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Oliver Burkeman: “The Desire to Focus on Multiple Things at Once Is Often Driven by Anxiety.”

Oliver Burkeman: “The Desire to Focus on Multiple Things at Once Is Often Driven by Anxiety.”

Interview: Oliver Burkeman

I've known journalist and author Oliver Burkeman for many years—we're interested in so many of the same subjects. He's the author of The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking (Amazon, Bookshop) and an award-winning feature writer for The Guardian, where he wrote a long-running popular weekly column on psychology, “This Column Will Change Your Life.”

Now he has a new book out, called Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (Amazon, Bookshop). In it, he argues that we should set aside superficial efficiency solutions in favor of reckoning with and finding joy in the finitude of human life.

I couldn't wait to talk to Oliver about happiness, habits, and creativity.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Oliver: Doing one thing at a time – and, wherever possible, seeing that thing through to completion before beginning another thing. I don’t think you can follow this rule religiously all the time and in all aspects of life; I certainly can’t. But whenever I manage it, I’m happier and more productive, which is the goal here, right…? The desire to focus on multiple things at once is often driven by anxiety – by the worry that we might not have enough time to do all the things we’re convinced we need to do in order to justify our existence on the planet. But the result of this approach is that you make less progress, because each time a project starts to feel difficult, you just bounce off to something else instead. If, instead, you can get better at slowing down and tolerating the feeling of discomfort about all the things you’re not getting done, you’ll get more of the important things done. Oh, and I don’t think you need to justify your existence on the planet, in any case.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That it doesn’t come from achieving some kind of perfect feeling of being in control, from “getting of top of things,” or from getting your life “in working order,” or anything like that. I spent much of my early adulthood chasing the fantasy that one day in the future I’d achieve sufficient self-discipline, efficiency, financial security (etc, etc, etc) to be able to start in on what really mattered. But all this actually ever did in reality was to keep me from doing the scary-but-important things I wanted to do with my life, essentially because I was waiting for when I could do them without fear or discomfort. But, duh – it turns out fear is part of the deal, and that feeling it won’t kill you. Certainly I'd never have committed to a long-term relationship, nor become a father, if I'd continued to insist on waiting until I felt ready.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly?

In my new book I write about experiencing a very sudden change of perspective, although the behaviour changes followed more gradually. I was sitting on a park bench in Brooklyn, in winter 2014, mentally running through the overwhelming number of tasks I “had to get done” that day, and halfway through concocting yet another ingenious scheduling solution to achieve this clearly impossible goal, when I was suddenly struck by the thought that none of these productivity tricks were ever going to work – if by “work” I meant making it possible for me to do more than it was actually possible to do in a day, all the while feeling calm and in control. The irony was that my realization that I’d never achieve peace of mind this way led immediately to an increase in my peace of mind. There’s something hugely liberating about seeing that you’ve been fighting a futile battle to reach a victory you’ll never achieve. You get to relax back into reality, into the moment, and to focus on doing a few things that count, right now.

Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?

I love basically any quote that points to the way so much of our unhappiness arises, not from what’s happening, but from our insistence that it ought not to be happening, or our refusal to acknowledge that it actually is happening. Charlotte Joko Beck says “What makes it unbearable is your mistaken belief that it can be cured.” Mel Weitsman says “Our suffering is believing there’s a way out.” Sam Harris points out somewhere that the problems most of us have to deal with are bad enough without the internal demand we put on top of them – that we ought not to have any problems at all.

Life certainly brings plenty of sadness and difficulty. But it’s so much worse when you mistakenly believe you’re entitled to some other kind of life, one that would be entirely sadness- and difficulty-free – because then every ordinary setback becomes a kind of terrible insult and an outrage, something that shouldn’t be happening. There’s vast freedom and empowerment in accepting the truth that this life, with all its irritations and annoyances, is the only one we’re going to get a shot at.

Author photo: (c) Nina Subin

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