suggestions to establish a better relationship with time.

Ambitious people are constantly trying to optimize their time. They make to-do lists,  limit email and texting, and meticulously schedule every moment of the day.

Yet nothing seems to work perfectly. 

Oliver Burkeman knows this all too well. The self-proclaimed “productivity geek” spent years on a seemingly endless quest to optimize his life. It led him to a realization: he would never have complete control over his time. Once he admitted that, he got more important tasks done and stopped feeling anxious about skipping or postponing others.

The experience led him to write Four Thousand Weeks, the title of which is a nod to the average human lifespan of 76 years or 4,000 weeks. It includes examples of people struggling to optimize their finite lifespans while offering tools that startup founders and business professionals can leverage to manage their time more effectively.

Burkeman discussed these topics in a recent LIVE@LIFT event hosted by Comcast’s Senior Vice President of Learning, Shawna Erdmann. Here are some takeaways from the discussion:

You will never get time management under control, so admit defeat

Every time you prioritize a task, others are pushed to the bottom, creating a seemingly never-ending to-do list.  Burkeman argues that attempting to conquer time management is like climbing a mountain with no summit.

“This is the kind of defeat you should want to admit,” he said. “Let go of trying to do something that is systematically impossible in order to free up time, energy, and attention for what really matters.”

Get better at procrastinating

\While most time-management solutions try to stop procrastinating, Burkeman embraces it. With so much on our plates, neglecting the right things is vital. His advice? Focus on your most important tasks and push others until later.

“Procrastination is not something to get rid of in your life. It’s something to get better at,” he said. “You have got to say, ‘I am focusing on these three things now, and I will move to the others later.’ It takes guts not to multitask, but this is the best way to accomplish more.”

Try a fixed-volume productivity plan 

Don’t start your day with a long list of tasks and attempt to do them all. Instead, determine how much time you have available for work, then use it to handle your most pressing tasks. 

“Carve time out of your day and fill them with the most important things rather than making a long list of tasks and finding some way to force them all in,” he said. “Most of the time, you won’t have time for them, and you end up with a longer to-do list at the end of the day.”

Keep two to-do lists

Oliver Burkeman

Most people keep a to-do list of some kind, but a long list can be cumbersome. Burkeman suggests keeping two lists. The first contains every task, large or small — and you can add to it anytime. The second is a closed list of 5-10 critical tasks. Make a rule that you can only move something to your shortlist if you’ve already checked something else off that list first.

“It’s a deliberate bottleneck in your system. You won’t start anything else until these important tasks are handled,” said Burkeman. “It’s hard to make some things wait, but if you try to make progress on all fronts, you make progress on no fronts.”

Make time for your passions

Many people use time management to free up their schedule for their passion projects or most ambitious ideas. In many cases, work continues piling up, pushing those projects aside. Burkeman suggests prioritizing passions and dealing with the consequences.

“What you get in return is real focus,” he said. “Stop waiting to do the really ambitious, cool things you’ve been hoping to do. Do them now because you can’t depend on the future.”

Practice doing nothing

Schedule unstructured time into the day. This may sound difficult for ambitious, career-minded people, but allocating time just to be can provide the clarity to tackle major tasks later.

“It doesn’t need to be long, but you need to train that muscle to show up and be present,” Burkeman said. “Try it for 10 minutes at first. For many of us, that’s enough of a challenge.”


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