For professionals who are continuing their education while working full time, life can feel like an impossible juggling act. There’s a constant drive to find the perfect productivity tool or life hack to maximize time. But according to journalist Oliver Burkeman, this endless striving can breed anxiety and leave you feeling unfulfilled.
In an episode of Harvard Extension School’s Career and Academic Resource Center (CARC) podcast, we spoke to Burkeman, author of the Guardian’s This Column Will Change Your Life and the book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.
Here, we distill the key insights from the episode “Time Management for Mortals.”
Time Mastery is an Illusion
In this era of hyper-focus on optimization and productivity, there are many time management techniques and hacks that can help you get more done.
The good news: they work.
The drawback: Ultimately, you’re left feeling more busy, more anxious, and less satisfied.
According to Burkeman, this stems from a mismatch between the desire to be in control of your time and the reality that there will always be more things to do than we can actually accomplish.
“If all you do is create more capacity in your life for new work and new opportunities,” Burkeman says, “then more work and more opportunities are going to flood into your life. And you’re going to be as busy as you were.”
Future Perfection Is a Myth
Many of us have a tendency to focus on the future, to perpetually seek a point where everything will fall into place.
“The fundamental problem is that this attitude toward time sets up a rigged game,” says Burkeman. “Instead of simply living our lives as they unfold in time, it becomes difficult not to value each moment primarily according to its usefulness for some future goal — or for some future oasis of relaxation that you hope to reach once your tasks are finally out of the way.
“It’s when you finally get this degree, or when you get this particular promotion. … There’s this constant desire to project into the future the moment of truth.”
The Liberation of Focusing on the Present
Instead of fixating on an idealized future, Burkeman advocates for a more intentional focus on the present.
“It becomes a lot easier to see that your responsibility in any given moment is only to do what seems like the wisest thing in that moment, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next,” he says. “And sure, sometimes that might involve drawing up multiyear project plans and schedules. But you relate to all of them as actions done in the present to navigate yourself through the present.”
Conscious Choice Is Empowering
This is where the magic happens. The real art of time management lies in consciously deciding which tasks to focus on.
You have to silence that “inner tyrant” that’s insisting you find a way to do it all. Instead, you learn to make tough choices and sit with the discomfort of letting go — even of opportunities that interest you.
“It’s a huge weight off your shoulders because you don’t need to manage to do this impossible thing of never disappointing anybody, never dropping any balls, never failing to realize any aspect of your potential,” says Burkeman.
“I find it very motivating and empowering,” he continues. “It’s actually not a recipe for passivity at all. It’s a recipe for saying, ‘Great, now that I’m not trying to do 100 things today … I can really focus on these two or three things. I can take them through to completion. I can do them as well as I can.”
Challenges Are Part of Our Humanity
Burkeman invites us to reframe our perspective on life’s problems. Rather than viewing them as impediments to a perfect life, he suggests we accept them as an integral part of the human experience.
“We treat our plans as though they’re a lasso thrown from the present around the future in order to bring it under our command,” Burkeman says. But we only get each moment, one at a time. There will never be a point at which the challenges disappear and “a perfect notion of how life should be” reveals itself.
“It’s built into the human predicament — that anything could happen at any moment,” he says.
The more that you can embrace this reality, the more likely you are to enjoy the present — even as you progress toward your goals.